#1. Chef Wylie Dufresne joins host Josh Sharkey for a fireside chat at the Tarrytown Estates outside New York City for the annual meez team summit.
Chef Dufresne is a true pioneer and craftsman in the culinary world, having won James Beard Awards and Michelin stars, and his restaurant, wd~50, which was voted one of the 50 best in the world.
In this interview, Chef Wylie discusses his struggles with balancing art and commerce. He reflects that he did not regret choosing art over commerce but wishes he had worked more thoughtfully at finding a better balance.
As the conversation continues, Chef Wylie touches on the importance of timing in business. He discusses how he created a new paradigm of cooking when he opened wd~50 and how he developed a culture of creativity there, emphasizing how creativity cannot be taught, but it can be planned for and hunted for.
Dufresne's goal for wd~50 was to create a place where anyone interested in learning about cooking could continue to do so. With this philosophy, Dufresne created a restaurant that not only pushed culinary boundaries but also fostered a culture of learning and curiosity.
Where to find Chef Wylie Dufresne:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
In this episode, we cover:
(02:06) Chef Wylie’s background
(12:12) The intersection between art and commerce
(15:14) The importance of timing in business
(19:28) How to create a culture of creativity
(23:29) The origins of innovation
(26:02) When to filter ideas and establish boundaries
(28:18) The iconic wd~50 eggs benedict
(29:39) When to stop iterating
(32:11) How to empower staff to speak up
(35:13) Why some techniques are too hard to execute
(37:40) M&Ms filled with …?
(39:29) Baker’s percent versus standard percent
(44:23) Learning when to not buck and system
(49:35) How to maintain high standards among your team
(51:36) Strengthening camaraderie with staff
(55:06) Picking the right people
Josh Sharkey [0:00]:
Welcome to The meez podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
This is part one of a special live recording with my friend, a chef who needs no introduction. A true pioneer in craftsman in the culinary world - Chef Wylie Dufresne. This was a fireside chat I had the pleasure of hosting at Tarrytown Estates, just outside of New York City, for our annual meez team summit.
The team flew in from all over the world to connect and set goals for 2023, and Chef Wylie was gracious enough to spend some time with us as we discussed everything from creativity, the process of iteration and innovation team culture, why American cheese is so delicious and much, much more. I hope you enjoy it.
This podcast is brought to you by meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. As a chef and restaurant owner for the past 20 years, I was frustrated that the only technology that we had in the kitchen was financial or inventory software. Those are important, but they don't address the actual process of cooking, training, collaboration, and consistent execution.
So I decided if it didn't exist, I'd do my best to get it built. So the current and next generation of culinary pros have a digital tool dedicated to their craft. If you're a chef, mixologist operator, or generally if you manage recipes intended for professional kitchens, meez is built just for you.
Organize, share, prep, and scale your recipes like never before, and get laser accurate food costs and nutrition analysis faster than you could imagine. Learn more at www.getmeez.com.
Okay, everybody. I'm really excited. Is everybody else? We have a living legend with us today. I can safely say the culinary world would not be where it is today without the chef sitting right here. He has won James Beard Awards, Michelin Stars. His restaurant has been voted one of the 50 best in the world.
He's judged on Top Chef and Master Chef. You might have seen him on shows like Treme and Billions. He's probably the only chef that has his own character on the Simpsons. He's worked for a bunch of incredible shops and opened a restaurant called 71 Clinton on the Lower East Side before there was anything like that on the Lower East Side.
After 71 Clinton, he opened a restaurant called wd~50. SoHo had wd~50 for 11 years. Groundbreaking restaurant. There was no restaurant like that that existed in America when it opened, and we'll obviously talk a bunch about that and really just inspired every chef in the world.
After 11 years of that, he dug deep into the world of donuts and now he's doing the same with pizza. We're going to talk today about creativity and innovation and execution and vision, and a bunch of other things around that. So Chef Wiley Dufresne, welcome. Thank you.
Wylie Dufresne [00:04:02]:
Thank you very much. It's nice to be here. I have been a longtime friend and fan of Josh's and the things that he's been up to, the people that he's worked for and with.
I have been a longtime supporter of meez. We’ve had unusual occasions to interact through the halls at Aurify over the years. And so fortunately I got to see you more than I probably would have during those early days and got to be, you know, a little bit of a fly on the wall in the process.
So that was kind of cool to see. And I'm always the guy bugging you about percentages and things like that, but I'm just a cook who's excited to be here and talk about whatever it is, you know, you guys feel like chatting about. So thanks for having me.
Josh Sharkey [00:05:22]:
Well, we are very honored, Chef. Maybe you could just talk to everybody about you and the restaurants you've had. Just a little bit more about your background and how you got to where you are today.
Wylie Dufresne [00:05:38]:
I've been working professionally in kitchens since I was 11, following very strict child labor laws in multiple states. My father was in the restaurant business. He had a number of restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island, which is where I was born. My parents were and continue to be divorced, and so summers meant time with Dad and I had a somewhat unfortunate incident my one year of summer.
Quick story. They were opening up everybody's mail at summer camp. They would call you up at dinner and say, Wylie , you have a package. Come up, pick up your package. It was open already. They'd give it to you because anyone that spent a summer camp knows Mom, Dad, or Grandma sends candy, but you're not allowed to have candy at summer camp.
They would open up your packages. And so I said to the counselor, I'm not sure you're allowed to do that. Like we can open the package together, but you can't give me my package opened and it sort of fell on deaf ears. So as a 11 year old, I sent a letter to the Postmaster in the state of Vermont.
