This week, Wylie Dufresne returned to Top Chef as Guest Judge. As fans may remember, the innovative chef sat at the table during the Season 2 finale showdown between Ilan and Marcel. Read below for a bit of a briefing on one of our most intriguing guest judges and his answers to some of our questions.
Wylie Dufresne was born in 1970 in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of a designer and a restaurateur. In 1977 he moved to New York. In 1992 he completed a B.A. in philosophy at Colby College, Maine.
After college Wylie enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York. After graduation he was employed at Jo Jo's from 1994 to 1997. Wylie was then hired to work on the opening of Jean Georges, eventually becoming the sous-chef. In 1998 Wylie was hired as chef de cuisine at Vongerichten's Prime in The Bellagio, Las Vegas. In 1999 he left Prime to become the first chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, a 30-seat restaurant on Manhattan's Lower East Side where his father, Dewey was a partner. The restaurant's mission was "fining dining in a casual atmosphere." The restaurant was a great success and garnered much favorable press attention in spite of a Lilliputian kitchen. Dufresne opened wd~50 (named for the chef's initials and the street address), a 70-seat restaurant with a state of the art kitchen, in April of 2003, on Clinton Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. His partners in the venture are Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and restaurateur Phil Suarez. Wylie's cuisine continues to demonstrate a wonderful palette in terms of taste, texture, and visuals and has also evolved in terms of technique, utilizing ingredients and equipment that have created a menu notable for its innovation as well as flavor. The restaurant prides itself on the fact that the chefs all work in a collaborative fashion, continually experimenting and sharing ideas.
In 2000 Wylie was a James Beard nominee for Rising Star Chef of the year. In 2004 wd~50 was nominated by the James Beard Foundation in the category of Best New Restaurant. In 2005, Restaurant Magazine (UK) voted wd~50 thirty fourth in its annual "The World's Best Restaurants" issue. In New York magazine's 101 Best Restaurants edition (January 9, 2006), wd~50 was awarded four stars (out of a potential five) and was ranked fourth restaurant overall. In 2006 in the Michelin Guide's inaugural American edition wd~50 received one star, which it retained in 2007 and 2008. The James Beard Foundation nominated Wylie for Best Chef New York in 2007. In May of 2007, Wylie was conferred with an honorary degree of Doctor of Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University. In March of 2008 Frank Bruni awarded wd~50 three stars in The New York Times.
Bravotv.com: Are you a Top Chef fan? If so, what do you enjoy about the show?
Absolutely, my wife make a ritual of watching it every Wednesday. It's always exciting to see how the characters and their cuisine evolve over the course of a season.
Bravotv.com: You were a guest for the Season 2 finale, how was your experience this season different?
The biggest difference is that this time I was judging at the beginning of the season as opposed to the finale, looking at fifteen contestants as opposed to just two. A more general approach is required when the field is fuller.
Bravotv.com: Let's talk Quickfire first -- what would you have made with only the five ingredients?
Well, in this instance, the challenge was for them to spend under $25 at the Green Market on five ingredients, so they all ended up with different things. I thought it was a good challenge, in that they were required to be creative within a budget.
Bravotv.com: The chef the audience may have thought would have impressed you the most -- Richard -- used eucalyptus for aroma. How could Richard have more effectively used the eucalyptus?
I felt it was a bit of a conundrum, as to the best of my knowledge you're not supposed to eat eucalyptus unless you're a Koala Bear -- and it makes even them pretty woozy. But on the other hand, the eucalyptus seemed to be playing only a supporting role in this dish and could have had more of a presence.
Bravotv.com: Onto the Elimination, what did you think of the concept of the zoo challenge?
I thought it was another smart challenge. It left room for the chefs to be creative within the prescribed diets, again it required both discipline and creativity.
Bravotv.com: What are the most important things to consider when catering for 200 people?
I would say that to be sure you can continually serve an item to that many people over the required period of time, not to have downtime and gaps in service.
Bravotv.com: What did you think of Andrew's gelee glacier?
I really appreciated the risk-taking of the dish.
Bravotv.com: Do you have any favorites to win yet?
No, but I get the sense that some of the big talkers might get snuck up on by the quieter types.
Bravotv.com: More generally: What is molecular gastronomy?
At this point, it means many things to many different people. The term was coined by a scientist to explain the relationship between cooking and science, but it has gone on to encompass more.
Bravotv.com: What do you think most people's misperception about it is?
I think the term is unfortunate in that it has a clinical aspect and makes people think of lab coats. It sounds as if the human element has been removed from the cooking process. I like to think of it as a term that just refers to the information that enables a chef to achieve certain goals, a scientific means to an end that still requires all of the human side of cooking. Ideally, it assists in making us better cooks.
Bravotv.com: Do you think Top Chef has made the concept of molecular gastronomy more well-known and accessible? Are you surprised with how Top Chef fans have embraced it after seeing chefs, especially Marcel, use it?
For better or for worse, Marcel has increased awareness. But chefs are now distancing themselves from the term because of the connotations it conveys.
Bravotv.com: Anything else you'd like to add?
Top Chef is always entertaining -- it's hard to stop watching, like a good hockey fight but no one gets hurt. It's great that the format is so inherently dramatic and can make cooking so entertaining to people who might not ordinarily be interested in a cooking show. Good for the industry all round.