By Céline Bossart for Robb Vices
It was a largely uneventful Saturday, unless you count impulsively purchasing a decorative wool pouf as otherwise. I’d just come from the gym and rushed to hop on a bus, spandex and all, the day hinging on claiming this Himalayan footstool-cum-cushion and bringing it to its rightful home. Only in New York does a quick run to the nearest modern décor emporium bring a chance public transport encounter with a culinary demigod, but there stood Wylie Dufresne to my right, as luck would have it.
This is the interview that occurred the following week at SoHo Tiffin Junction, the brainchild of Jawahar “JC” Chirimar, Sam Subramaniam, and M. Mahadevan, seasoned as a fast-casual concept and now launching a dinner program featuring small Indian plates under Dufresne’s guiding hand. Shades around the open kitchen are drawn, to-go bowls swapped for veritable earthenware, and a full list of wine and beer options are on offer for good measure. The STJ team brought Dufresne on as culinary advisor several months ago, and with the early success of the team’s dinner launch, this unexpected match seems to be one made in heaven – classic in composition and tradition with just the right dash of Wylie, these stunning dishes appeal to a palate broader than any standard neighborhood Indian joint has dared to capture.
Wylie was joined by JC for this exclusive peek inside the collaborative concept as the team geared up for the launch this past spring.
Céline Bossart: You’re counted among the pioneers of the molecular gastronomy movement, not only in NYC’s culinary scene but across the world, too. That’s a big undertaking – can you elaborate a bit on how you made that your own and ran with it?
Wylie Dufresne: Well, there’s a long answer to that question. But I would say that, for me, molecular gastronomy, if that’s the term we’re going to use, is basically about looking. It’s a field of…well, I’m looking for answers to questions. So I was drawn to various people, places, other chefs around the world that could help me find answers to questions. It occurred to me at some point that cooking is a science, but I’m not trained as a scientist…I’m trained as a cook. So to understand more about the science of cooking, we needed to go outside of the kitchen and talk to people in other places that knew more about the science of cooking than we did.
When I built wd~50, I built it as a place where I could hopefully continue my culinary education, where my staff could continue their culinary education, where the diners could continue their culinary education. That carried over to Alder (both of which are closed) and will carry on into whatever I do. Because we’ll never know everything there is to know about the science of cooking. There is also never going to be a right or a wrong way to cook things, but there’ll be a more or less informed way. There’s not a right way to cook an egg, but there’s a more or less informed way to cook an egg. So in an effort to understand more about any part, any aspect of the cooking process -- that’s always been my goal, to understand whatever aspects I’m currently working on -- I’m always looking to make better decisions about how to achieve a particular result or something like that.
I’m a champion of learning. I’ve always pursued the direction that I have in the hopes of continuing to learn. That’s, for me, what it’s all been about, and that is what led me here. You know, an effort to learn more about the flavors and techniques. I would never pretend to be an expert in every particular type of cooking the world over because nobody is. I’m classically trained in European cooking, but to be involved in this project is an opportunity to keep learning.
And so that’s what appealed to me about this opportunity to expand my horizons, and to work with people that I like, and to learn more about a cuisine that I’ve long been interested in. I’ve never opened an Indian restaurant -- Indian spices have been peppered throughout my culinary career but this is an opportunity to, along those lines, continue my education in a different direction. That’s the way I’ve always cooked — in an effort to try to know more today than I did yesterday.
CB: In terms of your personal culinary map, if you will, Indian is very different from anything you’ve done in the past. What has that journey been like and how have you allowed that to become part of your experience in your quest to continue learning?
WD: You know, I definitely wouldn’t pretend to be an expert in the subject. Sure, I have ten Indian cookbooks in my house, I know who Madhur Jaffrey is, like most American cooks know the right names to say. But I’ve spent a decent amount of time in England, and there’s a great Indian diaspora in England…I’ve got friends over there that have exposed me to it a little bit. But just an opportunity to learn more about it is what appealed to me.
