"On the Trail with Wylie" is included in my book, Hot Dog Taste Test, and was originally published in Lucky Peach magazine. This piece won a James Beard Award for best humor writing in 2014.
On the trail with Wylie
I have official permission to shadow Wylie Dufresne and his staff for an entire day at his Lower East Side restaurant wd~50, and I’m VERY excited. I hope they feed me.
12:10 p.m.: Wylie Dufresne rushes into wd~50, makes himself a huge milky iced coffee and drinks it out of a tupperware soup container. Giant drink for a giant man. If Wylie doesn’t go as “sexy Ben Franklin” for Halloween every year, that’s a fucking waste.
12:30: Wylie demonstrates how to say “behind you” when nearing another human to avoid getting scalded or bumped into. There’s also an enforced traffic flow to the kitchen aisles and work stations. I want to apply this sense of order in my own apartment and life.
There are tons of ingredients on the wall, very few of which seem edible.
12:45: One of the cooks, Simone, is cutting logs of meat into pieces and putting them into a meat drawer. I know the drawers are refrigerated but the thought of throwing meats casually into a drawer is funny to me.
1:15: Wylie cooks a little lunch for us. American cheese — scrambled eggs — butter — english muffins. He eats slices of American cheese while he cooks.
I point to the last piece of egg muffin, “Can I finish this?”
“If you didn’t, that would be distressing.”
1:30: Wylie and Simone have to prep some “egg raviolis,” aka square omelets, for a dinner Wylie has to cook in San Francisco the next night. They aren’t really raviolis. They’re cubes of scrambled egg and cream cheese, dipped into more egg, which has been blended with xanthan gum to help it adhere.
It’s tough to perfect this “dip.” Too much air and the ravioli becomes porous and soggy. Too little air and they get a leathery texture. Wylie explains: “Air is your friend and your enemy. It makes things pretty, like your ice cream, your cappuccino, it makes your bread nice and crusty. But in this case it can ruin the end result.” He spins the cube around on its stick, evenly distributing the yolky coating. They only need 280 for the dinner, but they’ll prep more than 400 because the damn things are so delicate and easy to break. “I dropped two perfect ones on the floor yesterday.”
I ask Wylie if it’s a problem making such intellectually stimulating dishes, when people come in and just don’t get it and then leave nasty Yelp reviews. “Yes, constantly. And that’s the thing—do you cook to please yourself? Or do you try to satisfy everyone, because this is a business after all.” Sometimes people just want a steak.
2:30: We head to Midtown for Wylie’s physical therapy. Wylie is VERY assertive with cab drivers about which route they should take.
3:10: Wylie’s been seeing his PT Karena for eight years now, and they have a funny rapport. “Lisa, did he feed you?” “Yeah, American cheese and eggs.” She laughs, “Dairy Boy!”
He normally sees Karena once a week for maintenance, but lately it’s been much more often because he has a herniated disc. It sounds excruciating. He’s not supposed to lift anything or look down at all. He strips down to shorts and socks and lies down on the table. Karena works on a lot of chefs.
4:30: We swing by Wylie’s new restaurant, Alder, to drop off two huge books of pasta shapes for the head chef, Jon Bignelli, to reference. Here are all the pasta shapes I can draw from memory:
5:00: We get back to wd~50 and have a little snack. It’s peppery noodles and thick slabs of ham/bacon/lardo?, sauteed bok choy, and a hunk of coffee cake on the side. I’m trying to save room for dinner, but this is one of the most delicious things ever. I almost pour the remaining noodles into my purse for later.
5:30: I glance at the list of reservations. There are comments like “allergic to mushrooms and bleu cheese” and “return diner, very nice.” I want to see something a little juicier, like “violently, irrationally opposed to radishes” or “This guy is a good tipper but tends to projectile vomit.”
