Wylie Dufresne Dazzles a Roomful of Kids

He brought plenty of nitrogen, balloons, Teddy Grahams, raspberries, heavy cream—standard mise en place for a kitchen magician.

It’s no secret that Wylie Dufresne is a wizardly kind of chef. As one of the elder statesmen of molecular gastronomy, his career has been dotted with countless feats of near-magic. His talents are impressive enough to grown-ups—what would an 8-year-old think?

This is not an idle inquiry; Dufresne recently held court with a room full of youngsters at MOFAD (have I told you, lately, that I love you?) He brought plenty of nitrogen, balloons, Teddy Grahams, raspberries, heavy cream—standard mise en place for a kitchen magician.

The event was part of the inaugural Tilt Kids Festival, an uber-hip happening co-presented by the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). I’m starting to get a little jealous of New York kids (see: Michelin-starred dining). In my youth, I remember it was cool when my dad let me accompany him to the dump.

This MOFAD event was clearly for kiddies first—I had to abjectly beg just to get a media pass. And once I arrived the ticket lady seemed skeptical until someone told her I was press: “Oh I was wondering where your kids were.” (Read: I was wondering why some bearded creep was standing there shiftily.) Inside, all the best seats were reserved for younguns; me and the parents had to sit on funny stools in back.

The demo was, frankly, pretty awesome. Liquid nitrogen featured into everything. It truly is mesmerizing to see, say, orange slices dunked in the stuff, then smashed into teeny-tiny pieces. Dufresne did a nice job tying in the visual razzle-dazzle with real explanations of how those orange bits could then be used in a restaurant kitchen. In essence, he was explaining that even though this stuff was a lot of fun, he does it with purpose and precision in his ah, “day job.”

In my youth, I remember it was cool when my dad let me accompany him to the dump.

Everything got its own nitrogen treatment—deep-frozen honey was a highlight—and just about everything got passed around for the snacking. Dufresne displayed a masterful touch with the kids, funny and engaging without a touch of condescension. If he didn’t have enough goodies to go around, he’d reward random kids; to my mind it seemed like he picked the quieter, less grabby ones. When one little girl dropped her frozen honey on the ground, and was clearly on the verge of a meltdown, Dufresne calmly passed her another. Tears to giggles.

My favorite item was the raspberries. Did you know they break into a bunch of individual nubbins when you deep-freeze and smash them? Me neither! It was such a charming parlor trick. Surely speaking the thoughts of many attendees (or just me), one mom casually asked where she could get some liquid nitrogen of her own. Dufresne indicated it might be a little tricky to buy from an industrial supplier, unless you could prove you were a chef or some other professional-in-need. Oh bother.

The final trick was adding liquid nitrogen to a stand mixer filled with cream—voilà, instant ice cream. This was a nice finale, and not just because everyone got ice cream. The smoke-like nitrogen billowed out of the stand mixer and spread onto the floor (like all the coolest Halloween parties). And despite his deep focus on the task at hand, Dufresne put safety first. When eager kids sprung out of their seats to get closer to the magic, he was good at firmly setting boundaries.

When I headed out into the Williamsburg afternoon, I had a bit of the tilted equilibrium you get after an illusory experience. Anything could happen!

Not much did, though. It was raining. I got lunch.

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Jesse Hirsch

Formerly the print editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, Jesse Hirsch now works as the New York editor for GOOD magazine.