From creating foams and gels in celebrated kitchens, Alex Stupak is taking a punk rock attitude to revolutionising Mexican food for Manhattan’s elite
When a chef talks about ideology but frames it in terms of punk rock, it is, to say the least, refreshing. With Alex Stupak in his Empellón Cocina restaurant in New York’s East Village, the conversation is riveting from the start.
He may not be a household name, but Stupak is one of the gastro elite. Albert Adrià visited the Big Apple to cook with him last year, and this month he was one of the chefs invited to join Massimo Bottura to discuss mentorship at the Identità New York roundtable event, in advance of the San Pellegrino Best Young Chef in the World competition, held this weekend in Milan.
As a signed-up member of the foams and spherification school of cooking, Stupak made his name as a pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago and the now-closed WD-50 in New York. But finding the liquid nitrogen bubble had inflated about as far as it was going to, he turned his focus to Mexican cuisine.
“I’m a big fan of adversity, punk rock and middle finger mentality, and it gets upsetting as you start to get close to this cuisine,” he says.
“As outsiders, we have these opinions on it and we like to declare these absolutes — this is authentic and this is not — and usually people’s take on that is very ignorant and myopic. It’s one of those cuisines that in terms of cooking is having a moment. Great chefs are refining it, and saying, ‘We don’t need to put caviar or foie gras on our Mexican food, we don’t need that to make it high end. We have our own version of high end, and maybe that’s using insects or whatever.’ I think that’s interesting, but I’m thinking about it in a more radical way.”
For Stupak, insects are a bit “so what?” and the dialogue, as he sees it, is all a bit boring, although he accepts that as he is not Mexican, his attempts to add his own twist to the country’s cuisine could be considered controversial. “It’s a touchy subject and people get offended on both sides,” he says. “On the Mexican side it’s, ‘Who the f*** are you and what right do you have to do anything with this?’ Which I understand. And on this side it’s, ‘Well I’m from California and the best tacos are here’.
“I know I’m talking about it negatively, but these things fuel me up and charge me. So this is why we have three restaurants and I’m opening a fourth: I’m just going to keep jamming everything down everyone’s throat.”
These might sound like fighting words, but for Stupak it is more of an intellectual question. He gives the example of French cuisine: it is not considered to be “ethnic food” and restaurants which are considered to be French can use Japanese ingredients such as yuzu and miso, without fear of being questioned or of anybody calling foul. It has transcended its borders — and that he considers to be a good thing.
“Mexican cooking right now is still in this very small, very boring conversation to me,” he says. “What region is that from? Is it authentic or not authentic? It is very much about the refinement or giving credit where credit is due, rather than radicalisation of it. I believe in the importance of authenticity and the importance of understanding culinary anthropology in those things, but I don’t believe those should define what I do.”
Stupak has opened three restaurants in New York’s East Village over the past six years: Empellón Taqueria, Empellón Cocina, and Empellón al Pastor. They will soon be joined by a fourth venture: a 170-seater called Empellón on Madison Avenue in midtown Manhattan, a new and highly competitive neighbourhood he is determined to conquer.
“I’m approaching it like it’s the retro-active flagship,” he says. “There are people who eat in midtown but would never eat in the East Village. And the interesting thing about midtown is, the great, iconic three-Michelin-star restaurants are in that area. That’s why I’m opening there.
“One of my goals is to subvert the perception of all of this. The taco is no different from sushi: it started as street food and it elevated and refined itself and now it has manifested at every tier. So you can get sushi in a three-star place, you can also get it in a convenience store and have it for takeout. And I’d like to see the taco do that. I’m building an awfully fancy-looking restaurant to serve tacos in — and I understand that that’s ridiculous and it’s completely intentional.”
The imminent launch of his “fancy-looking taco restaurant” means Stupak has had to put everything else on hold. He was scheduled to be one of the key speakers at the Food on the Edge symposium in Galway later this month, but delays to the opening of his new eaterie meant he has reluctantly had to cancel his first trip to Ireland.
He has certainly put plenty of thought into the venture, using free association and mind mapping to generate ideas. “One of the most basic ways to change a dish is by reversing or inverting the proportions of something that already exists,” he says. He gives the example of tacos al pastor — marinated pork that has been roasted on a vertical spit and is served in thin slices in a flour tortilla with roasted pineapple. By inverting the construct, the pineapple is marinated in chillies instead of the pork and is spit roast with a hunk of lardo on top.
“Sometimes it’s adapted from textural adaptations from other cultures,” he says. “We all know that Peking duck is awesome because it is crispy skin wrapped in that soft flour pancake. There is something texturally gratifying about your teeth sinking into soft and then crunch immediately. So that might be a taco here. We won’t do a flour pancake with duck skin, but we might take chicken skin and put that on a corn tortilla. And I can’t find an example of that in Mexico but I feel like it should exist in the restaurant.”
