Wylie Dufresne has enjoyed a decorated career as a classically trained chef. Lately, he’s added a new flex: Dufresne is fast becoming one of the most eclectic pizza makers in New York City, slinging 12” New York-inspired pies out of Stretch Pizza, a full-service restaurant in the Flatiron District, and carving out his own niche in a crowded market.

The menu at Stretch Pizza has pies based on an Everything Bagel and a famous grilled cheese sandwich. So how did a renowned, James Beard Award-winning chef find his way to making innovative 12” pies in a casual pizzeria? There’s a story there. But first, the back story. 

Dufresne attended the French Culinary Institute before working in the kitchen at Jean-Georges, the famous Manhattan establishment that’s produced a “who’s who” of New York City chefs. Early in his career, Dufresne was already on people’s radar: he was a finalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award in 2000 for the work he was doing at 71 Clinton Fresh Food. 

Related: James Beard Finalists Include Three People in the Pizza Space

In 2003, Dufresne opened his own concept, wd~50, which was awarded a Michelin Star when the guide expanded to the U.S. He was nominated for multiple other James Beard Awards and ultimately won Best Chef in New York City in 2013.  

Along the way, Dufresne earned a reputation as one of the leaders in molecular gastronomy, or the belief in a science-based approach to cooking. He even brought that philosophy to the menu of his fast casual brand, Du’s Donuts, a donut and coffee shop he opened in New York City. 

Like so many other people in the pizza space, the pandemic was a turning point for Dufresne. When lockdowns and quarantines began in March 2020, Dufresne, his wife and two kids left their apartment in New York City to go live with Dufresne’s sister-in-law in Connecticut. 

In the years leading up to that watershed moment, Dufresne had largely taken a break from traditional restaurant kitchens as he grew Du’s Donuts. Suddenly, his culinary chops were back in demand. “We were an 8-top in Connecticut,” Dufresne said. “And I guess I became the most likely candidate to start feeding people.” 

What better way to feed eight hungry people stuck at home than with pizza? He began experimenting with dough recipes and baking pizza in a Breville oven that only had space for 12” pies—quite a bit smaller than the typical 18” pies New York is famous for, the ones Dufresne grew up eating. 

The thing about Dufresne is that he doesn’t do anything unless he’s going to go all in. So if he was going to start making pizza, he was going to deeply submerge himself in the world—and that’s how a James Beard Award-winning chef became one of the many people during the pandemic who was consuming large amounts of pizza-making content. 

“I went through all of the usual suspects,” Dufresne said. “I got to know the players in the industry and started watching all of the YouTube videos, from Marc Vetri to Tony Geminangi to Chris Bianco.

“I tend to fall down a rabbit hole,” Dufresne continued. “I bought every book that was relatively recent about pizza making and just immersed myself in that world.” 

Dufresne was also quickly acquainted with the tight-knit community of pizza makers on social media. He says many operators reached out to him directly to offer tips and tricks to help make his pizza that much better, some of whom remain friends and resources to this day. One such friend is Peyton Smith, owner and operator of Mission Pizza Napoletana. The two became acquainted on social media, and Smith was impressed with Dufresne’s determination to become not just a tourist in the world of pizza, but to live there full time.

“The number of chefs who have attempted to make pizza and, frankly, leveraged their bona fides but phoned in the pizza part—well, it’s an endless list,” Smith said. “Wylie is the exception. He is as acclaimed as any chef in America… but he has fully embraced pizza making; he is committed to being excellent.”

Riding the support of the pizza-making community, Dufresne began to consider opening up a pizzeria. And when things began to return to normal in New York City, Dufresne made the hard decision to shut down the beloved Du’s Donuts. He realized he had missed working in a restaurant and the pizzeria he was thinking of opening was suddenly coming into focus. In search of a business partner, he turned to Gadi Peleg, owner of Breads Bakery, the famous establishment located around the corner from Dufresne’s Manhattan apartment.

At first, Peleg wasn’t crazy about the idea. He knew Dufresne as a great chef, but he also knew Dufresne hadn’t ever made pizza for a living. How was he supposed to believe Dufresne could open up a successful pizzeria in the most competitive pizza city in the country? 

“So I made him some pies,” Dufresne said. “He ate them and he said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’” 

Based on how good the pizzas were, Peleg invited Dufresne to do regular pop-ups at his bakery. Six months later, riding the momentum of those pop-ups and with the help of other investors, the duo opened Stretch Pizza together. One of the pies that Dufresne cooked for Peleg when he was first trying to convince him that he had what it took was The Everything, the aforementioned pizza that has become a signature pie at Stretch Pizza and was inspired by an Everything Bagel. 

“I loved white pie as a little kid,” Dufresne said. “I was thinking about how we could make a white pie our own, and what’s more New York than a bagel? And obviously, the Everything Bagel has enjoyed a good life in New York City.” 

The pizza’s white base, meant to evoke the cream cheese atop an everything bagel, is made with low-moisture mozzarella and a custom cream cheese made with milk and lactic acid. The pie is finished with chives, parmesan and a house blend of Everything Bagel seasoning. These are the type of pies that are the result of Dufresne’s singular culinary mind, one that’s always working to get better at whatever it is taking on.

“I’m constantly evolving my pies,” Dufresne said. “But my tinkering probably manifests itself in the constant quest to make our dough better. Whatever iteration it is, I’ve made 25 variations of the same dough. I’m a hopeless tinkerer in that way—and it’s not just for show. I always feel like hey, we can probably make this taste better.” 

The Everything pizza is just one example of how Stretch Pizza has fast become one of the most unique pizza destinations in New York City. Another pie on the menu is The Old Town Pie, which is based on a grilled cheese sandwich served at Old Town Bar & Restaurant, a legendary establishment in the Flatiron District, around the corner from Stretch Pizza.

Old Town Bar & Restaurant is probably most famous for its burger, but also serves what Dufresne calls a “sleeper of a grilled cheese” sandwich, made with sauteed mushrooms and muenster cheese. That’s what goes on his Old Town Pizza: sauteed mushrooms, garlic and muenster. 

“A lot of people seem to make sandwiches based on pizza,” Dufresne said. “I actually tend to go the other way: I think sandwiches can help inspire some really great ideas for pizzas.” For further proof of this, see another sandwich-inspired Stretch Pizza special: El Cubano.

The rest of the Stretch Pizza menu includes a further diverse selection of pies, as well as playful starters like Basil Chickpea Fries, Potato Chip Salad, Pull-Apart Meatball Sliders and more. There’s wine, beer and cocktails, as well as dessert. But at the end of the day, Stretch Pizza is still a pizza concept. For now, that’s where Dufresne is hanging his hat—and letting his unique culinary vision take over. It would seem the pizza world is taking note.

“I have eaten his pizza many times,” Smith said. “I first ate his pizza when he was doing pop-ups, and I’ve since eaten multiple times at Stretch Pizza. What I’ve been most impressed with is his direction and consistent improvement. My favorite pizza of his? It’s always the next one.”

Food & Ingredients