NEW YORK — Rarely smiling or saying more than was necessary as he created a twisting column of chocolate ganache or turned peanut butter into powder, Alex Stupak was an intense figure in Grant Achatz's intense kitchen as Alinea's opening pastry chef.
He combined a mastery of so-called molecular gastronomy with a keen artistic eye, a restless creative drive, a fine-tuned sense of what tastes great and a stubborn perfectionist streak. When he left Alinea in 2006 after a little more than a year to work with Chef Wylie Dufresne at another forward-thinking restaurant, New York's wd-50, his reputation continued to rise.
And when it was time for him to strike out on his own, Stupak figured he could have followed the path paved by those modern-cooking pioneers and was offered ample financial support to do so.
"If I had done some pastry-driven molecular gastronomy, whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it (restaurant), that was the logical thing, and I was pedigreed to do that," the 33-year-old chef said. "They were lining up to give me that money — which was an indicator to me that I shouldn't take it."
A contrarian by nature, Stupak nonetheless said he wasn't driven sheerly by the notion of doing something different.
"It started as a very simple 'What do I like to eat most?'" he said. "I thought it was interesting that the cuisine that I more or less enjoy eating most just in terms of balance, texture and all these things was what I've never cooked."
That is, Mexican food.
OK, two things:
1. When you're a modern pastry chef, moving into savory food — particularly what's considered an ethnic food — is seen as a bit of a stretch.
2. Did you get the part where Stupak said he'd never cooked Mexican food?
Yet that was the concept he was taking to investors.
"It was very difficult," he said. "Never been executive chef of a restaurant ever. Never cooked Mexican food ever. Not Mexican. And you need a million dollars. Tough sell."
Now Stupak was sitting at the bar of Empellon Cocina in the East Village, the restaurant he opened early last year, 11 months after he launched the wildly popular Empellon Taqueria in the West Village. Saturday brunch service had just ended, but many customers lingered while others entered off the street to sample the mezcal-heavy drinks list.
Food & Wine named Stupak to its Top 10 list of Best New Chefs in April, and Pete Wells called the Cocina "Alex Stupak's free-associating mash note to the food of Mexico" in his two-star New York Times review, prompting congratulations from people who told the chef that Cocina was the Times' first new two-star Mexican restaurant in nine years.
"And I felt (expletive deleted) insulted by it," Stupak said. "Because the mentality is like, 'Oh, you're doing good for Mexican.' It makes me angry, but it compels me to go forward."
The finest French and Italian restaurants, after all, will receive four New York Times stars and three Michelin Guide stars without a blink. Those cuisines are seen existing on higher planes, while Mexican cooking remains "misunderstood," Stupak said.
"I could never learn everything about Mexican, and I could never run out of things to do with it, and I like that it's the underdog in that when people think of French cooking or Italian cooking or Spanish cooking, they don't think of them as ethnic cuisines," he said, calling French food "just as ethnic as Mexican."
That is to say, what most people think of as "Mexican food" — guacamole, tacos, sopes, ceviche, queso fundido, margaritas — barely scratches the cuisine's surface and likely wouldn't be found together on an actual Mexican menu. Dishes are different from Mexican region to region, and those are different from California-Mexican or Tex-Mex food.
So Stupak didn't attempt to please the "authentic" crowd or try to appeal to widespread notions of what a Mexican restaurant should be. At first he didn't even want to serve tacos at the Cocina, arguing that not every Italian restaurant has to serve pizza — but when he added them to the menu, he said walk-in traffic in his relatively challenging East Village location increased 60 percent.
But the Cocina's taco fillings include short rib pastrami, English peas and wild spinach with chicken confit served on made-to-order tortillas. The multiple guacamole offerings include a pistachio guacamole (Stupak likes how the pistachio's green exterior and yellow interior mirrors that of an avocado — and they taste excellent together) and a sea urchin guacamole generously appointed with sea urchin mixed into it and laid atop it with a sea urchin salsa on the side.
In other words, Stupak is using Mexican cooking as a jumping-off point for his creativity. Although he makes a traditional Oaxacan black mole, he untraditionally combines it with squid ink to turn it even blacker and then serves it with squid. He presents a mole poblano, normally a chicken accompaniment, with carrots, yogurt and watercress. Also on the menu: lamb tartare and a black bean vermicelli.
"Rick's a pioneer," Stupak said. "If I'm complaining about people's level of education in Mexican food, it must've been worse for him by a factor of 20. He actually had to do a lot of the educating. I don't think I could be doing what I was doing if there wasn't a Rick Bayless out there."
But Stupak has his own way of dealing with elements such as masa, the traditional Mexican corn dough.
"Technically I'm a pastry chef at heart, so when I began working with masa, I decided rather than making things that people have a reference point for, meaning like a huarache or sope or things like this, I was much more interested in manipulating it in my own way because it's a dough, and it has starch in it, which is a hydrocolloid, and those are things that I understand deeply," he said. "Hence you could have masa waves or masa wires or masa crisps or masa tempura or all these other things."
The masa wire harks back to a chocolate wire he made at wd-50, and that technique served as the inspiration for a quinoa thread currently on Next's Vegan menu, which acknowledges Stupak in print. Next executive chef Dave Beran, whose Alinea tenure overlapped with Stupak's for a few months, said although the quinoa thread ultimately was made a bit differently, his former colleague made suggestions as Beran sent him work-in-progress photos.
"He said if you add a little more glucose to it, it will make it a little more elastic," Beran recalled. "He's definitely very brilliant."
Achatz, who oversees Next as well as Alinea, said he has eaten at each of Stupak's restaurants twice and had "phenomenal meals" each time.
"Hands down I think Alex Stupak was and probably still is the best pastry chef in America, and he decided to cook savory food, which I think is a (daring) and risk-taking move on his part that is paying off exponentially," Achatz said. "He's killing it."
Stupak said he is looking into opening a third Empellon in New York, perhaps focusing on more traditional Mexican dishes, and he'd also like to export the Taqueria concept to other cities and to get out a cookbook. Beyond that, he's leaving his options open to his creativity.
"There's always a newer, bigger, more bad-ass restaurant with a chef with a bigger name than yours opening up," he said. "That's always going to happen. So what do you do? You have to constantly reinvent everything."