JC has been instrumental; he’s given me some books and we’ve had long conversations about regions of India where they do this kind of food, regions where they do that, or where they serve it this way there…this particular sauce is thicker here or thinner there. Or this is the spice mix of the curry in this household, but the house next door does it this way. And it’s been very fun, it’s been very interesting and I have a long way to go. I mean, he promised me a long time he’s going to take me to India, and he hasn’t done that yet. So I’d like to go on the record as saying that I’m still waiting for my trip to India [laughs].
But there are aspects of the spice routes of the world that passed through Europe. My culinary education is primarily European-based. I’m also a huge student of Spain…the Moors passed through there and they brought all sorts of spices. Up in Normandy, those spice routes went all over the world and there are very famous French chefs that have incorporated a lot of these exotic intricate spices. I worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten for a number of years — his stock and trade is that he traveled to many parts of the world. In his case it’s Southeast Asia in many ways. But again, just working for people and being exposed to the fact that the world is not that small, it hasn’t been hard for me to get excited about this.
I go home, I read books, JC and I talk a lot, and that’s really how it goes. There’s been a good dialogue between us throughout this process...as much as I’m trying to sink my fingers into this and learn, and it’s also helping him [JC] understand how he can reach a broader market as well. It’s a two-way street that I believe to this point has been mutually beneficial.
CB: We’d love to hear more about how you’ve integrated your approach, your knowledge, and your techniques into the dishes here specifically, and how you’ve influenced the menu personally.
WD: Well I’ll tell you what…I’m going to go plate the fried chicken, and I’ll let JC answer that question. This is a great concept that is think I really fun and interesting and delicious. Let’s start with delicious. And one of my roles as culinary advisor or whatever my official title is…
JC: Grand Vizier.
WD: High-exalted mystic ruler [laughs]. Anyway, that was to help him reach a wider group. And we have wrestling matches where he’ll say, “But my Indian clientele will not understand why you turned the knob that way…” and that’s been a push-pull. It’s never heated but it’s been very interesting to consider how to reach a wider audience.
CB: Spotlight’s on you, JC. We’d love to hear your perspective on how it’s been to work with someone so iconic, so brilliant, and how that’s shaped this new dinner menu on all levels.
Jawahar Chirimar: First of all, when you work with Wylie you realize he’s just a fun guy to work with. We joke around a lot, we’re always having fun, so it’s not overwhelming or intimidating or really like you have to do things a particular way. He wants to find a way that everyone is comfortable with, and he’s never really come in and say, “You need to do this or that…” because that’s not how he works. So it’s been a great working experience, it’s really collaborative.
The challenge that I had when we started this was that when I launched my lunch menu, I didn’t have someone like Wylie at that time. It took me ten months to get a lot of feedback from clients and to keep changing things on the menu to find a flavor profile that resonates and the point is to cook food that the diaspora will enjoy as well as a much wider audience. If only the diaspora enjoys it, then it’s a failure, and if they don’t enjoy it but everyone else enjoys it, then it’s also a failure in my mind. So the largest audience has to enjoy it. So what would happen, as Wylie said, is that you have nine dishes on the menu that you see. But we started thinking about dinner last year, probably May or June, and we have cooked a total of maybe 50 to 60 dishes since.
CB: And so out of those you pulled nine for the menu.
JC: Yes exactly, and there are a couple of things that I make where you’ll have a queue of only Indian clientele for over here because they’re really tough to make so most people don’t make them at home. Then Wylie said that this would be challenging for most people to understand, and here is why. So I like it when he explains why it could be challenging, why it would not reach the broadest market, and then you say, “Ok, it doesn’t make sense to do it.”
For example, we are finalizing the flavor of the soft-serve kulfi -- we’ve been working on that for a while -- and if I put cardamom in something it’s a strong flavor, because we are used to Indian spices, so if you have too little than it just doesn’t come on your tongue…it gets lost. Wylie would say, “No, that’s too strong.” The way you understand that is this: ok, my younger daughter is nine years old and she has a lot of friends, and they like simple things. If they can eat the kulfi and enjoy it and ask for it again, then what you have works. If they can’t eat it then it’s too strong. The benchmark is all there. So with all these spices, you have your own personal biases, and what you’re used to eating. There are many, many examples of that with each and every dish. But overall I think what he said is that you create a flavor profile, and then you can understand the flavor profile and how to present it, how to plate it, how to garnish it.
