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Q & A with Alder’s Jon Bignelli

bignelli2wd-50, Wylie Dufresne’s seminal, molecular gastronomy-loving eatery, is closely associated with all sorts of madcap, culinary experiments and molecular gastronomy.  After all, signature dishes include deconstructed Eggs Benedict with english muffin crumb-coated fried hollandaise, and Pizza “pebbles” made from a variety of dehydrated, tomato and parmesan flavored powders.  So what can patrons expect from his new East Village restaurant, Alder?  According to executive chef and wd-50 alum, Jon Bignelli, he and Dufresne have taken a much more traditional (but no less fun and creative) approach to food.

“We’re trying to get away from depending on too many modern methods at Alder.  We want to do classic cuisine and technique, which is equally exciting,” he says.  “The thing is, I don’t want people to come in and be nervous because they can’t identify what things are,” he adds.  I want the dishes to be actually delicious, not weird delicious.”  That being said, current menu standouts include Fried Quail smothered in banana curry, New England Clam Chowder with oyster crackers (made from actual oyster) and Rye Pasta — a deli sandwich in noodle form that combines rye flour fettuccine, caraway seeds and slivers of pastrami.

“We are lucky to live in a city where the food culture is massive.  You can get anything you want here.  So I want to provide an experience that is unlike others,” Bignelli says.  “Who knows,” he adds, laughing.  “I think I’m making elegantly simple food at Alder, but people still might think it’s seriously weird.”

What was the inspiration behind Alder?
It’s meant to evoke a warm public house as opposed to wd-50, which evokes some sort of science experiment!  Alder is a member of the birch family, and there’s a lot of wood in our interiors.  Our ceiling is all wood slates from a farmhouse in upstate NY.  The restaurant is definitely a little less out there than wd-50.

You worked at wd-50 for five years.  When Wylie Dufresne decided to open this new restaurant, did he tap you immediately as executive chef?
Wylie said, “Hey, I’m up to doing this other project and I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather have running it.”  wd-50 has been his only outlet for ten years.  I really wanted to help him get out from under that and do this.  We work well together and collaborate well together, so it just made sense.  It’s also the style of food I want to do now.  More casual share plates.  It’s how I like to eat when I go out.  You can try a lot of things as opposed to a tasting menu, or succumb to, as we call it, the tyranny of the entrée.

Before starting at wd-50 did you have a particular passion for, or knowledge of, molecular gastronomy and modern cuisine?
I had worked at Aquavit under the tutelage of Nils Noren, who was the executive chef at the time.  He eventually went on to write the curriculum for modern cuisine at the French Culinary Institute.  But he was just beginning to dabble in those techniques at Aquavit when I was there, so I got a base knowledge of it.  If you were a cook in 2004, the internet wasn’t as prevalent as it is today.  So there was one place you went to if you wanted to learn about molecular gastronomy, and that was wd-50.  And not only did I learn those techniques, wd-50 is where I really learned how to be a chef.

What do you think the tools of molecular gastronomy contribute to the creation of a dish that classic techniques and methods just can’t?
The big misconception of molecular gastronomy (which no one likes to say anymore, because it isn’t a pleasant tag word)  is that it’s a bunch of gadgets and crazy machines.  But it’s really about utilizing your intellect and learning about how things work, and exploiting that to the fullest extent.  Like, what temperature does an egg cook at?  What does it do at certain temperatures?  And how can I use that information to play around with the perception of an already established dish?  What temperature does meat turn gray?  We found out that it’s 60 degrees Celsius.  So we cook a piece of meat that would normally be used for a braise at 59 degrees Celsius, and it’s still red and looks like a steak but actually it’s lamb shoulder.  And really, the fanciest gadget we have at wd-50 is a centrifuge, which just separates liquids from solids and makes things clear.

What are your favorite go-to tools and tricks when it comes to molecular gastronomy?
We still like to use transglutaminase, also known as meat glue.  Modified starches are really fun.  We have a great dish at Alder, which is clam chowder with oyster crackers, and the crackers are made out of real oyster.  They look like oyster crackers but we use a series of different modified starches.  And using a circulator to cook a piece of meat is no different than using an oven.  It’s just another technique that you learn as you become a chef.

Are there any tools or chemicals that you think push the envelope too far?
No, not really.  If you use these things correctly, they all work.  But it takes years to figure out how to use them properly.  A lot of people dabbled when molecular gastronomy got popular 7 years ago, but they never took the time to let it grow within themselves.  It took Wylie 10 years to come up with some of this stuff.