And at the end of the summer, the head of the camp pulled me aside and said, "I'm not sure this is the right place for you." And I said, well, it's a long story short. I think the postmaster reached out to them. So summer camp was over for me, which meant I could go back to hanging out with Dad, which meant I worked in restaurants cuz Dad owned restaurants.
And so I was, I was in food service when most people would be going to summer camp. That was my job. So I did all sorts of stuff, food, service of all kinds, both front of house, back of house. You know, cleaning lobsters. Cleaning toilets, being a waiter, being a busboy, being a crappy cook. And then [00:06:00] finally the summer before my senior year of college, I had a real job in a real restaurant in Rhode Island that I really, really enjoyed.
And that's when it sort of, the bug, the bug got me. I think if it, in a perfect world, if I could have been anything, I would've liked to have been a first baseman for any. Baseball team, they would have me. But unlike Finn, I don't possess any particular speed or, um, strength or I'm sort of the average height of the average American male.
I don't have any particular physical attributes that would help me in that particular aspiration, but I came to realize that that summer before my senior year of, of, of college, that all the things I loved about team sports were in the kitchen. Everything that I loved, that really moved me about team sports, was almost identical to a kitchen.
It's uncanny when you think about it. You wake up in the morning and you practice. You wake up in the restaurant, and you prep. You have role players, you have sous chefs, you have captains, you have coaches, you have managers, you have chefs. There are all these parallels along the way, but, sort of I think maybe the most important parts of, I played team sports as a kid.
I did not play a lot of individual sports. I love team sports. I think there are a lot of life lessons to be had in team sports, but team sports and kitchens, they're highly redemptive and I think that's an important aspect of both of those things. You miss a layup. You strike out, you drop a ball. But that happened.
Let's not get stuck on that. You overcooked a fish, you brought the food to the wrong table. There is any number of parallels, but you're gonna do that a hundred more times today, so we can't get stuck on that. Let's take that. Let's use that moment. Let's say, okay, you missed a layup, not the end of the world.
So I realized like everything I loved about this process, it was a group of people with a common goal. You know, we wanted to win, we wanted to have a good service, and I was like, everything that I loved about sports, I was suddenly finding here.
And so, as soon as I started my senior year of college, I knew that I wanted to go into the restaurant business. I knew that that was what I wanted to do. I was supposed to graduate college and then go spend a year with my roommate and we were gonna go skiing in New Mexico for a year or a season.
My mom thought better of that and said, "I'll make a deal with you. I'll help you pay for culinary school if you decide not to do that. It was a tough moment between my friend and me. It took a couple of years to mend that fence, but I sort of pulled out. I literally had my car packed and kind of bowed out and went to culinary school because I intended to go find somebody to work for.
I didn't have the money to go to school. It didn't occur to me that I was gonna go the old-fashioned route. I was gonna find somebody I can work for and just ground up. My mom, a wonderful person, helped me out and so I went to culinary school during the day - the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan.
I went there from 9:00 to 2:30 and from 3:00 to whenever I had to be at the Gotham Bar and Grill. I was working pastry in the pastry kitchen at the Gotham Bar and Grill. So I'd go to school all day, and go to work all night. Rinse, repeat. And then after that, I worked for Jean George for many years.
After that, I worked for Jean-Louis Palladin, briefly. And then after that, I sort of was lucky enough to strike out on my own with some stops in France for a bit for a great chef. And then 71 Clinton happened, and then WD happened, and then Alder happened briefly, and then donuts happened for a bit.
And now we are, we are onto pizza. That's it in a nutshell. Thanks to the summer camp for kicking me out.
Josh Sharkey [00:11:00]:
I think if I'm right, full circle with your first like quote unquote real restaurant in Rhode Island, wasn't it? At Al Forno? Did. Did you work at Al Forno?
Wylie Dufresne [00:11:12] :
So Al Forno is a two-story restaurant that used to be Alforno on top and on the bottom, it was called Lucky's. And technically I worked at Lucky's, which was at the bottom. Lucky's is now gone and it's been turned into Al Forno up and down. And again, in another sort of ironic twist, I worked at the pizza station at Lucky's.
Al Forno and Lucky's. They were famous for their grilled pizzas. George and Joanne built their reputation on the idea of taking pizza dough and stretching it over hot coals, grilling it on one side, flipping it over, topping it, and grilling pizza. It was an idea that they had come across in Europe and they became very well known for that.
So yes, my very first job was in Watch Hill peeling potatoes for $5 a bucket. But my first job where I got the bug was at Lucky's slash Al Forno. That is correct.
Josh Sharkey [00:12:02]:
That's cool. I can't think of all the accolades that you've had over your career, and I'm sure we can talk about those for days but first let's talk about maybe the biggest failure that you've ever had and what you learned from it.
Wylie Dufresne [00:12:18]:
I would say that the thing I've struggled with the most is the intersection of art and commerce. I think that the best restaurateurs have done that, and I think that for me, there were certainly times when I cared more about art than commerce.
And again, I think there, there were times when I had blinders on about trying to find that intersection. And I think as I've gotten older and wiser, hopefully, I'm getting closer to that intersection, that Venn diagram where those two things exist.
How many of you saw the very recent announcement by Rene Redzepi of Noma that he's choosing after 20 years to close? I think if you parse through that and just kind of look at the very big picture of it, I think some of it is probably him not saying this, but maybe he's just exhausted because fine dining is an exhausting process. But as he pointed out, it's expensive.
