Hugue Dufour of M. Wells on His Love of Queens, the Disappearing Diner, and Manhattan as the Fifth Borough
Hugue Dufour, in shaggier days.
Our Man Sietsema pronounced it mere weeks after it opened: M. Wells is home to "some of the most innovative cooking in the city." Quite a claim for a diner in Queens that's only open till 3 p.m. (for now). So, just how is chef-owner Hugue Dufour, formerly of Montreal's pork-and-foie gras palace Au Pied de Cochon, doing it?
Why do you think New Yorkers are responding so strongly to the restaurant?
The diner is something really typically American, [but] they're all disappearing lately. They're all moving somewhere else. This is a comforting place. You stop in and there's all sorts of people. In the morning, from 7 to 9, it's a totally different crowd -- it's mostly workers. Of course, now we get foodies coming in from Brooklyn and Manhattan because we're doing something different. We're trying to keep the diner idea and also accommodate people from the neighborhood. They walk in and just ask for whatever -- say, a Western omelet with only whites -- and we do it. And after 9, we'll have totally different customers and the actual menu. So, it's kind of cool.
How long have you been in New York? I moved for good this past November. I was in and out for a while. I had a show in Montreal [on Food Network Canada]. We would shoot an episode once a month, so I would go then come back [regularly].
How do you like the city so far?
I really enjoy it, especially Queens. I love Queens. I feel like there's always something to do in Queens and I'm always talking about Queens. I talk about Manhattan as the fifth borough. I go there only if I really need to.
How did you pick Queens to settle in? It's so diversified. Our neighborhood, I think, is the most diverse on earth, or something like that. Everything is possible. In the morning I served yazyk [boiled beef tongue], just to give it a try, and some Russian lady came in and was like, "Oh my God. That reminds me of home." Everyone has a different background, and it allows you to serve many things. Some people will completely not like it and some people will love it. In a place like Montreal, everyone's exposed to these things. [Here, people are curious.] So, that allows me to serve meat tongue and tartar at 8 a.m., which is not bad. Are you doing Montreal cuisine, then? I'm from Montreal and I spent most of my life cooking in Montreal, so of course I'm cooking with those influences. But even if I have a huge respect for it, I know there are people from Manhattan that are doing things that you would find in Montreal. I want to do the American thing first, but I also love maple syrup, so I'm going to use it all over the place. We should use that instead of corn syrup anyway.
When are you extending the menu to dinner service? Now we are waiting for the liquor license because a lot of things call for wine and beer. That would be a tease, to put foie gras [on the menu and not have wine]. Even this week, we are going to start slowly, getting some foie gras on there. But it's too much; you need something to cut all the fat. Myself, I wouldn't go to a place that doesn't serve alcohol, even for breakfast. In about three weeks, hopefully, we'll be able to open at night. Right now we keep adding dishes every day. How is the food scene different here from Montreal?
It's fairly different. I used to work like a crazy maniac, being paid almost nothing. I don't mean that cooks here are overpaid, but it's a totally different ball game. I would work like 16 hours a day, going and stopping at lunchtime for an hour and coming back and being paid nothing, and it was just about building your résumé slowly. Here, expenses in the city are really high and you need money. It's a different approach, so I have to work with [little to no help]. We're starting slowly, but it's a hard thing.
Are you still a partner at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal? No, I sold my shares when I moved. I'm in a good relationship with them and they come here once in a while, helping me for the weekend and stuff like that.
What are some of your favorite dishes on the menu?
I love the staff meal. It's always different. Right now, we have a breakfast sandwich, which I think is great and people love it. We're making fried chicken skin, that I quite like also. It's slowly going to become our bacon, so we're going to use it for making sandwiches. I'm in front of the griddle a lot, which is our main cooking instrument right now, and I'm doing whatever [making people different things]. I'm using them as guinea pigs.
Do you have any favorite restaurants since you moved here?
Like many people, I quite like Momofuku. I like Minetta Tavern, as well. But I'm not going out that often, to be honest. I would go to Roberta's. ... The place is great, you feel great, you know the people, and it makes it totally different than just having a meal. I have so much food in my life, I don't know. When I crave something special, I just cook it.
Stay tuned for Part Deux of the interview tomorrow.
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