WD: Part of it is understanding the palate. I have a better understanding of the American palate. That’s not judgmental at all…I have 23 years of trying to understand the American palate, try to appeal to it. Part of that is saying, “That might be how that sauce tastes — it’s very authentic — but I think it might be perceived as sweet or it might be too sour…” or whatever. I’m helping to strike a balance. There are no egos here; we have a common goal, which is reaching a wide audience. So it’s a dialogue, and everything is up for debate. The arrangement is this: it’s a conversation, so let’s talk about it.
JC: That’s how the best parts come about. If there’s no discussion, you don’t really know for sure, right? If you can discuss and debate you get the best part at the end of the day.
WD: And let’s be clear, he’s the boss. He’s the owner, you know what I mean? This is his vision, and this was his vision long before it was mine. And I’m hopefully a cog in that wheel.
JC: He’s been an amazing person to work with, and he’s adding to the brand in many different ways.
CB: We’re curious as to how you guys met and how the relationship developed. Were you friends, or was it more of a business outreach that evolved into partnership and ultimately friendship?
JC: There’s a very dear friend of ours in common, Ray Harris. I have always been a huge fan of Wylie’s food and he knows many of my friends -- one of my friends actually has a whole kitchen setup in their Hamptons house based on Wylie’s food. Anyway, when our kitchen here was ready, we reached out to Ray, who is very good friends with Wylie, and it began there.
WD: Ray is one of our best customers. He and his wife Shaun were two of our best customers at wd~50 and Alder. They were huge supporters and have been ever since their first visit. I can’t tell you how many times Ray and Shaun have been to wd~50, easily over 50 times. They’ve been great supporters and I think when JC reached out to them for some people…Ray is a lover of food and travels the world eating in the greatest restaurants all over the country and all over the world so I think JC saw him as a good person to ask for some chefs that he could tap or mine for this project. And Ray was kind enough to suggest someone and they couldn’t make it so they called me [laughs].
JC: So then we met and took two of three months to get to know each other. He came and tried the food and now we just give each other a hard time.
CB: In terms of your creative process, when you’re conceptualizing a dish, how do you approach that?
WD: I’ve always been very collaborative. I don’t believe any creative endeavor is the work of a single person, it’s the work of a team. So it’s about assembling a team. Like-minded in terms of goal orientation, but it’s not about [having] a bunch of people that just say yes. I want diverse opinions, I want people with different world experiences, life experiences.
Much like here, it begins and ends with him and in my restaurants it begins and ends with me, but I like to get as much input as sort of a chosen group of people that I can. When we’re working on stuff here, JC is often presenting something in a very traditional way, based on how something was eaten at home and then we’ll go from there. Sometimes there’s nowhere to go from there because it’s fantastic. It’s about striking a balance one way or another. Or he may already have done a lot of the tinkering. It turns out he’s actually a pretty good cook. I’m not blowing smoke or being cheeky; I’m impressed with not only how hands-on he is as an owner but how involved he is in terms of bringing the food to the table and how much work he’s done on the front end. And I didn’t know that getting into it. I didn’t know that he was that that much involved. And that to me is wonderful because in a way it makes the conversation easier.
Everyone here is very friendly, but Ramkumar is a great chef in his own right back there. My experience has been that the three of us have talked beyond things and seen how we want to go. Sometimes I have to make sure that I don’t take it too far and it doesn’t lose aspects of its identity or what have you. Not because I’m trying to but just because I’m trying to see, “What if we go this way or that way?” It’s interesting too to hear Ramkumar saying, “That’s not how we did it at home. It’s delicious but not like where I come from.”
JC: My family is from Rajasthan but I’ve been raised in Calcutta. The food cultures are very different, the spices are very different, so you get a lot of different input.
WD: It’s a big country, obviously. So it’s apt to have a wide diversity. But that only makes it more interesting.
CB: I’ve always been curious, I know you [WD] studied at French Culinary Institute (now the ICC), but you also have a B.A. in philosophy, so is there any sort of impact that the latter has on your profession now and on the art of what you do?