You know, it was expensive. And I think that finding that intersection is challenging. I don't regret deciding art over commerce, but I think that sometimes I did it to my own detriment, if that makes sense. So I think failure is a tough word because I think that I have benefited from that decision on some levels, but I think in other ways I wish I had done a better job.
I wish I had been more willing - I'm not saying compromising. I don't wish that I had compromised because I don't wish that I had compromised. I wish that I had worked a little bit harder. A little bit more thoughtfully at trying to find a sweeter spot for those two. Yeah, and I'm hoping that maybe I'm doing that now with pizza.
To sort of pull a tentacle on that, how do you now think about balancing the mind of Wiley, what you truly want to do versus what a customer expects?
Wylie Dufresne [00:14:26]:
I think sometimes that can be challenging because a lot of the art that people make is for themselves. And it's not to say I don't care what you want to eat, but it's also to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about this and I'd really love for you to try it. And you know it's fine that you want a salad, but I don't know that I'm the guy to make it for you tonight. There's nothing wrong with salad. I'm not sure exactly why you're here if you want a salad. I'm really trying not to fuck up pizza by over-Wileying pizza because I'm old.
Josh Sharkey [00:15:14]:
You know, sometimes I think about the importance of timing in business and you were put in a position where you asked to compromise with wd because that restaurant didn't exist, but then you opened up a window where that type of restaurant becomes ubiquitous and others aren't asked to compromise. So maybe it's less of a question of whether you should have compromised more, but did you sort of suffer so that others didn't have to?
Wylie Dufresne [00:15:42]:
Ah, that's hard for me too. I did not feel like I was suffering. Don't feel bad for me. I enjoyed every minute. I mean, if we're gonna specifically focus on wd~50 as the most extreme example, because I think as I've gone from wd~50 to Alder, to donuts, to pizza, I've sort of tried to come in from out in the cold and land a little bit more centric, but I loved it over here.
I was happy as a clam, you know what I mean? If going to work in a restaurant of that nature, of that caliber, is like pushing the rock. You know, if we talk about Sisyphus? He pushes the rock up every day and he wakes up in the morning and the rocks at the bottom of the hill. You know, many people will say, what's the classic?
I was a philosophy student in college. So there's a classic argument "what's the point?" Well, the point is, imagine if you love pushing that rock up the hill. Imagine if you find an insane amount of joy pushing that rock up the hill, then it's not so bad and it's not really a rock. There's no hill.
To do what you like to do, that's a great luxury, right? Not everybody has the luxury of doing something that they love to do. It's easy for me to say, "do what you love." But there's a lot more in a person's life that I couldn't possibly understand that would make them decide to do something that they don't love to do.
People have children, houses, and mortgages - there are reasons why you do things that you have to, that don't always allow you to do what you love. But if you have the opportunity, whether you like licking stamps, working in a toll booth, throwing a baseball, or working at meez, whatever you do. I would want the people that come to wd~50, Stretch or Alder, or wherever to love what they do.
It's a different paradigm now, and there are so many more restaurants than there were when you and I started. And I think you and I come from a world where the only people that were there were the people that loved it. And it's hard sometimes for people to see when there are moments of brutality or moments of, yes, we could all do better.
Restaurants are without question broken in many ways - about how they treat people and things like that. But they're also full of people that love every moment of it. And I think that that's not something that's often part of the conversation. And we can always, without question, do better. There are a thousand moments I wish I could have back.
But there are 10,000 moments of, you know, joy and happiness and, I very much loved the process. The fact that I wasn't able to always find the intersection of art and commerce and some of that other stuff. But for me, I wasn't going to compromise. I wasn't going to do that. You know, maybe I should blame my parents for that, but that wasn't an option really. We're gonna stay the course.
Josh Sharkey [00:18:31]:
Speaking of paradigms, you created a new paradigm of cooking in my opinion, when you opened WD. I remember when I staged there in 2003. I think you had just opened before I started working, or after working at Bouley.
Everything was new. I mean, the techniques were the same, right? But everything we saw was new. Everything was so creative and ideas that we just never thought of as chefs. And there was this creativity that we had never seen before, and you had an incredible team of technically proficient chefs and cooks.
And you are known as a cook's cook because you are technically incredible at cooking. But there was a culture of creativity there that just hadn't existed before. And clearly, the cooks that you brought didn't have that innately, fully in them when they came.
So I wanted to talk a little bit about creating that culture of creativity. And first off, we got a question from someone on the team that I thought was awesome. Just can you teach creativity?
Wylie Dufresne [00:19:35]:
No, but my mother said this to me once. She said, "You can't say, okay, today's Tuesday. I'm gonna wake up and I'm gonna be creative." You can't plan to be creative, but you can plan for creativity. You can hunt for creativity and go after creativity. I know for a fact that a lot of my curiosity is part of finding your way to creativity. I think part of being creative is being curious. It comes from my parents and them encouraging me to ask questions.
And so that is kind of in a nutshell what I do. I ask questions a lot. And we tried to set up a place that wasn't just for the cooks. It was for everybody that worked there. And it was for anybody that wanted to dine there.
We were creating a place where you could continue your culinary education. Everybody was welcome to be part of the process. Again, it's a team sport and I keep going back to that. It's a team sport. Sure. The buck has to stop with somebody. Right. And I get that, but let's be clear, right? No great creative endeavor in the history of the world is the work of one person.
There were four Beatles. You know, one guy didn't paint the Sistine Chapel. It's a bunch of people that contribute to a process. There probably are a few exceptions. Stephen King maybe sits up there in his log cabin and writes books all by himself, but it's a team sport.
