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Why Molecular Gastronomy Was Far More Than a Fad in the Restaurant World

Beyond the fogs and foams, here's how chefs like Wylie Dufresne changed restaurants forever.

weird-science-illustration Autumn Whitehurst

Wylie Dufresne stands back to watch his employee operate a culinary Rube Goldberg machine. “This is Junior. He’s been with me since the opening of WD~50,” Dufresne says, recalling the groundbreaking molecular-gastronomy mecca he operated in New York from 2003 to 2014. Junior chuckles to acknowledge his longtime boss, while careful not to lose focus on the task at hand. Because focus is required.

Dufresne eyes an extruder that’s automatically spouting batter at a regular clip, and Junior monitors the temperature of the oil on a digital readout. The extruder must be positioned just a half inch over the oil that needs to be heated to 375 degrees, or perfection eludes them.

A few feet away, another cook sets a large stainless-steel bowl on a kitchen scale, then hoists a bucket of glucose, pouring in the exact amount to the gram. Next comes the granulated sugar. The specific mix of glucose and sucrose gives Dufresne the combination of pliability and structure he can’t find elsewhere. He’s also studied how air temperature, humidity and pH levels will affect the final product.

Adding the final touches at Du's Donuts

Adding the final touches at Du’s Donuts  Ball & Albanese

All this attention, all this work, all this endless R&D—is it going to some mind-blowing new fine-dining project? No, one of the most innovative chefs New York and the world have ever known is making glazed doughnuts.

Conspicuously absent at Du’s Donuts and Coffee, his fried-dough headquarters in Brooklyn, are the meat glues, foams and liquid nitrogen that defined an entire era of restaurants. Most chefs of his generation haven’t just put away their molecular gastronomical wizardry—they wince at the mere mention of the term, as if they’d seen an old picture of themselves with a tragically dated haircut.

Yet there are more to the movement than most realized at the time, or even now. “I think the whizbang of it distracted from the real point,” says Alex Stupak, a pastry chef for Dufresne at WD~50. That point was so much bigger than theatrics and abstract dishes. And though molecular gastronomy may be maligned now, this is the story of how it upended restaurants and changed cuisine so profoundly that today we’re still tasting its effects—and eating better for it.

***

Dufresne was a C-plus student from a tiny liberal arts college in Maine who didn’t have big post-graduation plans beyond heading west with a new set of skis. He’d worked in restaurants since he was a kid, taking to them like the team sports he loved playing. So he thought he’d head to a place with better powder and work in some kitchens to make ends meet. His mother talked him out of it. She told him if he stayed close to home, she’d help out with culinary school. The skis have gathered dust since.

At what was then called the French Culinary Institute in New York, Dufresne finally found a field of study he was passionate about, finishing second in his class. After graduating in 1993 he set about working in New York’s best kitchens.

When Dufresne read Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s seminal 1990 cookbook, Simple Cuisine, he had a culinary epiphany. He saw a chef taking classic French food and stripping away the butter-laden heaviness while incorporating flavors from Asia. Dufresne landed a job with Vongerichten and, for the next six years, worked for the acclaimed chef at multiple restaurants.

Chef Wylie Dufresne perfecting a "carrot yolk" at WD~50

Dufresne perfecting a “carrot yolk” at the now defunct restaurant.  Eric Medsker

Dufresne’s ultimate goal was to run his own restaurant. Vongerichten had put his mark on French cuisine, and Dufresne wanted to add to the dialogue in his own way. How could he, too, play with the form?

At first, the answer wasn’t about alginate and methylcellulose. Dufresne had a populist, democratic streak in him. He loved the fine dining of Midtown Manhattan, yet wanted to suffuse it with a more laid-back downtown vibe. “Food doesn’t taste better if you wear a tie,” he says. “The idea was to have delicious food in a place that didn’t feel like you’re going to church.” So he took a job in 1999 as the chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, named for its address on New York’s Lower East Side.

Two decades ago, the neighborhood’s dining scene wasn’t what it is today. “It was not a popular address to open a restaurant—it was a popular place to buy drugs,” Dufresne says. That didn’t keep diners away. The chef drew praise for his contemporary American fare. But the former philosophy major had deeper questions to ask of his profession.

“We knew how to cook. We just didn’t know why,” Dufresne says. “Okay, well, if I put this chicken in the oven like this, I get this result because I’ve put it in the oven 400 times a night, five days a week… We stop right there. We don’t ask, ‘Well, why does it come out better?’ Just that it comes out better and I got shit to do, so let’s keep going.”

