We’re thrilled to bring you our series, The Art of Plating, where we take you into the imaginations of chefs as they design and present their dishes. We show you how they do it, step-by-step, and let them explain their creative process in their own words—what’s going on in their heads as they put their food on the plate. This week: Wylie Dufresne, of wd-50, for over a decade one of the world’s true leaders in creative, boundary-pushing cuisine. Check throughout the week for more dish design from Chef Dufresne – Ed.
The Dish: Root beer ribs, rye spaetzle, apricot
I think people are good at cooking things they enjoy cooking. I love cooking eggs, so I am an above-average egg cook. Our Chef de Cuisine, Jon Bignelli, is a very good cook, but especially of Southern food— beans, fried chicken, ribs. And last year, we did an event where he came up with grilled root beer-braised ribs. They were fantastic, so we wanted to see if we could do them in some form for the restaurant.
We take the ribs off the bone and get our meat glue on. We wanted to have the texture of eating a falling-off-the-bone rib—not too much bounce, but not too soft like catfood— but it’s actually kind of hard to do that when you don’t have the bone as a reference. So we form them and cook them in a braising liquid of root beer, stock, and spices for 20 hours to get the texture and flavor right. The rest of the dish was just about building around the rib.
What do you want to have with your ribs? Some sort of sweet chutney, a relish-y thing seemed logical. This is made of dried apricots, candied ginger, lemon confit, and then we also add kombu [a seaweed – Ed.] and arugula. You wouldn’t necessarily notice the last two, but they give a punch of umami and bitterness to round out the sweet and sourness of the others. It adds to the profundity of the relish. I mean, I say that without being too self important; its’s still just a relish!
For the placement, we call that a schmear—taking a quenelle, something very symmetrical, and grabbing the corner and destroying it. We’ve messed around a lot with putting something on a plate, and then moving or changing it, and we like it when it can give the dish a sense of motion.
Jon discovered this incredible rye bread at the farmers’ market, a fantastic, dark complex rye that’s almost halfway like pumpernickel. He made a sauce out of it—bread, shallots, white wine and pork stock—so we wanted to use it to bind a dumpling flavored with caraway, to echo the distinctive flavor in rye bread.
The placement of the spaetzle builds on the relish, giving it more of a shooting star look. It’s hard to see in the photo, but this plate actually does a kind of “half pipe” thing. The inner rim of the plate flattens out in the top right part of the photo. So the dish really rides the shape of the plate – I think there’s an “urban” feel to it.
This a very soft dish: soft relish, soft spatzel, tender ribs, so we thought, “Let’s dry some of the rye bread, pulse it, and use it to give a little crunch.” The dish also needed a little “organicness,” and so we let the crumbs just land how they may; they’re not placed just so.
Root beer ribs
I’ve always like oversized, cartoonish shapes; this is a giant circle that should seem out of place. But I like the visual on that, that puck of pork, how it looks like it shouldn’t belong but it does.
There’s a bitterness in the apricot relish because of the arugula, so these bitter greens kind of show that element in a more natural state.
This is a variety of mustard green called “scarlet frills,” but we like to call them “Tim Burtons,” because they have that spindly look you see in his movies. Their curves follow the curve of the dish, but they also puncture it, operating outside the lines. We like to play with that idea of following shapes, but not all the way.
Root beer jus
This is the braising liquid for the ribs, reduced. I think there’s enough happening on the plate already, so it would be superfluous if you did something dramatic with the sauce. A puddle under the meat is appropriate, it just kind of says “I’m cool with who I am.” And the ribs and sauce are meant to go together anyway.
With protein or meat-based sauces, there’s often so much gelatin that it will “skin up” on a warm plate. I mean, if you did small dots or lines with this kind of sauce, it will form a skin, get dry, and stick to the plate. But you keep it in a pool, it keeps it nice and moist, and you can dip into it.
The Dish: Amaro yolk, chicken confit, peas ‘n’ carrots
I don’t want to say I have an obligation to put an egg dish on the menu, but it’s almost gotten that way. My Eggs Benedict became a kind of Stairway to Heaven. I don’t think I’ve written another hit like that, but there have been some solid ones.
This dish started when I read in an old Chinese book about curing egg yolks in Chinese wine. So I thought of curing them in amaro, a liqueur that has a wonderfully barky, twiggy, forest floor thing. Now what do we do with this? I don’t know why, but the notions of peas and carrots came to me. And then chicken. So we have peas and carrots, chicken and eggs—very logical, very safe, but we try to bring them together in a way that’s not typical.
It never occurred to me that that this is like a chicken pot pie, but Chef Jon, those were the first words out of his mouth. I like that—that people react differently to these dishes.
I’ve loved wooden plates and bowls for a long time, but we’ve never used them. These plates are made for us, from ash. My name, Dufresne, means in “from the ash tree” in French, so I have a personal connection to these plates. And I think the wood adds to the warmth of the dish.
I put the pea puree at the bottom of the dish as an anchor. It holds the egg in place, and its creamy texture also helps it feel like a pot pie.
We just kind of frame the pea puree with the chicken, and, without getting too goofy, it kind of builds a nest for the egg to sit in.
Amaro-cured egg yolk
Then comes the yolk. The egg’s been sitting in bath of amaro, and we glaze it with a little more thickened amaro.
Carrot slices / carrot juice
There’s a sense of motion inherent in the grain of the wood. So I knew I wanted the carrot to take these wispy forms, a crumpled tissue-paper kind of thing, and I think that works well with the look of the wood grain. And I wanted everything under the carrot, giving the dishes the element of surprise, like tucking it into a box. That’s where you find the layers, the complexity of it.
We slice the carrots lengthwise on a meat slicer, and then cook then for just a second to make them pliable. We wrap ribbons around the bottom of the dish to hold in the chicken and yolk, and then scrunch up a few of them to make that wavy top.
Then we have some carrot juice, very slowly reduced so it keeps its fresh flavor, slightly thickened and seasoned with vinegar. We add a little on top so that it flavors the dish, but also helps to keep it warm, since the wisps cool very quickly.
The dish is called “peas ‘n’ carrots,” which means, for most people, “peas and carrots.” But we thought, well, could we do “peas in carrots?” And then we decided we could do carrots in peas: we cook little balls of carrot in that same carrot “vinaigrette” in the previous step to push the carrot flavor. Then we drain them and cover them in freeze-dried pea powder. It’s a fun trompe l’oeil , but I also like what it does to the flavor. I think flavors should weave together, in and out of each other, and this helps with that.
At first, I liked the dish without the pea tendrils, but I think they round it out. I think if you didn’t have the peas at all, you could leave it as just the carrots, a study in orange. But these add a fun, chia-pet type ending of the dish. Like they’re sprouting out of it.