Chef Shots: Wylie Dufresne
wd-50’s mad scientist shows us the genesis of his ice cream bagel
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Don’t call James Beard–nominated chef Wylie Dufresne a molecular gastronomist. You’ll piss him off. Although Dufresne does use a multitude of advanced scientific techniques to produce both playful variations on traditional dishes and wacky new food pairings at his acclaimed Lower East Side restaurant, wd-50, he’d rather be called a “New American” chef. Or maybe just a “chef.”
“I’m not a scientist,” he says, adding that the term “molecular gastronomy” was coined to describe the work that food scientists do. “It doesn’t sound delicious. What does it even mean? Are there guys in lab coats electrocuting bunnies?” (Thankfully, no.)
With that issue resolved, the chef/non-scientist walked us through the genesis of a recent creation: an artful riff on the classic New York everything bagel. Here, the old-time deli staple will be frozen, flaked, dried and pickled before Dufresne is through. What’s left is a playful, provocative version of its former self.
It may look like a bagel, but this sprinkled mound is anything but dense and chewy. It’s actually bagel-flavored ice cream, and it’s just one of the ways Dufresne plays with the ingredients of the quintessential morning staple: a bagel with cream cheese, lox, sliced onions and a squeeze of lemon.
Like most of the dishes on the wd-50 menu, textures have been altered and basic components rearranged to render a dish that is playful and provocative. Yes, Virginia, it is a bagel, but not as we know it.
As with many of the world’s famous culinary classics, this dish was created in the wake of leftover food: An old menu item was changed, and amuse bouche line cook Sam Henderson was left with a surplus of trout threads (known in Japanese as furikake), so she tried smoking them. Then she had a light-bulb moment: Why not smoke some salmon furikake and present it with a bagel to make a Lower East Side favorite—the bagel with lox?
Although you can find commercially made furikake in Japanese food stores, Dufresne uses an old Japanese technique to prepare his own. After poaching salmon until it’s well done, he shreds it by hand and cooks with mirin, sake and soy, on medium heat for about 45 minutes, in a heavy-bottomed pan, until the fish breaks up into light, airy threads.
The salmon threads are then smoked, using a small box smoker (nowhere near as cool as the hand-held smoking gun that “Top Chef” competitor Richard Blais used in Season 4).
Although this bagel had humble beginnings as a mere scoop of bagel-flavored ice cream, some friendly kitchen one-upmanship turned its presentation into something far superior. “Alex [Stupak], the pastry chef, joked that we should put it in a savarin mold, pop it out, airbrush it to look like a bagel,” laughs Dufresne. “So, I called his bluff. I said, ‘Do it.’ He said we didn’t have a savarin mold, and we didn’t have an airbrush. So, I bought one right away.”
As it turned out, chef Stupak had been jonesing for an airbrush to experiment with, anyway. His first attempts at shading the bagel with caramel color produced patchy results, but then he hit the mark. Notes Dufresne: “Suddenly we said ‘Wait a minute, it looks just like a bagel!’ But it looked like a plain bagel.” And clearly, Dufresne wanted everything on it.
“At that point I said that we should roll it in the things that are on the outside of an everything bagel: poppy seeds and sesame seeds, with bits of onion and stuff,” he says. “We did that and it was quite successful. It looked great.”
You won’t find the Everything Bagel on wd-50’s menu because it’s a tricky one to plate. If a table ordered eight of them, the kitchen would be hard-pressed to finish the eighth plate without the first one melting. “We have to pick and choose how and when we serve it,” Dufresne says, “which is why we haven’t committed to putting it on the menu.” But it’s sent as an amuse bouche to some tables, and to VIPs or special guests every night.
“This dish is obviously a nod to the neighborhood [and] the community,” the chef notes. “A bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onion and chives? It’s the classic New York Sunday brunch.”
The bagel ice cream is made by toasting everything bagels, crushing them and then steeping in milk. Once the milk is infused with the bagel flavor, the mixture is strained, mixed with cream, egg yolks, sugar, glucose sugar and guar gum, which “makes for a very creamy, round mouth feel,” he adds.
Once the smoked salmon and “bagel” were in the works, Dufresne knew that adding cream cheese would be the next logical step. “Since we already had a creamy, soft element, [I said], let’s see if we can make the cream cheese crispy.”
So Dufresne fashioned flat shards by combining cream cheese with water, salt and methylcellulose (a white powder known to molecular gastronomists as “A4M”), which works as a “substrate,” explains Dufresne. “We then spread it out and dry it in a low oven so that when most of the moisture flashes off, you’re left with a chip of cream cheese.”
To round out the flavors, Dufresne turned to the humble onion. “We didn’t want to serve raw red onion because that can be aggressive,” he says. “So we took red pearl onions and we pickled them.” In this case, Dufresne soaks red pearl onions in a mix of water, red wine vinegar and sugar.
It may look like clover, but what Dufresne is adding here (click on picture, right, to enlarge) is actually the lemony herb known as wood sorrel—a perfect stand-in for the classic bagel’s lemon wedge. “I could use something like chives,” he says, “but wood sorrel happens to be in season right now. It has a nice sort of heat and bite to it, a little acidity. It plays off everything and ties it all together nicely.”
As the components of the dish come together, Dufresne reflects on how, ultimately, the whole process personifies wd-50. “It’s important to me, that it’s a group effort,” he says. “It’s not just me, coming in and saying, ‘OK guys, today we do this.’ It’s more like I’m the conductor of the orchestra.”
As for the dish that started off as just a scoop of ice cream? “It grew in a number of different ways, and I think it is great that people are now recognizing that food can be considered an art form,” he says. “It’s important to be playful. It’s important to have fun. We’re not curing cancer. We are making dinner. So, why can’t we have some fun in the process?”