So what we wanted to do was build a place where we could continue our culinary education, where we could continue to ask questions about everything. So cooking is something that, it turns out, we as cooks don't know much about. We just don't know that much about it. We've been cooking really good food for a really long time. But we don't really know why we do what we do, right? We just don't know what's happening to our food when we cook it. We don't know the answers to those questions. We have not known the answers to those questions ever. And so when you step back and you say, "Well, if I want to know the answers to those things, then I can control the process a little bit, right?"
So, what is cooking? You step back. What is cooking? Well, cooking is certainly a little bit of physics. It's certainly a little bit of biology, but it's a lot of chemistry. It's chemistry. It's a series of chemical goings on over and over and over and over again. But that's not ever part of your training. That's not part of anybody's culinary training. So we realized, I realized early on that, you're gonna have to go outside your traditional methods of understanding. Once you realize that cooking is a science, and we're not scientists and not trained as such, you need to go find the people that are. It turns out that there are lots of people out there that know a lot about food.
So that's what we did. We began to establish relationships with those people that can explain things to us. And so my job was to go out there and get that information, bring it in, and disseminate it to the team so that they could do things with it. But that's just one aspect of running a restaurant.
You know, you've also got floor staff, you've got customers, and so we wanted to create this place where anybody that wanted to continue their ongoing culinary education would have a place to do that. To me, what's so great about cooking is that you'll never learn it all.
If you're interested in learning, it's an opportunity to learn forever. Who's going to say, "Well, okay, we're done learning guys. Like, that's good. We're good. We've got enough. We'll hit the breaks. Learning's over. Let's go back to being dumb." No, so that was what it was. It was a place where you could continue your culinary education - this journey.
And we needed everybody's input to make it special, to make it unique. And then we wanted your buy-in too. We wanted you to come and say, "You know what? Tonight I feel like going on a journey" or "Tonight, you know, we're four investment bankers and we just sacked the city and we just want some borello and steaks.
Okay, we'll do that for you too. But we'd love to take you on this fun journey. It was our job to figure out where you wanted to enter and, and what you wanted, how deep you wanted to go. But that's what we wanted - to build this place where we can go and have an experience and where the cooks, the front of staff, everybody that was involved. You know, if the dishwasher said, "Chef, I have an idea on how we can make this process better." Great. I want to hear it. I want to hear it.
Josh Sharkey [00:23:29]:
The underlying thread I hear across all that is that it's almost not even about creating a culture of creativity but a culture of curiosity. It sounds to me like the birth of a lot of the ideas, or the innovation you have, starts with a question like, "Why are we doing this?"
Wylie Dufresne [00:23:45]:
It starts with a question. It starts with creating a place where people feel comfortable saying, "I have an idea" or "I have a question." It's really important to let everybody know. I'm sure all of you have tons of great ideas. And some of you are better than others at saying, Hey, I have an idea, but some people are incredibly anxious about bringing their ideas to the table. So it's about trying to create a place where they feel encouraged, where they don't feel intimidated, where they can come and say, "Hey, I want to make bagel-flavored ice cream." Great. That sounds amazing.
Why didn't I think of that? You know, go get some bagels. And then someone else says, "Hey, I got an idea. If we take the ice cream and we put it in a tiny little mold that's round, it'll look like a bagel." And then if someone else says, "If you buy me that airbrush I've been asking you for, we can airbrush it with some brown and some black, sprinkle some everything bagel seeds on it, and it'll look like a bagel, but it'll be ice cream." And then someone else says, "Hey, you remember that thing we were doing before where we were taking cream cheese and drying it out? Bagels are good with cream cheese." And then someone else says, "Well, remember that salmon that you had to stir for 7 million hours in a pot till it looked like fiberglass?" Don’t put that back on the menu, please.
And I would say, yeah, I remember that. And they say, "Well, bagels are great with salmon and cream cheese." And then suddenly now you have a bagel. It's normally crunchy, but it's creamy and it's ice cream, but it looks like a bagel. And you've got the cream cheese that is normally creamy but it's crunchy. You've got this weird salmon, well who knows what the hell it is.
And like six different people took an idea and marched it down a road and everybody feels better because everybody made the idea better. It's the same way I think about the hospital and the doctors that go on rounds. Don't you want them all to agree on the best way to heal you? If they're all like, "I have no idea what to do with that guy." You're like, "That guy is screwed." But if everyone's like, "He just needs more vitamin C and he'll be fine." It's about creating this environment where everybody feels as if they have an idea and they're allowed to say something.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:02]:
Was there any sort of filter to these ideas or any boundaries when someone came?
Wylie Dufresne [00:26:07]:
There were a couple of us that were the ultimate arbiter. And not every idea is good, or complete. You can take that idea, and as someone who's more experienced in the process, say you're onto something. If we turn the dial a couple of clicks this way, then that might be how we can move it. And that person can still feel like they were part of it.
I would go and get an ingredient like sake lees. I don't know if you guys know what sake lees is, but when they make sake, which is wine made from rice, they press it. And when they're done, it's just this mush of delicious, fermented, weird stuff that in 2004 nobody was using. Our sake guys had tons of it.
And I was like, this stuff looks great. What do we do with it? So I gave a bag of it to Mario Cardone and Mario said, can we make pasta out of it? Sure, why not. Go figure it out. And Mario came back and he said, I've made this pasta and it was delicious. And then we built linguini and clams out of sake lees. And then we took kimchi that we were buying at the green market. You know, cause you put chili flakes in linguini clams, and we took kimchi and we spread 'em out and dehydrated it and covered the whole bowl of pasta and these sheets of kimchi.
