It's midday. The taxi driver isn't too sure that I know where I want to go. I soon find out why he's hesitant. WD-50, my destination and one of the most talked-about restaurants in New York since its opening in 2003, is closed over lunch. But then I'm not here to eat (not at this juncture, anyway). I'm here to interview its chef-proprietor, Wylie Dufresne.
When I tell Dufresne the story of the reluctant cabbie, he roars with laughter. "We're not in a neighbourhood that can support lunch yet," he explains. The "neighbourhood" is New York's Lower East Side and I can see his point. The road (Clinton Street) is not exactly the smartest in town and WD-50's entrance can only be described as unprepossessing.
The interior of the 60-seat restaurant is likewise unpretentious: diner-esque in feel, with high-backed banquette booths down one side and closely-packed tables on the other. At noon, it's difficult to imagine it as a city hot-spot. Nine hours later, the restaurant is packed-out, buzzing with a primarily under-30 crowd, its bright blue and chocolate walls funkily lit - and I get the point. I also get the food. Experimental, thought-provoking, fun - it has obvious connections to that cooked by our own Heston Blumenthal (I'd say 35-year-old Dufresne is at the same stage of development as Blumenthal was five years ago) - yet it's indefinably American.
"It's actually very hard for me to qualify what I do," ponders Dufresne, taking a sustaining swig from a large plastic container full of caramel-coloured tea that a British builder would be proud of. "I like Blumenthal's approach. I like his methodology - he understands whatever science he may be using. But I want to find my own path. The way I see it is we're doing up-to-date food. And the luxury of saying we're American means that we can use any ingredient because America is the official melting pot of the world, at least over the past 250 years."
We're talking dishes such as monkfish served with oyster mushroom, spaghetti squash, pumpernickel cocoa and pear consomm (think belle helene with fish); sable fish matched with orange and pistachio flavours, egg-less lemon curd (more about that later); and what is in effect a deconstructed tongue sandwich.
The latter is a witty tribute to his father, Dewey Dufresne, a restaurateur who also once owned a sandwich shop and who now is a front-of-house presence at WD-50. Naturally, the dish is more than the sum of its parts. Its mayonnaise is hot for a start, cubed (yes cubed), crumbed and deep-fried to give it crunch - it explodes satisfyingly in the mouth with an unlooked-for burst of warmth. The secret ingredient that facilitates this is gellan, a gelling agent that is able to withstand very high temperatures without breakdown, enabling both heat and textural retention in the ingredients it's used with.
"There's water in the mayonnaise that wants to get out when you surround it with oil - you can't just take mayonnaise and drop it into a fryer with normal agents - but the gellan holds it together," Dufresne explains.
As he describes the process of creating the dish to me, it becomes obvious that the problem-solving aspect of putting it together is what floats Dufresne's boat. It's a characteristic he shares with Blumenthal (the two regularly talk and exchange information about new ingredients and it was Blumenthal who introduced Dufresne to gellan). Questioning minds are a prerequisite if you are going to tackle food's molecular boundaries.
"For me," Dufresne says, "the exciting thing about deep-fried mayonnaise was, ‘Hey, that should be pretty difficult, how do you do that? Can you do it?' In fact you can and it's delicious! Normally, you'd have a toasty bread that would be the crispy part of a sandwich, but here you have the mayonnaise that's crunchy and yet the interior's the same as a jar of mayonnaise on the counter. It's just fun - having the familiar in an unfamiliar sense.
"I've always been a curious person even though I was terrible at science at school," he continues. "I was always good at reading a book and finding out what the author was meaning; always the kid that asked an extra two questions. In cooking, to know how to do something without knowing why is somewhat empty. If you don't know why something is going on, you'll never find a better way to do it - you're fucked if you don't know how to troubleshoot."
That's not to say that food in itself is not the source from which all else flows. Often it's the ingredients that spark off an idea, rather than looking for a common-ground food experience such as a sandwich. Take lapsang suchong: "a delicious, smoky tea - beautiful whether you take the tea leaves and just grind them up and sprinkle them on fish, or brew the tea and cook rice or poach fish in it." (Dufresne uses it very effectively with tuna).
Take epazote. It's a Mexican herb with a petrol overtone (if you think that sounds horrid, then think of Riesling and mango). Dufresne was introduced to it by a Mexican chef on his 10-strong international brigade ("everybody's ideas are not only welcome, they're somewhat required") and it makes, he discovered, a pungent oil. In Mexico, the herb is eaten with corn. The WD-50 take was to use a few drops of oil with fish (remember the Riesling parallel) - skate to be exact - and serve it with corn pure and a fungus called huitlacoche, which grows on corn ("gorgeous, deep, earthy flavour and jet black. Beautiful").
The democratic creative environment that Dufresne encourages at WD-50 is something in which all his team thrive. And no one more so than pastry supremo Sam Mason. Like Dufresne, Mason has an inquiring mind and their working relationship is clearly symbiotic - each chef being inspired and challenged by the other. Mason, for instance, developed the eggless lemon curd using gellan.
"It's a beautiful thing - it'll make you cry, it's so delicious," Dufresne says. "And it's cool. I was the one who found the gellan, but Sam was the one that realised he could make the curd with it. I don't give a shit whether it's me or Sam who created it. It doesn't matter."
I want to ask him about how he got started in the kitchen, his culinary training at the French Culinary Institute in New York, his big break with international chef-restaurateur Jean-Georges Vongerichten (he was chef de cuisine at the maestro's Prime restaurant in Las Vegas, and Vongerichten and restaurateur Phil Suarez are investors WD-50), about really defining his style at 21 Clinton Fresh Food across the street from WD-50, about his relationship with his father ("you don't have enough tape for that," he says drily). Sadly, we've run out of interview time.
