Fourteen years ago, Wylie Dufresne opened the doors to wd~50 – a spot on Manhattan’s Clinton Street that would become one of the most groundbreaking restaurants in the country using the principles of molecular gastronomy to produce fanciful takes on American classics, like everything bagel ice cream, or eggs Benedict with deep-fried hollandaise.
These days, however, Dufresne has switched gears entirely. After wd~50 closed its doors in 2014, the award-winning chef decided to pursue a longtime childhood passion: donuts. Earlier this year, he launched Du’s Donuts in Williamsburg, a Willy Wonka-like, glass-walled shop where you can find fluffy, picture-perfect cake donuts in whimsical flavors like Brown Butter Key Lime, or Pistachio Pink Lemonade.
Incidentally, the shop is right across the street from one of the city’s most famous breweries, Brooklyn Brewery. The way Dufresne sees it, making donuts and making beer aren’t all that different: they both require the same attention to detail, constant refinement, and deep intuition for flavor. Here, he shares his thoughts on donut making, his ideal donut and beer pairing, and the type of beer he would most like to turn into a donut.
Wd~50 is one of the most important restaurants to open in the 21st century in New York. What do you think it was about it that resonated?
Questions like that are hard because I am on the inside looking out. But I would like to think that what we did was offer people delicious, fun, playful food in a time and a place where you couldn’t find food like that. Also, we used our geography, and we had a sense of humor. We took New York classics – bagel and cream cheese, eggs benedict – and riffed on them, presenting familiar things in unfamiliar ways, and also presenting unfamiliar things in familiar ways. It was New York food that made you feel like you were in New York. Whether that was conscious or unconscious, I think that was a big part of the appeal.
I am pretty sure I have availed myself of most all of the public information on donut making at this point.”
What got you interested in molecular gastronomy in the first place?
Molecular gastronomy is a field of scientific study geared toward helping chefs understand the goings-on of cooking. I got into it because I am curious. I think that if you want to do something well you have to really understand it. We, as chefs, historically don’t know a lot about what we are doing. It’s only in the past twenty or thirty years that we have begun to understand what is actually involved in cooking. I wanted to understand cooking so I could make better decisions as a chef.
There will never be a right or wrong way to poach an egg, but there will always be a more informed way. That is the goal: to be informed, so I can cook you a better dinner.
And how did you then apply that philosophy to donuts?
I never thought making a donut would be easy, but I never thought it would be this hard. I understand now why there are so few good donuts and so many mediocre donuts – there are not a lot of ingredients, but to make a good donut requires going deep on that single subject.
We are applying the same approach that we had at wd~50 of constant tinkering, and always trying to do something better. I am pretty sure I have availed myself of most all of the public information on donut making at this point.
How could you apply the principles of molecular gastronomy to beer making?
I mean, all of that is happening 150 feet from where I am sitting, at Brooklyn Brewery. Beer is about controlling how things go bad until they start to taste delicious. Like donuts, there are not a lot of components to beer, but to make good beer is hard. The problem with both beer and donuts is that they are everywhere, so people think they are easy. People don’t understand what’s so hard about making them because they are ubiquitous.
Why get into donuts after years of sit-down restaurants?
I have wanted to open a donut shop for a long time. I grew up in cake donut country in New England, my great grandfather had a diner, and I have very fond memories of sitting in the diner eating a jelly stick (which I still think, to this day, is the best donut out there – we haven’t made a good version yet here, so we don’t sell it). I have long thought that my analytical approach to cooking, my sense of whimsy and flavor pairings, could be applied to donut making.
How did you approach coming up with flavors?
The creative process here is no different than what it was at wd~50. It can start with reading or eating something. Then, Colin, our head baker, and I bounce ideas off of each other. For example, Thanksgiving is coming up. What is a classic Thanksgiving side dish? Sweet potatoes, brown sugar, and marshmallows. Can we put that on a donut? Can we make a sweet potato glaze that is the orange color of this table, and then add marshmallows and brown sugar and burn that with a torch? To an outside observer, it might seem chaotic and random, but it’s not.
Maybe don’t mention that in the piece.”
If you could turn any beer into a donut, what would it be?
I like a shandy – especially a grapefruit shandy. I know grapefruit is good on a donut, so I think that if you bring some of those yeasty flavors from a beer, it could be really nice with the citrusy notes. We make cake donuts, so we don’t get any of those sour, funky, fermented notes that you get from yeast. A shandy would be a good way to introduce some of those flavors.
And what would you top the shandy donut with?
Textural components are important, so maybe we could do a candied grapefruit rind, or maybe a toffee. The way we would go about deciding is to get the tasting notes on a shandy, identify the seven or eight flavors, and then figure out how to extract one of those and making something out of it.
I read that you plan to add a beer selection to the Du’s menu down the line – what’s the strategy there?
I’d love to do some sour beers. There is no getting around donuts being sweet – so it would be nice to counterbalance that sweetness with sour. I’ll probably also have some crisp wines and bitter cocktails on the menu, too. I want to keep it playful. Maybe some shandies? Or is there a rule, like white after Labor Day, with serving shandies after summer?
What beers do you like drinking at home?
I go toward lighter beers. I try to avoid the fullness that beer can create. I like wheat bears, I like sours – Sam Henderson, who was the chef at wd~50, she’s a beer nut, and she turned me onto sour beers. And I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but I like shandies! I also still have some beers from when Evil Twin, a brewing company from Denmark, made a beer with my face on it for an event.
I think I have a beer bottle with your face on it in my bedroom from a different event.
Maybe don’t mention that in the piece.
Do you drink Brooklyn Brewery beers? After all, they are your across-the-street neighbors!
I like Brooklyn Brewery a lot. We carried their beers over the years at wd~50 – especially the IPAs. The people in charge of the beverage program are always making good decisions. Garrett [Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster] is infectious, and a great ambassador anything. It’s hard not to try everything that he makes.
Do you cook with beer?
Back in the day, when I was the chef of 71 Clinton Fresh Food, I used to braise short ribs in a dark ale, with cardamom, lemon zest, and a little bit of chicken stock. It was so delicious.
You just wrote a cookbook about wd~50. What dishes in that book do you feel were most critical to the restaurant’s DNA?
The cookbook is more about representing the approach that was critical to wd~50’s DNA, rather than a particular dish. Fifteen years ago, when we were cooking barley and purple cabbage juice to make this beautiful purple barley that was the color of your scarf – it was not something anyone was doing.
But what’s important about that is the thought process. My takeaway from wd~50 was that I just wanted people to think. I didn’t want to tell you how to think, but I wanted you to wonder. The 50 recipes in the book are about that.