And you broke it up, and like a dish was born. I think that was the first dish Mario ever created on his own, you know? And it makes people feel good. We had to help that dish find its way. But it started with me saying "what can you do with this? Here's an ingredient, what can you do with it?"
Josh Sharkey [00:27:58]:
That's cool. Do you ever find that you have to kill an idea? And if so, how does that happen?
Wylie Dufresne: [00:28:18]:
I mean, you have to kill an idea when it's not delicious. And I was real stubborn about things. If someone said, "I don't like that dish," I was like, "Then it's going on the menu." But that's not always the best approach. You don't always have to poke the bear. Or you kill an idea and people go, "Why did you take that off the menu? It's eggs benedict." It was a dish that we had on the menu that was every component of eggs benedict but inverted and turned on itself with the crux of it being deep-fried hollandaise. The dish was built around the fact that we figured out how to deep-fry hollandaise.
Josh Sharkey: [00:28:47]:
Side note, Sergio, I ate that dish with you for the first time with Graham Elliot Bowles.
Wylie Dufresne: [00:28:51]:
Yeah. And there's a long story about it. Please, if all of you can buy the book, you'd be the only 25 people that bought it. That would be great. The story behind it. We built the dish around the hollandaise. And we made it for a really long time and I just got tired of making it. It felt like every night someone wanted me to play the song remains the same. I was like, "I just don't wanna play that song anymore." We took it off the menu and people freaked out. I'm okay. with disappointing you, which is probably a mistake or a defect that I have, but I'm okay doing that. But it was more like people would come up to me and say, "You know, I came all the way from Australia and I really wanted to try that." And that worked, so I put it back on the menu. So I killed the idea and it was a bad idea. So I killed one of my children and I brought it back to life.
Obviously, you change the menu often. We're a technology company and we're constantly iterating and tweaking, and I'd love to sort of dig into what your process of iteration is like. When does something feel done that it goes on the menu? And how much iteration happens before that?
Wylie Dufresne [00:30:03]:
I mean, sometimes a blind squirrel finds a nut and you get lucky, and that process doesn't take long. Like, we sometimes will have ideas that come together quickly, and then sometimes we'll have ideas, like figuring out how to deep fry hollandaise, that took a really long time. It probably took three months, three and a half months to figure that out.
While we were working on how to do it, we weren't thinking about what we would do with it once we figured it out, which was a lesson learned. I just got fixated on the idea. I don't want to bore you, but previous to frying hollandaise, we had fried mayonnaise and we'd built a dish around frying mayonnaise. It was basically just a sandwich. It was like a BLT with mayo. And then we put that frying of mayonnaise to bed. A couple of years later, because that's sometimes what has to happen, right? You're like, okay, we've done that and it took the dish off the menu and, and we had fun with it.
meez is born out of the kitchen notebook idea if I'm not mistaken. And so I too have an endless, ridiculous number of shoe boxes filled with waterproof notebooks. And we used to give every cook a waterproof notebook. I should have thought about that and a waterproof pen when they started. So that they could write all the recipes down. And if it were to get wet, obviously that would be okay. And every now and then, it would be fun to walk by and grab a cook's notebook out of their pocket and throw a pot of water and watch their expression because they had used a pencil.
But, it would be like going back to a notebook and constantly having ideas. Now I do it on my phone versus in a notebook. And you go back and you just look at an idea. And somewhere, I came across the idea of deep-fried hollandaise. And because it had been a couple of years since we had done deep-fried mayonnaise, we'd learned a bunch of things, so we tried it. But during that process, we didn't really think about the dish.
So it's live on the menu. Is there a process of customer feedback that you're getting to then tweak it further? Or is it by that point, is it just done?
Wylie Dufresne [00:32:11]:
It's not so much customer feedback for tweaking it because by then we've tasted a lot and we believe that it tastes good. And we're pretty comfortable with the way it tastes and we think it's good, But what happens is a lot of the tweaking comes from the cooks because cooks are great observers. They're doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over again. And they're noticing, they're thinking because they're been empowered. They're seeing that maybe the hollandaise is blowing out in the fryer.
And I don't like getting yelled at for the hollandaise blowing out. So I'm going to solve this problem, but what am I gonna do? Let's try breading it three times instead of twice. Let's try freezing it. Let's try freezing it and then frying it. Aha. We froze it. We fried from frozen. We put it in the oven. It stopped blowing out. But that wasn't how it was conceived. It was cooks trying something over and over again. They're actually generally trying to make something better, and I think that that's how great kitchens work because whatever it is this cook is doing, they're doing it over and over and over again every day, all night.
And so they are inherently thinking of ways to do it quicker, faster, better, better results. And so they're coming to you. There's no right or wrong way to poach an egg to do anything right. But if you understand what's happening, the science, if you understand the variables, then you can begin to turn the knob to the left, two clicks, to the right four clicks, and try to get different outcomes.
You know, and that's what I was trying to do, is trying to give people the knowledge, the understanding of what the clicks would do so that you go turn the clicks, you go and try it, and you come back to me and say "Hey, you know, we cooked this egg for like two more minutes. I kind of like the way the texture is great." Let's try it. Let's see it. But at some point, it goes on the menu. At some point, like most of that work is done. Most of that R&D is done. And so then it's a fine tune that goes on forever.