How do you and Wylie go about creating the menu at Alder?  Do you brainstorm dishes together, or are some of them yours some of them his?
We all contribute ideas, along with our sous chef, Ryan Henderson.  We all have different perspectives, different strengths.  Wylie worked for Jean-Georges, so he has strength in French cuisine.  I worked for a Swedish chef, and I like ethnic food and regional cuisine.  So we all come together and test things like the Rye Pasta, which has become one of our signature dishes.  It was actually an idea the sous chef had… why don’t we do a pasta that’s kind of a take on a Reuben?  We worked on it for over a month, moving away from the Reuben and more towards a pastrami sandwich, making the pasta with rye flour, running it through a series of tests like we did at wd-50.  But we’re all involved.  Some dishes have more influence from one chef or another, but a dish won’t go on the menu until we’re all happy with it.

If you were to dine at your own restaurant, what would you order?
I’d say the Rye Pasta, along with a really cool Crostini with pumpernickel toast from Moishe’s, topped with Trout Roe, Grilled Kale and Sunchoke Puree.  The Foie Gras is great.  We stuff a terrine into an apple, and then we cut slices of it and serve with Chartreuse Yogurt.  The Cauliflower is really cool, fried with Lardo.  If you came in and ordered those, you’d have a really good meal.

Are there any dishes you can remember trying out for the menu that absolutely did not work?
We’ve had several over the years at wd-50, that’s for sure!  One thing I made was bacon yogurt, the old school way.  It tasted like socks.  It was the grossest thing I’ve ever made in my life.  We did pretty good with Alder, though.  I’ve been developing recipes since December, so I knew where I was going.  I’m sure there will be more failed experiments, though!

You competed on (and won) the holiday episode of the Food Network show, Chopped.  What made you decide to give food TV a whirl?
Back then, there was Top Chef and this new show, Chopped.  I would watch the show and talk shit to the TV.  So when Chopped started making the rounds at restaurants, and dropped off info at wd-50, I decided to try out as a dare to myself.  I figured, hey, if I lose, no one watches this anyway.  And I won.  I just did my thing and it worked out well.  And then I went onto Chopped Champions and over-thought it and went home!

Do you think that shows like Chopped, which are so extreme, can really accurately represent the skill and the style of the chefs that compete?
I don’t think any television show accurately depicts the skills of a chef.  Maybe one aspect of their skills.  Some chefs are thinkers, some are better at creating menus than they are about executing them.  Some are better at making eggs 1000 times in a week, some are good at all these things.  So if a person does badly on the show, it doesn’t make them a bad chef and vice versa.

Did you think the fact that you already look at ingredients in such an out-of-the-box way through wd-50 contributed to your success on that show?
I do definitely.  There was a dish at wd-50 years ago that was Venison Tartare.  During the appetizer round I had already decided if I got a piece of meat, I would make a tartare.  And I ended up getting a loin of venison.  So yeah, nothing is too weird or out of the box for me anymore.  Of course, it can be a hindrance because what I perceive as normal some people can see as weird.

Have you ever recreated any of those dishes you made on Chopped, either in your own life or at the restaurants?
Actually, I made a Quince and Egg Nog Puree as an amuse for wd-50.  I was going to do something with caviar, and a lot of people serve it with eggs.  So I thought it would be cool to accompany it with the puree.

What did you do with that Chopped money?
They take 35 percent off for taxes, so I spent the remainder on a trip to Jamaica and spared no expense.  It was awesome.  People think they can open a restaurant or something with that money.  You can’t even buy the plates for a restaurant.  You can’t even buy a square foot.  Your life isn’t going to change dude, you’ll pay off some bills and take a trip or buy a new TV!

Do you think you’d ever participate in any other food competitions?
I think I’m probably done.  Food TV is getting out of control.  Of course, Wylie and I will do anything if it will help the restaurant to be successful.  But I don’t see it as a career path for me.  I really want to be in a restaurant, be a teacher, have young kids come in and learn from me.  That gives me a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and success.  If I’m respected by my peers and the people that work for me, and people enjoy themselves at the restaurant, it’s all I care about.

You have the top dog position at a really great and exciting new restaurant.  But what’s your ultimate dream as a chef?  What’s your endgame?
This may sound boring, but I just really want to find some balance. I would love to help Wylie perpetuate his brand and maybe the next restaurant will be more about me than Wylie. And maybe I’ll do something in Brooklyn, because that’s where I live and there are a lot of cool things going on there. But finding balance is my goal. I’m always amazed at chefs that are successful and still have families.

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