Along with his own experiments, he enlisted the help of food scientists so he could elevate his cooking by understanding chemistry. At the time, knowledge of food was almost folkloric. Does olive oil in water help pasta not stick? Does searing a steak seal in the juices? Does cold water boil faster than warm water? (People used to believe the answer to each was yes, but it’s no.) “I wanted to create a restaurant that was also a graduate school for myself and for my team to continue our culinary education,” Dufresne says. He left 71 Clinton in 2001 to build a restaurant across the street, with a bigger kitchen and a more radical approach.

For WD~50, Dufresne and three young cooks with a similarly iconoclastic streak holed themselves up in his apartment kitchen for a year. Inside the experimental headquarters they dubbed the Funk Tank, they tested dishes and out-there ideas like, “Can you make mayonnaise out of hard-boiled eggs?” (You can’t, by the way.) They also challenged menu conventions. Serving a green salad may be standard, but uncooked leaves on a plate didn’t excite them, so, no, they wouldn’t have salad at WD~50.

Plating at WD~50

Plating at WD~50  Eric Medsker

Such notions seemed fanciful, if not laughable, to people on the outside. “No salad on the menu?” Tim Zagat, the cofounder of the Zagat guides, said with a chuckle to The New York Times ahead of the opening. “Well, these things can change very quickly.”

Once the restaurant opened, Dufresne innovated again. He expanded development of dishes beyond his small brain trust. He broke with the traditional top-down style of running a kitchen to allow even young cooks to put dishes on the menu.

Mario Carbone, now one of New York’s most successful chefs and restaurateurs, worked at WD~50 in the early years, when he was only 23. “One day Wylie had a big bag of sake lees, which is the pressed pulp of the fermented rice after you’ve made the sake,” Carbone recalls. Everyone was challenged to invent a dish for service that night, even young Mario. Carbone used the lees to make pasta dough, creating a fettuccine with razor clams and crispy dehydrated kimchi chips. “It’s not like anything I’d make today, but that was something I made within the WD~50 algorithm. And he wound up putting what I made on the menu,” Carbone says. “As a 23-year-old kid, that was a huge accomplishment for me. I’ll never forget that.”

WD~50 was deconstructing fine dining, from the location of the restaurant and the table-cloth-free decor to the menu and the kitchen hierarchy.

“As a staff,” Carbone says, “we knew we were doing something different. We were going to take our losses along the way, maybe make things people didn’t like. But we were doing something important in the conceptual field of this world. There wasn’t really anything like that happening in New York at the time.” There were, however, others an ocean away asking the same questions. And they were about to make their voices heard.

***

Heston Blumenthal

Heston Blumenthal was no stranger to liquid nitrogen.  Contour/Getty Images (Left); Alamy (Right)

In retrospect, 2004 looks quaint. YouTube was still a year away, and chefs certainly couldn’t broadcast a new culinary trick to the whole world on Instagram Stories. Information moved more slowly, and to show off a cool technique, a chef had to go find an audience of his peers in person. The prestige venue was Madrid Fusión. Each January, 800 people gathered at the Palacio Municipal de Congresos in the Spanish capital for speeches and cooking demonstrations. That year, Heston Blumenthal, the wildly creative chef behind the Fat Duck in England, caused a sensation.

Unknown to the people in the crowd, Blumenthal was in trouble. “We were there on a Wednesday, and we were going to be bankrupt on Friday. We couldn’t make payroll,” Chris Young, then the head of the Fat Duck’s experimental kitchen, told the online publication Pico in 2016. Blumenthal’s avant-garde, scientifically driven food had earned him two Michelin stars—and a fairly empty restaurant. Neither the dining public nor most chefs had caught up to what the Fat Duck was doing.

Like Dufresne, Blumenthal—along with Grant Achatz in Chicago and the Adrià brothers outside Barcelona, among others—was looking to science. He, too, realized that much of the “knowledge” handed down to cooks in kitchens was merely unsubstantiated myth. Dufresne could be heard regularly evoking a food scientist: “We know more about the surface of Mars than we know about what’s going on inside a soufflé.”

These chefs’ analytical challenge to conventional wisdom was echoed in other industries during the decade. Baseball had its Moneyball revolution; Wall Street similarly moved away from gut decisions toward algorithms for making trades; and Nate Silver critiqued Beltway political punditry with polling aggregation.