Damn. But in case you're wondering about the name, WD-50, it's Dufresne's initials plus the number of the street. Easy. Unfussy. Like its owner. Now where's that taxi?
Mason and Dufresne are a natural fit in terms of the adventurousness of their cooking: both are eager to push boundaries, test preconceptions - inspired by the examples set by Ferran AdriÁ and Blumenthal. But thirty-something Mason credits the late Jean-Louis Palladin, a legendary figure of modern American cuisine (Mason worked at Palladin's New York restaurant and at Napa in Las Vegas), for inspiring the catholic approach to ingredients that typifies his style.
"He was the first chef that said to me: 'Listen, go in the walk-in and use whatever you want.' He also taught me about the importance of salt. Pastry chefs don't use salt and I don't know why. It does amazing things for flavours, whether they be savoury or sweet."
Texture is the key to Mason's desserts. "It's where difficulty comes into play. You can make something look good easily but you have to ask is it going to taste right, is it going to make people think texturally?" he says.
Mason recently developed a chemical dependency - for culinary purposes only, of course. He uses methyl cellulose, a hydrochloride that gels when heated but is liquid when cool, to create a liquid centre for his version of crème brÁ»lée. Other chemicals (he won't say which) are crucial to his savoury ice-creams (such as roast potato and thyme) and to make the saffron cotton candy served at the end of the meal.
Encouraged by Dufresne, Mason takes a freewheeling approach to his dessert listing, changing things when he gets bored. There are, however, recurring themes in his cooking. Flavoured papers, made from purées combined with egg white, spread thinly and then baked, often make an appearance.
He's currently experimenting with consommés. "I've always been amazed with the effect of clarifying a stock and I just thought, "You can do that with chocolate. I did a few test runs and eventually came up with a completely clear chocolate soup. It's pretty damn amazing! Eventually I'd like to put it in a savoury application with eel or venison and really bitter chocolate broth."
Whatever the future holds for Mason, it's clear that WD-50 is a watershed in his career so far. "I won't work for anyone after this. I'll either have my own place or stay here, there's no where else for me to go."
By Joanna Wood
Parsnip cake, coconut-cream cheese sorbet, ginger caramel
Ingredients For the parsnip cake
(serves six to eight)
115g soft butter
55g brown sugar
110g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1/2tsp baking soda
1 pinch salt
160g grated parsnip
For coconut sorbet (makes 12 portions)
1kg coconut purée
500g cream cheese
For the ginger caramel
(makes 10 portions)
25ml fresh ginger juice
For the parsnip cake: Cream butter and both sugars together. Add oil and mix together for two minutes. Mix in eggs, one at a time. Sift remaining dry ingredients together, add grated parsnips and fold into wet ingredients. Pour batter into 12 x 3oz cake pans and bake at 170Â°C until risen and firm to the touch.
For the cream cheese sorbet: Boil water and glucose together, then stabilise by adding sugar and stabiliser. Allow to cool before adding coconut purée and cream cheese. Blend and freeze.
For ginger caramel: Boil sugar and water together to make a dark caramel, then add the ginger juice. Cool. Assemble dish and serve.
Pickled beef tongue, fried mayonnaise, onion streusel
For the tongue
1 x 1kg-11/2kg calf tongue
2 cloves garlic
1tbs fresh ginger, grated
5 allspice berries
9tbs brown sugar
250ml rice vinegar
500ml chicken stock
For the fried mayonnaise
250ml milk, cold
500ml grapeseed oil
5g gelatin leaf
1tbs lemon juice
1 egg yolk
45-50g Panko breadcrumbs
For the tomato molasses
400g tomato, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
For the red onion streusel
70g red onion powder
100g almond flour
Balinese salt crystals
For the tongue: Soak tongue in cold water for one day, changing water frequently. Cook celery, onion, carrot and garlic in butter over medium heat for five minutes. Add the tongue and the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and cook for four to five hours, until tender, topping up with water if the stock evaporates too quickly. Allow to cool in liquid, peel off skin and trim away any fat. Chill. Slice tongue lengthways on a meat slicer - setting number 5.
For the mayonnaise: Stir gellan into cold milk. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring constantly until gellan is fully hydrated. (You will be able to tell from the texture of the mixture: when gellan gum is heated it swells rapidly at about 50Â°C to form a thick, pasty suspension. With continued heating the suspension loses viscosity suddenly at about 90Â°C, signifying hydration).
Heat grapeseed oil to 99Â°C. In meantime, soak gelatin in ice-cold water to soften (bloom) it, then place in hot milk mixture and "shred". Slowly whisk in the hot oil, being very careful to add only a little at a time. Once the oil has been incorporated, heat the mustard, lemon juice, Micri, salt and pepper, then fold this in to the mixture. Spread on to a shallow pan. And allow to cool. Cut in to cubes. Coat with flour, egg and Panko breadcrumbs. Deep-fry at 180Â°C until golden.
For the tomato molasses: Warm butter and molasses together, add tomatoes and cook down slowly until mixture thickens (about six to eight hours). Allow to cool. Season with salt and Tabasco. Blend to a smooth paste.
For the red onion streusel: Allow butter to soften and mix all ingredients together. Bake at 150Â°C for 10 minutes.
To assemble and plate: Warm the mayonnaise in the oven for two to three minutes. Drizzle some olive oil on the sliced tongue and top with Balinese salt crystals. Place some tomato molasses on plate around the tongue. Decorate with red onion streusel and chiffonade of lettuce. Serve.