Why Did New York’s Most Innovative Chef Swap Fine Dining for Doughnuts?

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Wylie Dufresne has made a doughnut that tastes like a campfire. Technically, it’s a s’mores doughnut, topped with crushed Golden Grahams and the kind of tiny dried marshmallows you find in a Swiss Miss packet. The defining feature, though, is the chocolate glaze, which Dufresne first smokes, and that’s the detail he’s thinking might remind people of “Kumbaya” and lakeside cabins.

We’re in an airy, glass-enclosed storefront next to Williamsburg’s William Vale hotel that will open next week as Du’s Donuts and Coffee. Dufresne and his pastry chef Colin Kull have spent the last several weeks testing out all sorts of flavors, in what look like cartoon doughnuts brought to life, perfectly circular and satisfyingly puffy. (Dufresne has compared their shape to inner tubes, and he isn’t wrong.) A bright-orange model is covered with passion-fruit glaze and dotted with cocoa nibs, that favorite ingredient of pastry chefs around the world. Cinnamon-apple doughnuts are made with tart cinnamon sugar that’s blended with freeze-dried Granny Smith apples, so every bite tastes like what might happen if green Jolly Ranchers grew in nature. Finally, there’s a doughnut that’s tossed in “strawberries and cream” sugar. It is tangy and deeply sweet, and reminiscent of strawberry Nesquik. It is also as bright and pink as a highlighter, and would almost certainly slay on Instagram.

That Wylie Dufresne can make doughnuts taste like campfires and candy is surprising, but that’s only because it’s surprising to see Dufresne make doughnuts at all.

Dufresne became one of the world’s most recognizable chefs at wd~50, the Lower East Side restaurant he opened in 2003. The restaurant closed in 2014, after his landlord sold the space to a condo developer, but for the 11 years it was open (and the two years that a second restaurant, Alder, was open), Dufresne’s specialty was a distinct kind of molecular gastronomy. Or modernist cuisine. Or science food. Whatever you want to call it. For an approach to cooking that got so much attention in the last two decades, it never got a very good name. Dufresne’s food was characterized, by and large, by bold primary colors, hyperprecise presentations, and unexpected ingredient juxtapositions. He served “sunny-side up” eggs made of coconut whites and carrot yolks. He turned shrimp and squid into actual noodles. What looked like a very tiny everything bagel was actually a very tiny disc of airbrushed ice cream, which tasted … just like an everything bagel. There was delicate turbot with jet-black licorice sauce, vibrant venison tartare under green edamame ice cream, and golden-hued “grits” engineered out of shrimp and freeze-dried corn. By design, eating Dufresne’s food was always kind of a mind-fuck. It was also unfailingly fun, and strange, and uniquely tied to Dufresne’s talents, sensibilities, and interests.

Great chefs pore over every single detail of their dishes, and a major tenet of the kind of modern cooking in which Dufresne specializes is that by breaking everything down into its component parts, a dish can then be reassembled and optimized in some way that has never been done before. Even a mundane dish like molten chocolate cake didn’t exist until chefs thought about ways to improve one of the world’s most common baked goods. In Dufresne’s kitchen, that approach was pushed as far as possible, and he wanted his staff to take inspiration from any place they could find it. His restaurants’ menus were filled with all sorts of fine-dining in-jokes. (“Pho gras,” for example, fused foie gras with the classic Vietnamese noodle soup; a lychee-and-raspberry cocktail called the PH was a nod to French pastry chef Pierre Hermé’s most famous macaron flavor.) And when the new ideas really clicked — like Dufresne’s “eggs Benedict,” which involved crisp slivers of Canadian bacon, golden cylinders of egg yolk, and cubes of deep-fried hollandaise sauce — the results were striking in their originality and technical wizardry.

But how can a chef capable of these things channel such wild creative energy into something as simple as doughnuts? “If you’re thinking you’re gonna be making one thing, then you don’t see the possibilities,” Dufresne explains. “We can put anything on this thing. We can put anything in there. So open your mind up. This is just the base. How do we garnish it? It’s not as limiting as it sounds.”

It is, he says, the exact same approach he took at wd~50. “We’d sit around as a group and say, ‘What do we do with buttermilk and mango? What do we do with apple? Are apple and Chinese five-spice delicious?’ Think about that. Apple and cinnamon works, right? Cinnamon’s in five-spice — it’s just marching an idea down the road.” On the day I tasted the doughnuts, a Creamsicle flavor has apparently been marched too far down the road with some unspecified tweak that Dufresne doesn’t like.

Dufresne, inside Du’s Donuts and Coffee. Photo: Liz Clayman

In time, Dufresne wants to add breakfast sandwiches, but to start, the shop’s offerings will be straightforward: coffee from the Brooklyn Roasting Company, the delightful Rhode Island curiosity known as coffee milk, and ten or so rotating flavors of cake doughnuts. For Dufresne, the idea that he’d only offer cake doughnuts meant he also needed to create the optimal cake doughnut, which required months of research.

