Hugue Dufour Cultivates Culinary Inspiration in Long Island City

Credit: Jessie Winter

“I dream of a restaurant where nobody would come,” says Hugue Dufour, the French-Canadian chef behind M. Wells Dinette at MoMA PS1 and M. Wells Steakhouse in Long Island City. “But there would be a few bedrooms so that if people did come, they could stay over.” With his dreams, rugged three-day-stubble and Jean Gabin charm, Dufour is drawing a growing number of die-hard fans to his sincere, genial cuisine.

“I don’t start with a menu,” he said. “First comes the location, then the inspiration hits.” And on June 25, he will open a new spot, the outdoor terrace of M. Wells Steakhouse. There, with his own hands, he built a concrete wood oven decorated with a seashell amalgam. “Everything on the new menu will be prepared outside.” Diners will feast on a puff pastry tomato and thyme tart, fried breaded boudin blanc links, shellfish aioli, and grilled stuffed squid to name a few dishes.

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Dufour knew he would become a chef at 14, but later on, after only five months at culinary school, “I did everything to get fired.” Forget the classroom, Dufour would learn to cook on the job, but not just any job. “I claimed I was still in school to land a stage with the multi-starred Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef Norman Laprise at Toqué!” Dufour would stay two years before heading to Martin Picard’s revered Pied de Cochon where he dutifully stayed 9 years as sous-chef.

“Norman Laprise and Martin Picard have truly left their mark on Montreal’s culinary landscape,” said Jean-Philippe Tastet, food critic for the daily newspaper Le Devoir. “Laprise, because 30 years ago he was the first to encourage local producers; Picard, because his unique ‘caveman cuisine’ is deliriously rich, but delicious and unlike any other.”

At M. Wells Dinette, in the former school now converted into a modern art museum, no effort was spared to recreate the mythic classroom of our childhood: diners sit side by side at grown-up desks hiding pencils and notebooks in their drawers. The menu is scribbled on blackboards, and rows of books from the adjacent bookstore serve as the back wall. Facing the “class,” the open kitchen is framed by towering metallic shelves. “I wanted to recreate a cabinet of curiosities from the Renaissance,” explains Dufour. “In Canada, everyone always ends up in the kitchen. Growing up on the farm, we even used to ‘watch’ hockey games on the kitchen radio.”

The menu seems simple enough, but a closer look betrays the chef’s country roots and pedigree: cold asparagus soup brings to mind springtime meadows; a light but flavorful medley of tripe and spring vegetables, and plump, tender duck breast.

“Our first idea was to create a real magasin (general store) and we chose my family name, Wells,” said Sarah Obraitis, Dufour’s spouse and right hand. The magasin became a restaurant, but the M stuck. It was Obraitis who grew up in Queens and still lived there when the two met.

The pair first opened in a venerable diner where Dufour cooked calves’ brains and a foie gras meatloaf shaped like an angel food cake—dishes that landed him on culinary blogs. Forced to close after their rent was unceremoniously hiked, they set their sights on an old auto shop in need of a complete renovation. That unusual space would become M. Wells Steakhouse.

“The challenge was to keep up with the millions of ideas from Hugue and Sarah,” said Marion Sultan, project manager at In House Group.

In Montreal with Picard, Dufour “cooked every kind of Canadian game,” but in Long Island City, he sends out skewers of grilled kidneys, plays with the salted herbs that his mother already gathered along the river.  “Savory!” he cries, “No one uses savory!” He offers blood sausage as a side, and in front of the enormous wood fire grill, trout swim around in their tank, awaiting the net of destiny.

There’s no beaver or moose on the menu, but a bone-in cut of beef the chef calls “Tomahawk” could feed four. It’s impossible to finish the pile of finely sliced pork chops, patterned with thin black stripes fresh from the grill.  And then, a sophisticated rhubarb and violet profiterole arrives stabbed with a steak knife as large as a dagger. Suddenly, it’s clear. In Dufour’s kitchen, finesse and rusticity coexist constantly. And his appetite for life is as humongous as his portions.