Josh Sharkey [00:34:22]:
I think something really interesting for the group here - obviously, this is the meez team and we have a recipe technology company - when you think about creating food in a kitchen. It isn't just, does it taste good, right? You have to actually be able to execute it every single day in the kitchen that you're in. And then maybe you have two kitchens then, right? And so the thing that you're cooking is, you know the combi oven that you're using, is there a different water pressure, right?
Is there more humidity on this side of the kitchen you're making something and you need to adjust the recipe. And so a dish isn't just about. The right amount of salt, the right amount of sugar, it's what station is it coming off of? You know, who's gonna execute this thing? What, you know, what does my kitchen allow me to do with this? And I think that's a really great lesson for us, you know, when we're thinking about how we're helping chefs because you know, there's a lot more than just coming up with good food in a kitchen.
Wylie Dufresne [00:35:13]:
Some techniques were just too hard to execute. We had this one dish where he figured out if you took egg whites and you blended them for a long time until they got, you know, egg whites are gross. Right? They're kind of snotty and weird and if you blend them for a while, they get loose, season them, you put them in an eyedropper and you set a pan, a very shallow frying pan on the stove, and you just started dropping the egg whites into the water.
You get these little perfect circles of egg white, which is cool, right? Because you could then scoop them out and you could have egg whites in the round. But if you just let them sit and you just kept doing it and doing and doing it in the pan, it looked like the surface of the moon or FRP, like pebbly FRP, which is not delicious, I don't think It's wall paneling. But it looked like the surface of the moon, and then you picked it up and it was this egg white that was very tender, but it had this crazy texture and you could roll things in it. We did this thing for a book where we took the egg yolk from the eggs benedict, and we put it in the whites and we rolled it up and we cut it, and it was this beautiful hard-boiled egg.
It took me like three hours to make five. I tried for days and days to figure out how to do it, and I was like, we just can't do this. Now, maybe in a different world, maybe in an El Bulli or Noma, they could allocate three people to do that for five hours, but that was what was different for us. We were a small brigade compared to all these other places. We were a small team. We were at our biggest, we were like 13, which is not a lot for fine dining. We were doing all these wonky techniques that don't exist anywhere. And there was nothing I could buy that would make egg white sheets faster because they didn't exist.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:03]:
I'm sure it's a common problem. It's also a parallel, I think, with cooking and technology that some innovation is blocked by just viability and economics. Like we could build lots of other cool technologies, but like, you know, in how much time with how many developers and how much will it cost us and how much will people actually pay for it? It's the same thing in the kitchen. You can come up with ideas, 10 x more, you know, complicated and fun than that. But if you can't execute them every day, it doesn't really matter.
Yeah, if you can't sell them. I mean we were lucky enough at one time to work with a really crazy, smart, interesting group at Mars. Everyone knows M&M Mars, right? And, this group of people was instrumental in introducing us to a lot of really, really cool stuff early on in the history of wd~50. It was someone my father met at a cocktail party that worked at Mars and this weird connection was born.
Next thing you know, I'm driving in a car out to a part of New Jersey where M&M Mars has one of their factories. And I tell you, it's nuts. You get 10 miles away and it's like, all you smell is chocolate. It's like out of a movie. And you're like, I'm definitely getting closer. You know? And you get there and there's a room full of little tiny cement mixers where they're making M&Ms in a million colors and they're panning chocolates, right?
We developed this relationship and they were really instrumental in helping us with a lot of really cool stuff. And I said to them once, wouldn't it be neat if you could make a liquid center? Wouldn't you want an M&M that was liquid? Doesn't that sound delicious? Right. Like, oh yeah, we can do that. I was like, "Well, what are you waiting for?" They're like, oh, we already know that we can't sell X bajillion units of it, so it just sits over there and we can't. You're like, but ah, liquid center m and m's. Your brain would melt if you had a liquid center.
But like with your point, there's more to it than just a great idea. A great idea has to have viability. The egg was a great idea that I couldn't actually do. The brilliant minds of M&M Mars could make the liquid center, but they knew it wouldn't be a big hit, so they put it on the shelf.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:20]:
Our CTO, Mary Lee, is glowing right now.
Did she have the same idea for a liquid center M&M?
Josh Sharkey [00:39:24]:
She would probably eat a thousand M&Ms. She's a fanatic for chocolate. But also, she has to build every idea that we have. Well, I'm going to skip around a bit. Talking about meez, we recently released a feature that allows you to calculate the percentage of ingredients, both in the standard percent and the baker's percent. So I want to talk about why calculating the percentage of ingredients is so important for cooking. And we do have at least one baker in the audience. So maybe we could talk a little bit about your thoughts on baker's percent versus standard percent.
Wylie Dufresne [00:40:18]:
I would say it goes without saying because very few people it would appear are that curious about the percentages of ingredients within the relationship to each other, but more often than not, from my perspective, cooking includes a lot of functional ingredients. So things like flour serve a function. Understanding how much of that ingredient is in there allows you to understand. If cooking is about turning the dial or moving the lever, if you don't understand how much of that ingredient is in there, how can you understand how to turn the dial?
Wylie Dufresne [00:40:58]:
I mean, there are cooks here and probably everywhere that when you ask them, what's the basic amount of salt that you would put in a dish? They might say it's around 1%, generally 1%. That's a golden rule, right? For the amount of salt that you start, the baseline is 1% in something, right? It's not unilateral. You're looking at me like you wanna disagree with me? You're welcome to disagree with me. I've admittedly created a forum where people are allowed to disagree with me.
Josh Sharkey [00:41:29]:
Let's go with it - 1%.