Grant Achatz Alinea Hot Dog

Grant Achatz will give you a classic, like this hot dog, in a totally unexpected form.  Photo: courtesy Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images (Left); Bill Wisser (Right)

The chefs found more than they bargained for. They didn’t only debunk myths about searing a steak to seal in the juices; they also unlocked novel ways to manipulate food. Transglutaminase could glue pieces of white and dark meat together to create an ideal bite of chicken. Sodium alginate could make olive puree hold the shape of an actual olive until you bit it, when the liquid inside would explode. And liquid nitrogen? It could freeze a custard so quickly it would turn into ice cream in the blink of an eye, all while engulfed in a theatrical fog.

At Madrid Fusión 2004, Blumenthal took the stage and showed the possibilities of liquid nitrogen to chefs for the first time. He made his signature bacon-and-egg ice cream in front of an awestruck crowd. When he concluded, the chefs rose to their feet for sustained applause. After that, Stupak says, “everything went nuts.” That very same week Blumenthal captured his third Michelin star. Bookings at the Fat Duck soared, and the restaurant was saved. The gatekeepers of prestige announced they were allowing molecular gastronomists into their club. But the wrong lessons would be learned from Blumenthal’s success.

“The moment Heston got onstage and poured liquid nitrogen and did something that no one had ever done, the literal fog of it created a metaphorical one,” Stupak says. “That was the beginning of the death of it.”

Ferran Adria Spheriphied Pea Ravioli

Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli changed everything.  Photo: courtesy Pal Hansen/Getty Images (Left); Andy Hall/Getty Images (Right)

***

Back in New York, diners and critics struggled to understand WD~50. The first New York Times review said it had a “contempt for the pleasure principle,” where the food tended to be more intellectual than delicious.

“New York has a lot of great food, but people are conservative. People want bread, and you sit down at WD~50 and there’s no bread. Even those small things, as a young cook you’re like, ‘Wow, he dares to do something like that?’” says Noma chef René Redzepi. “But it was my favorite restaurant in New York City, actually. You could go there and have something different from, say, a French meal or a bowl of pasta with truffles.”

As the kitchen team honed their recipes, popular opinion turned. The techniques allowed them to surprise and delight, as when a waiter would present a bowl of clarified miso soup and a little bottle and instruct a diner to squeeze its contents into the bowl. “Methylcellulose sets when you heat it up,” Stupak says. Dufresne realized he could use “a mixture of methylcellulose and tofu for a guest to make their own noodles right before their eyes in a hot broth.”

WD~50’s reputation for exciting food in a fun atmosphere spread. Rosio Sánchez, now the chef-owner of three restaurants in Copenhagen, visited in 2007 from her home in Chicago. “I didn’t connect to fine dining,” she says. “WD~50 was extremely casual, yet the chefs were super-serious about what they were doing. I walked in the bar and had a five-course dessert tasting menu. For me, that was exciting.” Soon after, she left the Windy City to work for Dufresne.

Preparing foie gras at WD~50

Preparing foie gras at WD~50  Eric Medsker

When the Times returned in five years to review WD~50 again, it bestowed three stars. Critic Frank Bruni called many of the dishes knockouts and wrote they “validate the kind of experimentation that culinary pioneers like Mr. Dufresne undertake, and they reflect a thoughtful, mature equilibrium between what’s merely edgy and what’s truly enjoyable.”

The problem with molecular gastronomy as a whole was most cooks weren’t exhibiting a mature equilibrium. Food from WD~50, El Bulli, Alinea and the Fat Duck played with perceptions of flavor and texture, engaging diners with thoughtful novelty. Other, less talented chefs just wanted to do really cool tricks. “All too often, people’s exposure to molecular gastronomy wasn’t at El Bulli or WD~50,” Carbone says. “It happened in some restaurant where it shouldn’t be happening. This awful representation wound up stymieing the movement.”

Often, the foams and fogs covered for bad cooking. “It’s like the pyrotechnics at a Kiss concert,” Stupak says. “Take that away, take your face paint away and you suck.”

At the same time, the dining public’s affinity for molecular gastronomy faded, and WD~50 faced another existential threat. In 2014 a developer decided to tear down the space it occupied to make way for new condos. Dufresne considered finding a new location, but the energy of molecular gastronomy had waned for him, too.

“The same information started getting sloshed around, where it wasn’t creative,” Stupak says. “It wasn’t shocking anymore.”

“When you’ve eaten a cloud once, the second time is not that surprising,” Redzepi says.

