The man who brought you eggs in ways you never imagined possible. The chef who served 'non-bread,' instant squeeze tofu noodles, deconstructed pho and ice cream bagels. The trailblazing tastemaster who worked out how to fry mayonnaise – well, he's back and this time he's doing donuts.
Food aficionados will know that the chef I'm referring to is none other than the laid back, long haired, Wylie Dufresne. He's been away for a while, a bit of retrospective rebuilding after closing his hugely popular WD-50 restaurant and Alder bar in New York. But that was two years ago: menus have changed a lot since then and lots of traditional fine dining chefs have been making moves into simpler concepts for wider audiences and, of course, the bigger profits they bring.
Daniel Humm is doing bowls, Andoni Luis Aduriz just opened Topa and Daniel Boulud has burgers. There’s Mark Ladner working on pasta, Jose Andres with BeefSteak. David Chang, the early adopter of the fast-casual market, operating everything from fried chicken to refined tasting menus. "Everybody is trying to figure out ways to diversify," says Dufresne, "there’s a lot of runs in the ladder, why not try to occupy as many runs as you can."
Dufresne is a little stressed when I first arrive at his new shop, Du’s Donuts and Coffee in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – and I quickly learn why. New York is surprisingly hot for May – early, sticky hot – and this, as he tells me, isn't good for donuts."The temperature just went up 20 degrees outside, now the temperature in here goes up, that effects every little aspect. Proper donut making is all about temperature. The batter has to be at a very specific temperature, if it gets too cold or too hot the donut begins to be misshapen."
As you might expect from a chef who devised a way to deep fry mayonnaise, these are not your usual precinct dunkers. At the moment there are 11 flavours covering a range of glazed and sugared donuts, there’s one Cruller, but as Dufresne says, "that’s a different beast all together." The donuts are all made using the same cake recipe, "it’s basically a fried cake batter," he says, but with some pressing you realise there’s a little more to it than that.
"It took me about three months of developing that cake recipe," he was actually given a small corner by his friend Daniel Humm at the NoMad restaurant so he could test recipes again and again. "Light, good crumb, nice bounce back, not dense, spring, a bit of chew." These are just a few of the words Dufresne uses to describe what a perfect donut is for him, "I think we did over 30 different recipes … I didn’t try even one glaze. I focused just on the cake and then I spent a month working on the glazes."
"I didn’t think it would be easy, but I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was to make a great donut," says Dufresne, adding, "I’ve never worked as a pastry chef. The glaze of a donut is 70% sugar, not only sticky but it’s hard to get flavour in there. If 70 percent of what you’re making is sugar you have 30 percent space for flavour, a commercial donut maker just puts a drop of flavour in there, no problem. Our approach? I can’t tell you that," he smiles, but he’s not joking.
Looking at the commercial donut makers for ideas he’s developed a technique to stop the glaze sticking to your fingers and making a mess – a clever move and one he’s keeping to himself, "I’m not telling you how I did that." It’s a simple touch, but one that shows the levels he's going to. He took his donut maker on tour with him to Australia for recipe testing and the finished donuts really are perfectly uniform, even the cups at Du's feature the molecular symbol for coffee - another small detail but exactly what you’d expect from a chef who ran such an accomplished restaurant.
The sugars and especially the glazes are where Dufresne can really get creative, "a donut is like a blank slate," he says. But don’t expect throwbacks to things like the mind bending WD-50 pairing combinations of white chocolate and green olive. "I don’t want people to come here and say, 'It’s the wacky scientist doing the wacky flavours.' We are trying to be clever, but use flavours that make sense, WD-50 had these classic dishes that drew on flavours, like eggs Benedict."
It might not be as evident, but the pairings for the donut flavours are just as well thought out as some of the chef’s more famous dishes. Nothing tastes better than nostalgia and Dufresne knows this better than most. His previous restaurant played on it massively and his donuts are no different. Banana and Graham cracker whacks of childhood breakfast, so much so, I actually asked for milk. The creamcicle donut, packed with passion fruit and orange, plays on the memory of young summers, while the eye catching peanut butter and yuzu is, for Dufresne, a simple throwback: "It’s just peanut butter and jelly."
Seeing Dufresne in his immaculate kitchen – surrounded by boxes of donut toppings, secret ingredients, sleek silver counters and enough gadgetry to power a decent restaurant – is exciting. I mean, imagine walking into your local diner to find a Michelin-starred chef expertly flipping your burger on top of a brand new shiny grill. Sounds amazing, right? What a deliciously dreamy scenario, but it’s not a dream anymore.
Daniel Patterson has actually been working on his LoCal fast food concept for more than a year now with fellow chef Roy Choi and I guess that’s the point right now. Whether it’s Rene Redzepi and Rosio Sanchez launching a taco place, Heston Blumenthal opening in an airport, or Enrique Olvera knocking out classic Mexican breakfasts in New York – everywhere you look, traditional fine dining chefs are diversifying on mass – and not in the hotel, bistro-style fare of their older European counterparts. No, this is great chefs with established careers starting to occupy runs of the ladder previously unseen. A food takeover, or McMichelin makeover, depending on how you see it. It’s entirely expected and, for me at least, deliciously accepted.
"Everybody is trying to figure out ways to diversify, to stay relevant, to stay interesting, to stay excited," says Dufresne, “I think that it’s a funny time for fine dining, I don’t think by any means it’s dead but it’s not on the trajectory it once was … It’s getting more and more expensive to open, there are a lot of restaurants out there, there aren’t nearly as many donut shops."
He jokes, but what he says is true, especially in big cities. Fine dining is costly to create, costly to visit, costly to maintain and it caters for the few. Stepping down the ladder to a wider audience affords chefs a much larger opportunity. This is matched by captive eaters who have never been more eager to sample the food of chefs they know and, in many cases, admire. This translates to talents and skills going towards feeding a wider, more democratic base, and that has to be a good thing. It also ensures your hands aren’t a sticky mess the next time you eat a donut.