Skill Plus Inspiration: Wylie Dufresne Offers His Recipe for Becoming a Chef
"That’s the wonderful thing about cooking is that it’s a never-ending opportunity for education."
A thing that has always been a source of inspiration for me is the city, is my environment. I wasn’t born in New York City, but I grew up here in the city. I feel like it’s an endless source of inspiration culinarily. It’s a melting pot. You can use Mexican ingredients with French technique. You can use French ingredients with Japanese technique, and it’s all acceptable. It’s all fair. You can draw from so many different things. Your city, where you are, your place, is an infinite source of inspiration. I think of urban terroir. People talk about the terroir of cooking. It seems like they always think of chefs out in the countryside cooking, but look around you.
New York City is an endless opportunity with flavors from all over the world. Inspiration is everywhere. You look up, and you see metal, and you see steel, and you see glass, and you see stone, and you see a tree popping through the concrete. You realize the way the sun passes through a fire escape is maybe a way you can arrange food on a plate. You never know where the inspiration will come, but your surroundings, the city that you live in, or the places that you’ve been are infinite opportunities, sources for inspiration.
I tell my cooks that you never know when inspiration will strike, but you have to be prepared at all times. So to this day I still carry a notepad and two pens for redundancy because you never know when you’re going to have a good idea, but you have to be ready to receive it when it happens. My mother told me— she’s a graphic designer by trade—she said you can’t plan for inspiration. You can’t know when inspiration will strike, but you can go hunting for it. You can go after it. You can’t wake up and say, “Today I’m going to be creative,” but you can wake up and say, “Today I’m going to try and be creative.”New York City is an endless opportunity with flavors from all over the world.
So it’s Tuesday. Let’s try to be creative. Let’s get those books off the wall. Let’s look at some photographs. Let’s just look out the window. Let’s stare out the window for a bit and see where we can get inspired and how we can get inspired. Let’s go out to lunch, but be ready at all times. You never know when it’s going to happen, but you have to be ready for when inspiration strikes because the wonderful thing about it is that you just don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it can happen at any moment, and it’s important that you’re ready for it when it happens. It’s important.
One thing that has always stuck with me is to learn what other people are up to. I’ve always been a note taker and written down some ideas as a young cook, things I wanted to do, and I wrote down this idea of a chocolate cake that had a liquid chocolate center. I thought, Now that’s a unique idea. Fast-forward a couple years later. I’m working at Jean-Georges, working for Jean-Georges and JoJo’s, and I see the molten chocolate cake, and I go, “Oh my goodness.”
I clearly wasn’t the first, and then I go to find out that Michel Bras also had a molten chocolate cake. Perhaps he was the one who invented the molten chocolate cake, and I realized that I needed to know what other people were up to, that it wasn’t just about my ideas.
I had to learn what was going on in my industry, in my craft, in my art, in my field. And so reading is absolutely one of the best pieces of advice I can give anybody. Read. I spent all my free pennies and free minutes as a young cook buying cookbooks. I now have a cookbook collection of over 2,500 books. I love to read them and reread them. It’s a wonderful thing.
Cooking is a skill, a craft, and you’re never going to learn it all. That’s the wonderful thing about cooking is that it’s a never-ending opportunity for education. You’ll never learn it all. You can pick a discipline. You can pick a cuisine. You can pick an ingredient, and you can study it and get knowledgeable about it, but there’s no one person who knows everything there is to know about cooking. It’s a never-ending thing. That’s what makes it so fun and so wonderful. It never ends, but you have to know what other people are up to. That’s one way to get inspired.
Once you realize what other people are up to, it will inspire you to have your own ideas and build off them, but it’s important to know the prior art and to know what’s out there. I began pre-internet, so I started with books. Now you can get on the internet, or you can get on Instagram, or you can do both, or you can buy books. You should do all of those things because they all have different ways of teaching you how to learn and ways of engaging with your subject matter. We as cooks must learn what other people are up to. Otherwise we’re at the risk of repeating them. Working in a vacuum is a terrible idea. So I really, really encourage people to learn what others are up to, to get out there and read and learn.
Jean-Georges, who was my biggest culinary inspiration, also used to say, “Simple. Simple.” He was always taking things off the plate. He said it’s easy to hide when you put a lot of stuff on the plate. Take things off the plate. You’ve got to take things off. Less and less and less, and that’s what you have to do: take things away.
Excerpted from Chefwise: Life Lessons from Leading Chefs Around the World by Shari Bayer. Copyright © 2023. Reproduced by permission of Phaidon. All rights reserved.