With a background in pastry, he is also fascinated by masa, the dough used to make corn tortillas. “I don’t just think of it as a sacred hyper-traditional thing, which it is, I also think of it as a dough which you can manipulate and can start to manifest in different ways,” he says. “It’s starch, and starch is a hydrocolloid [a gelatinous gum that forms a gel when combined with water], so then we start to look at other things like taking it out of context: you can make waffles out of it, you can make crispy thin sheets of wire.
“You can take that dish that Michel Bras did with potato waves and you can make that out of masa. You can adapt this gorgeous iconic dish and start doing it with Mexican ingredients. It’s a very fascinating adaptable product.”
It has also been a learning experience. “Maybe we shouldn’t be serving lamb barbacoa,” he says, referring to one of their most popular dishes. “It tastes very strongly of this anise flavour, and then you learn that when they cook the lamb that they bury it under a copious amount of avocado leaves. I didn’t know this, but avocado is the same family as laurel and bay leaf, and the trees produce aromatic leaves with this gorgeous anise flavour.
“We might not make that, but we might make lamb tartare and make an oil that’s heavily infused with Oaxacan chillies and avocado leaves and turn a dish of cooked lamb into a dish of raw lamb but really try to insert that hyper- traditional flavour of that place.”
For Stupak, there must be a robust reason to change a dish. “I just learnt the other day that ramen is boiled in an alkaline solution to give it flavour and texture; so too is corn to make masa. So if I take pozole [a Mexican soup] and strain out the corn and use ramen instead, that’s a dish. You could see how it could be misconstrued — ‘Oh, I get it, Mexican ramen’ — but it goes deeper than that. And it has to. My rule is, we have to be able to intellectually map our way to justify why we did it.”
Stupak believes serving “authentic” Mexican food in New York City is an exercise in futility, as it is always going to taste better in Mexico. He also thinks the hyper-local focus on food is running out of steam. “It has become predictable, and what happens is that everyone starts to play the same game,” he says. “Everyone’s looking for that hyper example of cuisine to emerge up like a phoenix out of some place, and that will be the next place. It was Spain, and then Denmark and Scandinavia. Will China be the next thing? That very well may be.
“I look forward to a future where things become more muddled. I feel like I saw this coming 10 miles away, which is why I went in this direction, and I thought, ‘I don’t know what the hell the future is, but I just want to make the best tacos I can make’.
“ I don’t want to say fusion is coming back, but I hope the future is extremely author-driven and unique. I hope that it becomes delightfully complicated.”
FOOD ON THE EDGE
Last autumn, Galway chef JP McMahon, of the city’s Cava Bodega, managed to persuade an impressive collection of chefs and restaurateurs from around the world to come to the county for the first Food on the Edge symposium. They must have had a good time, because this second year of the annual event has a line up that is even more impressive. It’s again being held in Galway, in the Town Hall Theatre, on October 24 and 25.
Among the world-famous chefs attending this year is Massimo Bottura, whose Osteria Francescana, in Modena, Italy, is No 1 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Virgilio Martinez is coming all the way from Peru, where his restaurant, Central, is ranked No 4. And Margarita Forés will also be racking up the air miles – she has built a fine-dining empire in the Philippines based on classic Italian cooking, and this year she was named Asia’s best female chef.
Other culinary royalty include Pierre Koffmann, who has been serving classic French food to Londoners for almost 50 years, and Christian Puglisi, who cooked in both Noma and elBulli before founding Relae in Copenhagen, the only certified organic Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. Another elBulli veteran is Eduard Xatruch, co-head chef at the famous restaurant for 12 years, who now runs Disfrutar in Barcelona and Compartir in Cadaqués with the other two former elBulli head chefs.
Also speaking will be Gabrielle Hamilton, proprietor of Prune in New York’s East Village, who is equally known for writing and cooking, and won an Emmy award for the television series Mind of a Chef.
Many of those who attended last year’s event will be returning for a second bite at the cherry, including David Kinch (of Manresa in Los Gatos, California, which has three Michelin stars), Matt Orlando (Amass in Copenhagen), Amanda Cohen (the Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant Dirt Candy, in New York), Nathan Outlaw (Outlaw’s, London) and Sasu Laukkonen (Chef & Sommelier, Helsinki).
Not everyone speaking at Food on the Edge hails from exotic foreign climes, however, as many Irish chefs now enjoy an enviable reputation around the world. Some of our home-grown talent is working abroad and coming home to speak , such as Robin Gill, a Dubliner who is impressing London diners at the Dairy and the Manor, and Trevor Moran, another Dub who has done us proud in Nashville, Tennessee, at The Catbird Seat.
Among these foreign guests and returning native sons, there will be speakers currently working in Ireland, such as Dylan McGrath (Rustic Stone and Fade Street Social), Sunil Ghai (Pickle) and Danni Barry (the second woman in Ireland to win a Michelin star, at Eipic in Belfast). The Sunday Times’s own Cliodhna Prendergast will also be on hand, speaking on “food, kids and the community”.