Wylie Dufresne [00:41:34]:
But generally speaking, it's not the same thing across the board. That's probably high for ice cream, right? That's the most functional. That's an important number, right? Oversalted food is a bummer. Undersalted food is a bigger bummer. So why not understand how all the ingredients play together?
Look, not everybody has to use xanthan gum, right? Not everybody has to use those kinds of functional ingredients, but I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone just put a pinch of xanthan gum in something. That's crazy, okay? Because that's not how that works. When something is used in tenths of a percent, you have no idea what you're doing.
You can't control the outcome. And again, for me, if you want to control the outcome, which is I think what cooking is, if you don't know how the ingredients play to each other, how can I possibly intelligently play a part in controlling the outcome? Now, baker's percentages are weird.
Baker's percent doesn't help you unless you're on a desert island and the only thing you have is a coconut shell and flour. Why would you base everything off the flour? Because it's a truly random way of conceiving a recipe, unless you're talking about a pound cake, which is a pound of butter, a pound of sugar, a pound of eggs, a pound of flour, right? And I'm sure you don't make your pound cake anymore, but that's how pound cake was invented, right? It's a pound of four things. You know the French called it four pounds.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:10]:
For the group, standard percent is the percentage of the ingredients relative to all the ingredients and their total weight.
Wylie Dufresne [00:43:19] :
The total weight of the thing and how much each ingredient weighs and what its percentages is in relation to the total weight. Baker's percent is when you base everything off the weight of the flour because it's the largest amount.
Josh Sharkey [00:43:33] :
Well, and to be fair and help Ursula for one minute, we sometimes use baker's percent for charcuterie. So for example, if we are making a sausage and we use, you know, pork belly and pork shoulder, and then everything else is relative to the weight of that. So a quarter percent of nitrate relative to the total amount of meat. There's that part of baker's percent as well.
Wylie Dufresne [00:43:58]:
Also silly. Good for you. Congratulations. You're not learning.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:05]:
Well, I mean, I think of meat, you know, like when I season a piece of meat and how much salt goes into that meat. But your point is that, well, there's that salt in the meat, but then I add sugar to that meat, or I add acid to that meat, and then that changes that percent.
Wylie Dufresne [00:44:23]:
Sure, I'm opening a pizzeria and all everybody wants to talk about is, "what is your hydration?" So I like to say it's 35%, because then their brain goes outside of their head since that doesn't make any sense. But why are we talking about the amount of water that's in your dough in relation to the amount of flour?
Both of those things are functional ingredients, so understanding how they relate to each other is important. But how they relate to each other is actually part of how they all relate to each other. And, that might sound simple and that might sound petty, and it's not worth more than a few minutes talking about it. It's not helping me learn how the ingredients are in relation to each other.
So it's not helping me make good decisions about how to make it better. And that's all I want. I want all the information in a way that allows me to make it better. And yes, we can all work with Baker's percent and make things better because you just use that as a baseline, and you're just saying, okay, well if my hydration for my pizza dough is 64%, let me try 62 and let me try 66, let me try 68. And if I don't like the results, I can tweak it. But at the end of the day, it's a more effective, holistic approach to cooking if you understand the whole thing. I don't mean to be cruel because that's not the point.
Wylie Dufresne [00:45:41]:
I do find it simply doesn't make sense. For instance, when people in General Mills, when all the food scientists are developing your Cheerios and stuff, they want the full percentages of the total weight because they want to understand how to fine-tune the end result. And you can fine-tune the end result with either thing.
Wylie Dufresne: [00:45:59]:
It just strikes me as odd wouldn't you start with how much does a whole thing weigh and then back out the amount of each thing? That's all.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:07]:
So it's a big handicap to truly like iterating on a recipe and understanding what each ingredient does, but it's a big crutch if you just wanna wrap your head around what goes into bread.
Wylie Dufresne: [00:46:19]:
Again, for me, it's interesting to understand how when I was making donut glaze and all of a sudden I'm like, wait a minute, 72% of a donut glaze is sugar. Fuck. Wow. And I'm like railing against soda. Like I have no business doing that, you know? And that's, I should have gone to Baker's Percent because there's a lot less sugar.
One thing I've learned is that at some point, don't buck the system. Right? I hated molecular gastronomy for years. It doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense, right? Like if it's Friday night and you're going out for dinner, "Honey, do you wanna go out for Chinese or Thai, or should we have molecular gastronomy?"
Does that sound delicious? Are you ever gonna pick molecular? "I could go for some molecular astronomy tonight. I've been thinking about it all day." No, never. Never once has that ever happened.
Josh Sharkey [00:47:22] :
We crave sodium amalgamate at least once a week.
Wylie Dufresne [00:47:52]:
I used to hate the term. I used to hate it, and I used to say, that's awful, that's stupid. It's a field of actual scientific study - molecular gastronomy - so that does a disservice to the molecular gastronomist the same way calling a molecular gastronomist a chef is a disservice. It's like, you know, you would never say, what do you do for a living? I'm a biologist. No, you're a chef. That's what you are.
So I hated it, but at some point I was like, you're being silly. Right? It's a term. It's working. People know what they're getting into now at this point. We call it modern. We'll call it whatever you want. Now. It's part of the vernacular, so just let it go, you know? Hopefully, that's what comes with being a little bit older and wise and certainly more mature. You let that go.
Wylie Dufresne [00:48:32]:
And that's how I feel about baker's percent. It's cruel for me to sit up here and say Baker's percent is stupid. You know, it's more fun to do that with people. Don't take it the wrong way, because I don't want you to feel bad, but I do want to poke fun at bakers that are too serious and take their sourdough the way they do because you should get out and see some sun.
