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Curious Wylie Dufresne Defends the Science of Cooking

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Philosophy major Wylie Dufresne hopes to dine with founding fathers, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson; compares line cooks to lab researchers; and rejects the term molecular gastronomy to define the cuisine at his Michelin-star namesake restaurant, wd~50.

LM: Your cooking has been called a form of alchemy. How would you describe your cuisine?

WD: I don't know Merriam-Webster's definition of alchemy, but whether our cuisine is called science-based, modern, or contemporary American, we admit that cooking is a myriad of sciences: physics, biology, and a lot of chemistry. We use existing information about the science of cooking to gain a greater understanding of what's going on when we cook our food, whether it be steaming a piece of fish, roasting a chicken, poaching an egg, or whipping a meringue. By applying our creativity to that knowledge, we hopefully come up with interesting applications and contributions to the canon of cooking. It's a long-standing belief that the future of cooking lies with science, but it's finding more widespread acceptance.

LM: What is it about the term "molecular gastronomy" that you don't like?

WD: First and foremost, it doesn't sound very tasty or bring to mind anything remotely delicious. "Honey, do you want to go out for pizza or do you want to go out for molecular gastronomy?" It was a term coined by a man named Nicholas Kurti who was fascinated with understanding more about the science of cooking. While we have relationships with scientists, have access to scientific information, and use the fruits of their labor to better our knowledge and our understanding of cooking, we're not molecular gastronomists. People like Hervé This and Harold McGee could be considered molecular gastronomists, but we are chefs.

LM: Today, chefs are increasingly emphasizing ingredients' integrity or authenticity and the need to bring out an ingredient's natural flavors. How do you view ingredients?

WD: I don't think any chef would say, "I want to make a carrot that tastes like a tomato or a chicken that tastes like a piece of tuna." It's always about starting with the best possible raw ingredients. What you do with those ingredients is entirely up to you, but at no point are you trying to change its essential flavor profile—maybe its texture, its form, its shape, but not the way it tastes. Understanding what's happening to a carrot as it goes through a myriad of cooking phases gives us more choices in terms of how to cook it best to draw out the essence and the flavor of that carrot. We're looking to manipulate ingredients in different ways from the farm-to-table movement, but at no point are we veering away from anybody else's desire to have a pristine, delicious ingredient.

LM: Other than eggs, what is your favorite ingredient?

WD: I would veer toward dairy, maybe cheese.

LM: What on your menu right now do you especially like or are especially proud of?

WD: It's an old cliché but that's like saying, "Do you have a favorite child?" I would never want to choose. Although, I don't have any siblings so my parents could answer who is their favorite.

LM: Is your dad still the manager at wd~50?

WD: He's still behind the scenes helping act like the guiding force around the place.

LM: What is it like working with a dad, especially one that knows the business?

WD: There's no better ally and no better person to have in my court than my own father, but when you have typical work-related discussions or confrontations, things are more complicated. It's difficult but it can be very rewarding.

LM: You were trying to patent noodles without flour. Is that still in the works?

WD: There are always people looking to cut down on carbs, processed flours, and starches. It was something that we came very close to doing, but we might not have been the first. I thought it might be good for the South Beach diet or help me retire comfortably, but it didn't pan out that way.

LM: Science and food have been interconnected since the beginning. Do you predict that those two as a unified subject or concentration will continue to grow?

WD: I can't necessarily see down the road in these somewhat uncertain times, but I do think that this will endure. This melding of science and cooking is resulting in a deeper understanding or better education of the art of cooking, and I don't think anyone will say that education is just a fad. This is information that's applicable to the bistro chef on the corner or the four-star chef famous around the world. Anybody can benefit from understanding what's happening to food as it gets processed.

Whether people will be cooking in the particular style that myself and several other people around the world are cooking, that remains to be seen. There will always be people that are interested in understanding the food that they're handling—much the same way people care about what food their animals are eating and how they're raised, and what sort of dirt and soil the vegetables are grown in.

You could follow your food through all the way to the end: What's happening to this food as it gets processed in the pan? What happens to the proteins in an egg when it is cooked at 145° versus 170°? If I know the changes that an egg goes through as it heats up, then I can decide which way I like best to cook that egg. There is no right or wrong way—it's just the way that you might like or I might like. That is information that will always be useful to the people that care to learn and I don't think that learning will ever go away.

LM: Were you interested in science as a child?

WD: No, no.

LM: Not every chef cares as much about knowing the difference between what happens to the proteins in an egg at different temperatures as you. Other chefs are more interested in the presentation or combining of different flavors. Can you identify in yourself anything that inspired you or drew you to this science of food?

WD: I've always been mentally curious. I went through the traditional formal academic program at the FCI, and I'm fortunate to have worked for some of the world's greatest chefs, but I got to a point where my education had plateaued and I was curious to learn more. I began to peel back the onion and a whole world opened up. It became quite clear that while I was a fairly accomplished cook, I wasn't a fairly knowledgeable cook. I knew how to cook and get the results I wanted but I didn't know why or what was happening.

"This is how to cook an egg."

"Why?"

"Because I said so."

That's not very useful. There are very few other forms of education where if someone asks, Why should I do it like that, someone answers, Because I told you to. What have we learned? How do I take that information and go anywhere with it? The "how" is always an empty shell if you don't have the "why". I was interested in a deeper understanding, and I don't think I'm the first.

Even the cook who doesn't know it is every day doing a form of scientific experimentation. When you give a cook a piece of chicken and tell him to cook it, he cooks twenty, thirty, forty pieces of chicken every day, and he gets better and better at it. He does that five days a week, for two, five, ten years in a row, he figures out little tricks or makes observations. They may not necessarily be catalogued or written down that way, but every cook is in his own way performing minor scientific experiments or making adjustments as he goes.

It's a natural progression to begin to catalogue it, write down the experiments, and become more accurate in terms of weighing things out. People laugh at the fact that we use scales for a lot of our recipes, but nobody makes fun of pastry chefs for weighing out the ingredients for a cake. Tell somebody to make a cake, but just use his hands instead of a cup measure or tablespoon measure—that would be ridiculous and the baker or pastry chef would say that's silly. Nobody makes a cake without measuring it, so why not make a sauce by measuring out the ingredients? Or why not cook an egg without experimenting with the temperatures and deciding which one you like best? It's all very reasonable and evolutionary in my mind.

LM: Would you consider cooking a science or an art?

WD: A blend of both. The sheer act of putting a piece of meat in the oven is a scientific experiment, but what you do with it once it's cooked—how you garnish it, present it, season it, and flavor it—can be very artistic and very personal.

LM: You were a philosophy major at Colby College. If you could prepare a dinner for one philosopher, who would it be?

WD: The people I would be intrigued to sit down and have a meal with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Not typically considered among the best philosophers of the world, but interesting men who definitely had philosophies about life.