On November 30, 2014, 72 diners gathered at 50 Clinton Street to pay their last respects to WD~50. Among them were Dufresne’s wife, his dad (who was also the GM), leaders of the food world from Daniel Boulud to David Chang and Chris Young, and, of course, Dufresne’s mom. They wanted to honor his endless curiosity and innovation— qualities that could also be his undoing. “On the last day of WD~50, I changed a recipe and I made a mistake. I fucked it up,” he says. “Everyone was like, ‘What are you doing? We’re closing. Stop.’… But I had an idea I thought might make it better, so let’s do it.” Even on the final day of service, Dufresne couldn’t help himself.

“You have these people like Wylie in every genre of art—there has to be those people. I’m never going to be one of them, because that’s just not how my brain works,” Carbone says. “It’s so important that they exist, people who spend their time and their talent and all their energy, and their money and their heart and soul into creating something new, which is the biggest risk possible. His lasting legacy is that he’s one of the great beacons of an era who pushed new.”

***

Noma Copenhagen dining room

The natural beauty of Noma.  Photo: courtesy Noma

Perched alongside a canal on the outskirts of Copenhagen sits the most influential restaurant of this decade. Although Noma has a new location, its ethos of naturalism, which relies on local ingredients, foraging and fermentation, endures. It communicates those values through not only its food but also its aesthetics. Noma ensconces diners in wood, stone, plants and animal pelts. The restaurant’s ideas and design have been copied the world over, and in some ways, they’re responsible for killing molecular gastronomy for good.

Whereas molecular gastronomy was sleek, abstract, scientific and at times disorienting, Noma is the opposite. What you’re getting is not of a test tube but of nature. That rooted sensibility makes Redzepi’s restaurant easier to grasp and embrace, unlike molecular gastronomy, which could feel alienating. “You do remember it as the foam period,” he says. “It got dated so insanely fast. It was everything, and then, just like that, it died out.”

But look past Noma’s greenhouses, bucolic setting and big central kitchen, and you’ll find a laboratory. Inside this stainless-steel and crisp white-tile room there’s a centrifuge, a rotary evaporator, an ultrasonic homogenizer and a supercritical fluid extractor. It’s a gleaming collection of equipment that would make Dufresne jealous. And what it produces is critical to Noma’s success.

“Sometimes we wonder, how do we isolate this flavor and make it more pure?” says David Zilber, head of Noma’s fermentation lab. “Okay, put it in a centrifuge. You turn to science in the pursuit of a clearer texture. It’s not about a cheap trick or creating a strange-looking thing.”

Noma’s back-to-nature meal is as aided by science as anything WD~50 served. “The brilliance of Noma is they’re delivering it in a way that’s smarter and not as showy,” Dufresne says. “It’s back there, but they’re not letting you know it’s back there. We, as generation one, we were more excited about it. We wanted to tell people we landed on the moon. It was a mistake to say we had this enzyme that could turn shrimp into noodles. People were like, ‘Should I be eating that? That doesn’t sound delicious.’”

A selection of Du's Donuts

A selection painstakingly made at Du’s Donuts  Ball & Albanese

Not publicizing the secrets behind the magic tricks is a lesson Dufresne’s acolytes have grasped, applying it to much less avant-garde styles of food. “I understand that salsa verde and masa might not seem molecularly gastronomical to you,” Stupak says of his burgeoning Mexican-food empire, Empellón. “But if it’s really about doing things accurately and understanding the science behind it, well then, this is a molecular-gastronomy restaurant.” Other protégés are also thriving on a quieter approach to WD~50’s radicalism. Christina Tosi is America’s dessert queen with Milk Bar. Carbone co-owns multiple restaurants, including the Grill, which has ushered in a new era of midcentury American dining. Malcolm Livingston became the pastry chef at Noma. Sam Henderson owns a granola company. Rosio Sánchez now runs her eponymous Mexican restaurant in Copenhagen. And Sam Mason cofounded Oddfellows ice cream.

Eventually, Dufresne learned the lesson, too. Visit him in Brooklyn and he will make you a doughnut. It won’t be a deconstructed homage to a doughnut. It won’t arrive with a breathless explanation of the glaze’s pH levels or a detailed treatise on the ideal temperature of the oil used. You won’t realize the thought, care and science that went into it—you’ll just know it’s damn delicious.

Chef Wylie Dufresne at DU's Donuts in Brooklyn, NY

Wylie Dufresne at Du’s Donuts and Coffee in Brooklyn  Ball & Albanese


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