So moving on. Let's actually just shift topics and talk a little bit about execution. So I remember the first time I met you again, it was 20 years? No, it was almost 20 years ago. 2003. You were making a dish with baby Romaine. It was braised baby romaine, I believe. And you brought a case out on the line. You were working on hot apps and you must have gone through 19 pieces of baby romaine before you picked the one that you were going to use to cook.
And I just remember thinking why is it that one and not that one and not that one too? You have incredibly high standards and obviously it's difficult to promulgate that to an entire team all day, every day. So how do you inject those standards into your team when you're not on the line? How do you make sure that the team that's working with you has those same standards when you're not there? And yes, I know you work like every day, so maybe that's not an excuse.
Wylie Dufrene [00:50:14]:
I think that that is about creating an environment where people feel invested in the outcome. You know, again, it's a team sport. The idea is that we all win and we all win if the people have a good experience that come to the restaurant. And it's creating an environment where people feel invested in the process. And I think there are a lot of steps along the way to making people feel valued. And that's how you treat them.
That's the environment you create. And by that I mean things like making a good staff meal, being democratic about the music that we listen to, and that everybody gets to play their music no matter how bad it is. You know, I don't play my music. I don't drive people crazy with the music I like to listen to.
But you know, I don't think that you can undervalue creating a culture and creating an environment. Creating that culture is what gets people to care. You know, like I remember stories of people working for Joël Robuchon, one of the greatest chefs ever. But he's also one of the most brutal chefs ever and was notorious for making the garbage bags clear in his restaurant so he could see what people were throwing out.
And that seems like the wrong approach, right? That seems like you don't trust your staff. That seems like you're obviously looking for trouble. You know, managing through fear like that doesn't seem great to me. I think again, there are all these steps along the way to create an environment where people can feel valued and respected, and it's just the environment.
Yes, I was far from perfect. And we have these moments that I wish I could take back. But you know, I think running around the block is good for esprit de cor. I mean that's a story where I don't even remember to be honest how the dare of racing around the block came about.
So Kurt spoke and said he could beat me in a foot race around the block. And you know, it started for Kurt but I had a better understanding of the lay of the land, and as we went around one of the blocks, there was an alley and Kurt foolishly turned into the alley. Not recognizing that blocks are longer than that, which allowed me to pass him. But ultimately, through sheer grit and determination, he beat me. But like those moments when the whole staff is out on the street having a chuckle and the chef loses and everybody's happy. Like, that's team building in the best possible way. You know, that's good for everybody.
That was fun. I mean, to the best of my knowledge, I don't think it left any deep scars on Kurt. But that's about creating a place where all that can happen. Creating an environment where it's okay to talk shit to the chef like that. To me, that's how you get people to care about what they're putting on the plate when you’re not there.
You build an environment where everybody feels like, if this thing succeeds, I'm gonna be a part of making it succeed. And it feels good that I was part of making this place succeed. I'm not just someone that's stuck in the corner making noodles out of shrimp. I'm part of something bigger and better, and I feel good when I see what this is.
And I feel when I look back at the story of wd~50, we set out and we achieved most of the goals that I had aspired towards. And so I feel good about the arc of the restaurant and people ask me, what do you miss the most? And I miss the people. I miss the people that we did it with.
You know, every year on New Year's. It's the longest day of the year if you're a cook. You work forever. But then we would go out for like five or six hours together after spending 16 hours working together, we would then go out and do more stuff. And you spend 24 hours with people. There's "Oh, I spend more time with you than with my real family" but there's truth to that.
And so, if you do it in a way that is respectful of everybody and you can have fun, again, I have to be careful 'cause I keep repeating myself as I do in my old age. But it's about creating a culture. It's about creating a place where people feel valued and so when they feel valued, they will do the right thing when they're not being watched. That's pretty simple in a way.
Josh Sharkey [00:54:45]:
I mean, I think some of the top down, at least for me, from getting to know you more is just as accomplished as you are, and as serious as you are about it, you're one of the most humble people I've ever met. And I think that resonates with cooks.
I think there's a saying in the culinary world that one of the best signs of a great chef is the chefs that came after him through his kitchen. And there are just so many chefs that were part of your kitchen. And I'm curious, you know, you clearly create this environment of fun and openness and transparency and meritocracy, but how much of that is also picking the right people versus the culture that you're creating?
Wylie Dufresne [00:55:31]:
I mean, you can try your best to pick the right people, but I think in a kitchen when you hire somebody, you don't spend a ton of time with those people before you take a chance on them. You might come for a day or two and then you say, okay, I think this person's gonna be right for us. There might be times in the arc of a restaurant where we don't have a lot of choices and you need people.
Someone's leaving. Multiple people leaving. I never liked the saying, "I'll take a warm body.” I never liked that because that doesn't feel right. But there are times when you're kind of like, this is a person I have, I'm going to take this person. And you know, at the end of the day, it's not about making sure that it's a great fit. It's about making them fit, you know? I mean, you have to like them, but I think over time people can say, "Wow, I kind of like what's going on here. I want to be on board with what's going on here."
Josh Sharkey [00:56:30]:
Thanks for tuning into The meez podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the Song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For more, visit getmeez.com/podcast. That's G-E-T-M- E-E-Z dot com slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you can share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
Keep innovating. Don't settle. Make today a little better than yesterday. And remember, it's impossible for us to learn what we think we already know.
See you next time.