Wylie changes back into his chef clothes and is milling around, grazing bits of meat and popcorn out of tupperware containers, eating Girl Scout Thin Mints. He has a totally omnivorous and democratic sense of what tastes good. Except he doesn’t like tomatoes, and that’s just wrong.
5:45: He calls two scruffy young cooks over and points to a brown spot on the stove. “Know anything about this? Might this have anything to do with the fish?” They wordlessly grab sponges and clean it off, looking chastened. But a minute later he’s smiling and joking with them.
I try to imagine myself working here.
6:00: I watch Wylie experiment with a new dish for Alder. it’s a foie gras pumpkin pie, a savory dish. Previous attempts were too “pumpkin-y” (and I’m resisting the urge to eat the failed pies out of the garbage bin), so he’s changing the proportions. First he does a bunch of math on a calculator, scribbles the notes down, then he precisely weighs the ingredients. This feels a lot like “bring your daughter to work” day when I used to accompany my parents to their biology lab.
Here are some questions I want to ask, but I’m afraid are too dumb: Has anyone at wd~50 ever needed the Heimlich Maneuver? Has anyone ever thrown up in the dining room? Or gone into anaphylactic shock?
7:00: It’s time for me to eat some dinner! Wylie and Simone jot down a list of dishes they want me to try: basically six different kinds of animal, plus desserts.
The first plate is a tiny saffron-coconut ice cream sandwich topped with sturgeon caviar. I normally save my eggs-laid-by-a-bottom-feeder for dessert, but whatever!
7:30: When describing the fourth course, the waiter lists the ingredients, gesturing to different parts of the plate, ending with “and underneath you will find… granola.” I lift the top layer up with my fork to see if he is joking, and he is not.
Also in this dish: the most delicate sea scallops basking in almond oil and a single ravioli made from carrot. I eat the ravioli too fast to see what’s inside, but based on the flavor I would describe it as “sex cheese.”
It’s hard not to giggle with discovery as I eat.
Here, try to guess which of the following are actual things served at wd~50 and which aren’t:
A: All of the above is real.
The chilled egg drop soup is the one dish I don’t finish, only because I don’t love sea urchin. Urchins taste like whipped semen and look like a million tiny fingers hatching out of a baby shit-colored brain. Look, if Wylie doesn’t like tomatoes, I don’t have to like urchins.
7:45: The maitre’d asks me how I like this particular dish, Mediterranean bass with celery and bits of grapefruit and macadamia that have had the everlovin’ crap chopped out of them. It’s plated with two fruit-flavored dots that look like nipples. I haven’t yet developed the vocabulary to describe this flavor combo, so I simply moan until he goes away.
8:45: The first dessert is “Popcorn Vacherin,” which I re-name “Sherbet on Bath Salts.” My second dessert is a three-layered key lime pie. I want to lick the plates, but that would be uncouth, so instead I’m greedily scraping them with my spoon.
9:00: I take a bathroom break. It’s not immediately clear where to do your business, but you can deduce that if you turn to the wall opposite the sinks and push around you’ll eventually find a bathroom stall. It’s like pissing in a secret tomb.
I wish more food writers would write about going to the bathroom, because it’s funny and interesting and it’s the inevitable result of all of this.
Also poop should be renamed “doof,” since that is food backwards.
9:30: My final treat is a black pouch, it looks like a shark’s egg. I pop it in my mouth, SURPRISE, it’s blueberry cheesecake. Very Wonka. And on the side is a little beer malt ball with pretzel coating that I wish was everlasting but in fact dissolves in microseconds.
9:45: Wylie warned me that he’d likely go home at six p.m. and leave me “at the altar” since he has to be back here at dawn tomorrow, but I look over at the kitchen and see he’s still hunched over the table, checking dishes.
I feel concerned, watching him bending over like that, sacrificing his health for another night of service. But damn does he look happy.
10:20: I stagger home after dutifully testing every cocktail. I try different yoga poses to see if any of them feel comfy to be drunk in, without much success.