“He’s the kind of guy who takes something that seems simple and works at it and works at it, until he gets it perfect,” says the chef Daniel Humm, who offered his kitchen at the NoMad Bar for Dufresne’s doughnut tests, before the Du’s space was ready. “He thinks like a scientist.”

Dufresne has pages of notes on the dozens of batches he went through; little pink Post-its that analyze other doughnut recipes; and a smartphone full of scribbles for ideas and tweaks. “I became obsessed with looking at the cross section of the doughnut,” he says, comparing it to a steak that needs to be perfectly medium-rare from end to end. “When I started, I was getting different zones to the doughnut. This outer bit was a little greasy. The center was denser, and there was this perfect area right here” — he says, pointing near the center of a circle he’s drawn in a notebook — “I was chasing that,” he insists. “I felt a little crazy after a while because I was doing it all alone, and I was eating a shitload of doughnuts.”

Eventually, he produced what is indeed an excellent doughnut: surprisingly light and fluffy (with, yes, a killer cross section), and a golden, yielding crust. “I didn’t think it would be easy,” Dufresne says, “but I didn’t think it would be harder than figuring out how to deep-fry hollandaise.”

Common wisdom holds that there’s never been a better time to eat in New York — and that it’s never been more difficult to run a restaurant in the city. High rents; fierce competition; expensive, new government regulations; and a dining public that seems to increasingly prefer affordable Instagram bait — Black Tap’s gonzo milkshakes, a whole shop devoted to cookie dough, the almighty Cronut — to $200 tasting menus have forced many chefs to rethink the way they do business. People still want high-quality food, but they are more than happy to ditch the various comforts of a full-service restaurant if the food is good, and cheap. (Perhaps the most successful steakhouse to open recently in New York is Ikinari, a Japanese chain that’s famous for making its customers stand while they eat.)

Take, for example, one of the most ambitious and successful new stand-alone restaurants in the city: Olmsted, on Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn. The restaurant serves around 120 people each night, with an average per-person check total between $55 and $60. That very roughly works out to about $50,000 in sales per week. Compare that to Shake Shack, Danny Meyer’s burger-stand-that-could, which began in Madison Square Park and now has more than 100 locations around the world. In any given week, a single Shake Shack averages $90,000 in sales. The company’s total revenue for 2016 was more than $73 million, a 44 percent increase over the year before. After Shake Shack’s IPO in 2014, founder Danny Meyer’s net worth was reported to be more than $350 million.

This differential isn’t lost on chefs, and some of New York’s most prominent food-world figures are in the early stages of building their own Shake Shacks. David Chang’s Fuku specializes in fried-chicken sandwiches and operates a few locations around the city. Brooks Headley was the pastry chef at Del Posto, New York’s swankiest Italian restaurant, before leaving to open his small Superiority Burger shop in the East Village, where the main draws are veggie burgers and high-concept gelato. Mark Ladner was the executive chef at Del Posto for more than a decade, before leaving in January to focus full-time on a quick-service pasta shop. Even Humm and his business partner Will Guidara will open a counter-service restaurant called Made Nice next week, selling dishes for less than $20 each, and looking not unlike their version of a Sweetgreen salad shop.

Dufresne became “obsessed” with the cross sections of doughnuts. Photo: Liz Clayman

Dufresne, however, is reluctant to talk about his own expansion plans for Du’s: “This isn’t, ‘Welcome to shop one of 738.’ The plan is to make one and make it great, and see how it goes.” That’s fair, but everything about the shop — the logo and color scheme designed by Dufresne’s sister-in-law Ridge Carpenter (the coffee cups feature the molecular symbol for caffeine); the very specific look of the round, puffy doughnuts; and the open, airy space — feels primed to scale, and like a conscious appeal to the kind of young food lovers that have become a driving force in the city’s food scene right now.

Dufresne doesn’t think the traditional fine-dining model is actually dead, and he’s got plenty of ideas for a full-scale restaurant, but he readily admits that this feels like a very good time to be in the doughnut business: “For me, at least, while I wait on the sidelines a little bit and see how that fleshes out, I can be here having a ton of fun.”

It is fun, and when the shop opens — the debut is currently slated for April 26 — it is easy to imagine throngs of people lining up to taste, and photograph, Dufresne’s doughnuts with a glass of coffee milk. Other flavor ideas include peanut butter yuzu and pistachio pink lemonade. The s’mores flavor has been shelved in favor of Mexican hot chocolate and malted coffee varieties. Dufresne’s debating a PH doughnut based on Hermé’s macarons. He also wants to add cocktails a few nights a week, and loves the idea of an Old-fashioned2, which is to say an old-fashioned (doughnut) paired with an Old Fashioned (drink). He mentions the possibility of doughnuts flavored to taste like daiquiris or Negronis, too. And he still needs to get that Creamsicle flavor just right. In doughnuts, really, the chef may have found a distinct vessel for boundless creativity.

“My daughters think it’s cool that I’m a chef,” Dufresne says, “but they think it’s amazing now that I have a doughnut shop.”

What to Expect at Wylie Dufresne’s New Doughnut Shop