WD: Yes, I think having been fortunate enough to go through whatever it is, 14 years of formal education, for which I’m grateful to all the people along the way that made that possible in my family. The first thing is that with lengthy education, you learn how to absorb information, process information. Not every person graduates from a university or college and takes their given degree and runs after it. But everybody at a university learns the process of learning. So for me I had learned how to learn and I needed to find something that. Of the choices that were available to me in college, philosophy was what appealed to me most. I needed to find a subject matter that moved me and I was then able to use all of those skills and how to apply them. I didn’t have any knowledge about cooking but I knew how to find a subject matter and study it, I knew how to be a student. I was well-versed in being a student, I had been one for a long time. And I think probably yes, my study in philosophy hopefully helps with my interpersonal relations in the kitchen. How I deal with people. How I think about things. Yes, I mean all of the people you study in philosophy tend to be self-reflective, I think that that self-reflection is important when you’re a business owner, when you’re a parent — which I am now, you know…you have to step back and look at things.
And so yes, I think very indirectly…I didn’t know that they were going to intersect but I think they do, often times subconsciously.
CB: You’ve got such a beautiful home and kitchen up in Connecticut; I know your wife is the Editor in Chief of Food Network Magazine, so I’m curious as to what that dynamic is like cooking at home. I can only imagine how much fun you and your family must have cooking together.
WD: Well, the dynamic is that I don’t cook much at home. I would easily say my wife is a better cook than I am. My wife is incredibly skilled in cooking with a particular expertise in baking, but she’s good across the board. She’s long been a lover of Indian food, to a much greater extent than me. She loved the idea of me getting involved in this. She has long loved the flavors of India. But my wife is an incredibly accomplished cook.
I tend to focus, up in Connecticut, my abilities on breakfast, which I love to make and I do that all the time for everybody in the house. And then I’ve really enjoyed cooking outside, open-flame grilling. Those are my primary roles. To be honest, my wife deserves more than the lion’s share of the credit because she also loves to entertain. I don’t think I’d entertain as much as we do if not for her. I also come from a tiny family, she comes from a giant family. But up there it’s really fun; we love going up there and having people over. Really though, the credit is due to her.
CB: Has there been much Indian influence in what you’re cooking at home now as a result of this project?
WD: I would say you’re not seeing an influx of that in our cooking per se. We are ordering a lot more Indian food in our apartment here at home. JC has been turning me on to great restaurants, so we’ve enjoyed that. We’ll have Indian food delivered and try different places; sometimes I go off of his recommendations or we’ll sort of throw a dart at the Indian Seamless listings to see if it’s good or if it’s bad. But it hasn’t yet found its way into our house. Although I was just talking to Ramkumar and he was just saying to me that I should take some of the dosa home, because I love the dough. I love the batter. I was already trying to think of what I might do with it and how I might apply my personality to it. To be honest, it hasn’t quite happened yet.
CB: I know your daughters are younger, but have they shown any interest in following in your footsteps?
WD: Let’s hope not [laughs]. They both already seem far too smart to want to do this kind of thing with their lives. They’ll probably follow in their mother’s footsteps, which is a much better decision. My kids…whatever they want to do, I will support them wholeheartedly. I would not necessarily discourage them from life in kitchen, but I don’t know that I’d encourage them to go into life in the kitchen. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and what we do. And if that’s something they want to do, than that’s great. They’ll be whatever they want to be. They have my support.
CB: We’re really curious as to what you envision for the future of Soho Tiffin Junction. Are you planning to open more locations, or any other concepts, any offshoots of this. What’s on the horizon?
JC: Yes, ultimately we will open more locations. Currently we are starting with the dinner menu and so we are going to be focusing on doing that the right way, and we’ll be occupied with that. And you know, we are having some conversations with people on how to expand the brand. So we’ll expand and we’ll see where that takes us.
As we wrapped with a few photos and a round of chai masala, the combined charisma and energy of the duo permeated, JC’s warm smile and Wylie’s presence freshly imprinted on my mind. “See you on the bus,” he said with a wave.
This article originally appeared on Robb Vices via Luxury Attaché. It has been edited and condensed by the author for clarity.