Wylie Dufresne is still getting used to what he refers to as the "plurality" of his life: a new kid, a new car, a new restaurant. For close to a decade, Dufresne had stuck with wd-50, his daring flagship on the Lower East Side, but he's recently expanded to the East Village with Alder, a casual and less expensive project that still reflects his style and approach. By the sound of things, he's a happier guy than when last interviewed for this site over a year ago, when he spoke candidly about the fact that the city had never fully embraced his first restaurant. Now, he's not worried about much beyond accomplishing what's fun, finally getting that book together, and doing what he does best: forging ahead.
Let's start by talking about wd-50, if we can. Last year, you eliminated the à la carte aspect of your menu and moved to two set choices: From The Vault, a shorter greatest hits, and then a longer degustation of new items. How has that gone? What's been good, and what's been bad?
Well, I'm not sensing too many cons. I'm pretty happy with the way things are going. It's a good team in place here. I feel like the restaurant really is settling into its groove. We just celebrated our ten-year anniversary, and it feels really good here. I'm happy with the way things are. We just put two new dishes on the longer menu, and we're getting ready to change up the Vault menu yet again. We're going through our catalog to decide what we're going to do, and it just feels nice.
If I can say anything, it's that we need some cooks. That is part and parcel of owning a restaurant, though.
Can you tell me a little bit more about what the change has allowed you to do, and why you feel good about it?
It has given us the opportunity to continue to explore ideas. À la carte was really bugging me — the sort of tyranny of the entrée was ever-present. I wanted to move away from that. It wasn't fun to make $33 portions of food. I find it much more compelling to make a four-biter that leaves you wishing that you had a fifth. I think "the tyranny of the entrée" is the right way to put it. I don't want to build this giant plate of food. That process ceased to be that enjoyable from a creative standpoint. I do like to embrace challenges and opportunities, but [creating entrées] wasn't something that continued to excite me. I know that the à la carte restaurant has its place — Alder has an element of that — but we're staying away from giant portions at both restaurants.
If I did have to point to a downside, it would be that maybe we did chase some people away that don't want to dive into the long format. I think it's important to point out, though, that we do have a short menu of the greatest hits, some of which go back a really long time and that a lot of people haven't tried. The option at the bar still stands, which is still a bit of a sleeper. You can do à la carte at the bar.
Do you find that some people come in not knowing about the change and become apprehensive?
When we first changed, we had a couple of parties that came in and said they didn't realize that was the case. We'd move those people to the bar area. I can't recall anyone stomping their feet and being outraged.
How much has the new menu changed since the big switch?
I think all but one amuse, which will actually be gone in a couple of weeks. That's the last remnant from the original switch. There's also one dessert from the original switch still on there, but that, too, will be gone soon.
With Alder you've got a much shorter span of time to look back on, but how do you feel that has been going?
I hope it's going well. It feels good. It feels fun, lively, and exciting. It has youthful enthusiasm as opposed to wise, old enthusiasm, and I feel it is going well. There are 17 items on the menu, there's a smaller but very enthusiastic crew, and we've just expanded to seven days per week.
How has it changed things for you?
It has me doing more things. I was giving a speech at a private foundation last week and I had to pause for a second because I almost said, "What we do at our restaurant..." It's two now. It drove home that we are growing. Alder is an exciting stage of my culinary career. It gives me and the group new opportunities to explore and have fun and go in a different direction. It's more casual. It's definitely a challenge not to "wd-50" things — overwork them or make them complicated. We have to remember to keep the process simpler at Alder. That's not to a detriment. It's because it's just smaller and has fewer space and crew. But it can be no less delicious or reflective of our style or spirit. That's a fun retraining of the mind that I have to do.
Can you maybe give me an example of something you do at Alder that reflects what you just described?
The pigs in a blanket, the pub cheese, the rye pasta: those are dishes that I think still capture the creative spirit that we've been espousing at wd-50 for a decade, but they are a little bit easier to execute. They also involve some techniques from wd-50 that we've developed over time.
The pigs in a blanket, for instance, are made with a Pepperidge Farm hot dog bun that we put through the pasta machine. We've been taking bread — all kinds —and putting it into the pasta machine, I think to great effect, at wd-50 since we started. In the case of the pigs in a blanket, it's an extrapolation of a crab roll that we used to do at wd-50, where we took crab meat and we glued it together and made it into a tube, and then we rolled the hot dog bun flat and wrapped it around the crab meat. We would then roll it on the plancha with a little bit of butter, so it was the same idea of a crab roll.
