Inspired Cuisine From South of the Border
Highly regarded for his avant garde desserts at modernist temples Alinea and wd~50, Alex Stupak surprised the culinary world when he opened a Mexican restaurant in 2010. Once the critics got over their bewilderment and tasted his creative take on this rich culinary tradition, most realized he’s just as good with moles and salsas as he was with inventive pastries. At Empellón Taqueria and the more upscale Cocina, Alex churns out brilliant Mexican food, that as he puts it, is “informed by authenticity but not limited to it.” Stupak’s ambitious cuisine hasn’t gone unnoticed, this year he was named to Food & Wine’s list of Best New Chefs. We chat with Alex about going from pastries to tacos, carving a path for upscale Mexican cuisine and his favorite restaurants in NYC.
AndrewZimmern.com: You’ve worked at Alinea, wd~50 and Clio, how have these experiences effected your cooking style or your definition of fine dining?
Alex Stupak: They are all very different chefs and restaurants. The common thing that they all taught me is to lean into your fears, rather than let them govern how you think and what you cook.
AZ.com: As an acclaimed pastry chef, most people probably didn’t expect you to open a taqueria. What was your inspiration?
AS: My primary inspiration is the deliciousness of Mexican cooking. Beyond that, it’s important for me to continue to grow and evolve throughout my career. I believe that creativity is about doing what you don’t know how to do. To that point, if I had simply continued on the path of a pastry chef I would have found myself in a rut.
AZ.com: Mexican food is often served in a casual setting, yet you’ve been wildly successful with a more upscale concept. What have you done to break through that misconception?
AS: We try our hardest to straddle nailing what people already love about this style of cooking in the United States, as well as exposing them to what they should start learning to love. I dislike the idea of grafting these flavors onto a Eurocentric meal structure. We try to do what’s right for the cuisine and define our own concept of what fine dining means along the way.
AZ.com: You’re known for your incredible sauce work. What would you say is the key to making a great, well-balanced sauce?
AS: There is a lot of technique in Mexican cooking focused on tempering the harsh nature of chiles. The key is to pay attention to the way Mexican cooks have been cooking for eons and assume that you don’t know any better.
AZ.com: 5 must-have pantry items for Mexican food?
AS: Chiles, masa, tomatoes, white onions and garlic.
AZ.com: Favorite spots to eat in NYC?
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
AS: Sparkling water, sake, Hellmann’s, lasagna, parmesan cheese and champagne.
Get Alex’s recipe for Guacamole with Pistachios and Smoked Cashew Salsa.
Alex Stupak, formerly the pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50 is one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2013 and chef-owner of the James Beard-award nominated restaurant, Empellón Cocina. In 2010, Alex opened Empellón Taquería in New York’s West Village and, less than a year later, he opened Empellón Cocina. Standing behind the philosophy that both defines and is defined by Empellón, which means “push” in Spanish, Alex pushes himself and his team to explore the flavors of Mexican cuisine.