A Wylie apprentice
Diving in at the deep end at a New York institution
DESPITE its cutting-edge reputation in New York City and beyond, wd~50 restaurant is marked only by a blink-andyou’ll-miss-it sign in red and blue neon lights in its window.
Formerly the location of a dilapidated deli, the restaurant helped pioneer the transformation of the once gritty Lower East Side into a playground for hipsters (and opportunistic real-estate agents).
Wylie Dufresne, its chef and owner, graduated from Colby College in 1992 with a degree in philosophy and the dream of, but not the physique for, a career in baseball. Like me, he enrolled in the French Culinary Institute soon after graduation. Afterwards he worked at JoJo, celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s place-to-be-seen in the 1990s, and still a safe bet to take a visiting great-aunt afraid to leave the safe and sterile confines of the Upper East Side.
Dufresne struck gold when he ventured out on his own (with the financial backing of both Vongerichten and Dewey Dufresne, his dad) at 71 Clinton Fresh Food. My mouth still waters when I think about the seared scallops over lentils that I ate there on my 18th birthday. Even then, I could tell that Dufresne was special.
In 2003, with the help of his business partners, he opened wd~50, a small restaurant whose name is an amalgam of his initials and the address, 50 Clinton St.
As I walked the short distance from my apartment on Essex Street to wd~50, I reread the confirmation letter I had received: ‘‘You will be expected to arrive at work promptly at 1pm on each day of your stage, and to work until the end of service, which may be as late as 2am. You are expected to bring a baker’s hat, a set of knives . . . and a pair of shoes suitable for kitchen work.’’ Although the letter stated the restaurant would provide me with uniforms, I packed my own just in case.
‘‘Hi, I’m here for a stage,’’ I said to the receptionist once I arrived. ‘ ‘ OK, go back to the kitchen. Someone there will help you,’’ she said, motioning behind her.
I looked around, thinking this was not the sort of place that looked like it sold $ 30 entrees. There were no tablecloths or chandeliers or fancy artwork, except for a large marble slab spanning nearly the entire length of one wall. A communal red leather banquette divided the room in two, separating the three private booths used for larger parties from the main part of the dining room.
Each wall was painted in a different shade of red, blue and green, illuminated by whimsical, multicoloured hanging glass light fixtures. The fireplace in the corner and the exposed ceiling beams added a touch of faux rustic.
I walked into the modestly sized rectangular kitchen, which was partially open to the dining room and stood next to a large, custombuilt stove.
A tall, broad-shouldered chef with a full mop of curly hair and an elaborate tattoo creeping out from under his jacket sleeve introduced himself as Drew.
As he showed me around, he explained that Dufresne and Claire, the only female cook who didn’t work in the pastry kitchen, ran the fish station on the left side of the stove, while he and Brian worked the meat station on the right. Each side had a dedicated space on top of the stove for cooking. To the left of the fish station was an aisle where the servers deposited dirty dishes for washing in the back corner without getting in the way of the cooks.
And along this aisle was the piece de resistance: the ‘ ‘ spice shelves’’. Rows of white plastic containers with screw-off lids were stacked on top of one another, displaying labels demarcating chemical formulas and names like hexophosphate, N-Zorbit, sodium alginate, gellan low and methylcellulose.
Though I spotted regular kitchen staples such as steel-cut oatmeal, dried pasta, cornstarch and kosher salt, this part of the kitchen resembled a college chemistry lab more than a restaurant.
Of course, this was what made wd~50 unique and why I’d wanted so much to be here. These bizarre ingredients allowed the cooks to transform mayonnaise into a fried food and yuzu juice into a thick gel, and to glue skirt steaks together into a single fillet. But I was apprehensive. Science was never my strong suit; how on earth was I ever going to remember the difference between Ultra-Sperse 3 and Ultra-Tex 3?
Drew led medowna staircase to another kitchen, this one enclosing a small pastry kitchen in the middle. ‘ ‘ This is Lauren. She’s going to be staging with us,’’ Drew said as we approached another chef, tall, tanned and lanky like a California surfer.
‘‘Hi. I’m Brian, the sous-chef,’’ he said, before leading me into a narrow walk-in refrigerator housing the restaurant’s produce, meats, and perishable foods.
‘‘Mise en place for meat, garde manger. Fruits and vegetables in these bins. In the Lexans here, we have fish, and in the bus tubs, meat,’’ he said.
Every plastic container in the walk-in was labelled with green painter’s tape, denoting its contents and the date it was packed.
Next, Brian walked me to the dry storage closet, which held the real spices. Plastic containers bulging with coriander and yellow mustard seeds stood beside smaller containers of curry powders, cinnamon and poppy seeds, and rarer flavourings like house-made lime powder and shichimi togarashi, a Japanese spice blend the restaurant used to season octopus before it was made into a terrine appetiser.
The air in the closet smelled earthy and complex, like the pages of an old and well-worn recipe book. Nuts and grains were grouped in smaller clear plastic containers called Cambros, along with ingredients like tomato powder, devilled egg powder, amaranth, pale green bamboo rice, dried white figs and chicory.
But I noted with a smile that alongside the argan oil and dried buttermilk powder sat Heinz ketchup, Tabasco sauce, and Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce. And, as I learned early on, the refrigerator always held Wylie’s favourite food: blocks of sliced processed American cheese.
After the tour, Brian steered me back into the prep kitchen and introduced me to a pubescentlooking cook whose wiry brown curls peeped out from underneath his white cap. ‘‘This is Jared, the man who runs the show down here. You’ll be spending a lot of time together,’’ he said. I nodded.
‘‘Let’s get started, then,’’ Jared said. ‘‘Take out your chef’s knife and a paring knife, but leave the rest of the stuff in your knife roll. You can put it on the shelf above the meat slicer.’’
I did as he said and took a deep breath. I was ready to cook. This is an edited extract from Four Kitchens by Lauren Shockey (Hachette Australia, $32.99).
The cutting-edge wd~50 has helped transform New York’s gritty Lower East Side into a playground for hipsters
Wylie Dufresne, chef and owner of wd~50