At Alder, we take that same technique with the bread, but we wrap it around a Chinese sausage and deep fry it. It's taking techniques that have been part of our repertoire for a long time, but simplifying them, in a way. We're buying our Chinese sausage from Chinatown and we're wrapping it in the bread and just deep frying it. We serve it with a spicy mustard and sweet chili sauce. There are various things that go into the spicy mustard so that it stands up on the plate, but it's not stuff you would notice. It's not us standing up on our soapbox, telling you about the things we can do.
It's much simpler in its delivery, but it's no less effective, I think. We discovered, for example, that frying the pigs in the blanket gets it almost three layers: the initial crispy layer, then this chewy center, because you've rolled the bun and compressed it, and then the warm Chinese sausage. It's quite fun and delicious and interesting. But you could pop in, have a beer, and just eat that without committing to a long stay at the restaurant.
I tend to ask chefs who've just opened a place how they feel about the rush diners have to weigh in on a new restaurant.
It's like you're talking about your kids at this point, since you're talking in weeks and not years. That's what you sign up for. I think it's a great time to be in New York City. To our right, you have Stupak. To our left, Chang. You have Carbone, you have Aska, you have Pearl & Ash, you have Lafayette, and the list goes on and on. Brooklyn is exploding with exciting places. It's an exciting time to be here, and you have to expect that people are going to come early and say this and that. But also, there are going to be people that come in and say, "I went in the third month and I felt like they hit their groove." But to see the pendulum swing in either direction at this point is a bit early.
The last time I interviewed you, we talked about polarizing food and alienating diners, and I'm just wondering how you feel when you read some people go as far as to call things you've come up with gross or describe them in very negative terms. I looked through Yelp, I read anonymous commenters, and some of the things people wrote were quite harsh. Does that get to you, even if they're not major critics?
I can't let those people get to me too much — anonymous diners that choose to remain anonymous and say the restaurant is gross. It's a very slippery slope if you let every single negative comment get to you. It can be very corrosive. We try to check the things people say in the hopes of learning. There have been times in the history of anonymous restaurant writing that people have said useful things that help you grow. But if someone says, "That was gross," well, I'd say that's a gross exaggeration.
I honestly don't think anything we serve at Alder is gross. If I were to look back at my entire career at wd-50, I'd say there were some things over the years that were definitely pushing, but I would like to feel that everything I've ever served as a cook tasted good. Something might swing to the bitter, to the tart, to the sweet, or to the salty, but I hope I've never served anything that was downright gross, because I don't see the point of deliberately pushing people away from what you're trying to do. In the end, you can't be all things to all people, especially the anonymous ones.
When you look ahead to a year from now or whenever you feel that Alder has really hit its groove, what do you hope people will get out of it?
Fun. Fun is what I most emphasize. I want it to be delicious and fun. You can come here regardless of the circumstances. We're hoping that soon the city will find it in its heart to grant us a sidewalk permit so that we can put a bunch of seats out there for the summer, so that we'll grab people who see the outside and think it looks like a good time. That's my hope: the music was fun, the service was friendly and fun, the food was delicious, and I had a great time. I don't want it to be pretentious or a commitment.
We had a chef in here — a big, relevant chef I would rather not name — the other night while I was out of town. He dropped in because he walked by while his restaurant was closed for a buyout and ate at the bar. I haven't had a chance to talk to him yet, but my hope is that someone like that comes in, has a good time, and feels like they want to come back.
I don't want to say mission accomplished, since we're only about two months old, but it feels good to look at that dining room and see the mix of people. We're heading in the right direction.
Are you working on a book? You had mentioned wanting to get going on that in the last interview.
I don't know how much I'm at liberty to say about that, but I can tell you that we're still actively pursuing the notion of a book. I'm still enthusiastic and eager to be writing a book.
Considering a good chunk of our last conversation had to do with you being a dark horse, with the wd-50 not being totally accepted, I wanted to ask how it feels to finally win the Beard Award. Does it make things better?
I think it does. I think it feels great. I strongly, strongly believe — and I know people sometimes find it annoying when you talk about the team — that restaurants are a classic example of at a team effort. So, when someone wins an award, it's a great acknowledgment for the individual, but it is also really an acknowledgment for the team. There's a lot of people that have been with me for a long time, and I think it made them feel good. Their efforts are being recognized. It felt nice for me, too, as an individual, and I got the opportunity to thank all the right people, I hope.
It's a funny thing, because I hadn't allocated a lot of mental time to it. I've had the same speech in my head for years, and I always remember the day of the Beards to go over it two or three times. It hasn't been this "Poor me, I can't believe I haven't won it" thing. I just feel extremely honored, and it's good for the group, because it's a tough road to slog.
I feel like a lucky guy. It's a good time. We just had our second kid, we just opened our second restaurant, and I feel like I don't have a lot to complain about.