The thing about Alex Stupak is you never know what he’s going to do next. Which is why he’s one of the most exciting chefs in the country right now. I mean who walks away from an acclaimed career in pastry at wd-50 to open a taqueria, nevermind that he’s not even from Mexico? And just a few weeks ago, he opened his second restaurant, Empellon Cocina, in under a year. Stupak has once again defied convention with his new, taco-less Mexican spot, where he dares to explores the possibilities of Mexican cooking with pairings, like sea urchin mousse and masa or scallops with huitlacoche (Mexican truffles) and rutabaga.
Nowadays, Stupak leaves the desserts up to his wife, Lauren, who works alongside him at Empellon Cocina. But when asked if he misses being a pastry chef, he says, “I miss it very much. I’d like to do something with desserts again. Maybe a book about the past if nothing else.” (We smell a book deal.)
Ask Alex what his favorite Mexican joint in New York is (other than his own) and he’ll tell you Hecho en Dumbo is better than Empellon in several ways. As for the naysayers who thought he was crazy for walking away from his pastry career to open a Mexican joint, he tells us, “I knew they were wrong then, so nothing has changed. Even if I fail it’s not a waste of anything because personal growth is priceless. Failure will make a certain group of people smile and success will make another group smile. It would be a waste of talent to do nothing but what your already good at for the rest of your career.”
First off, congratulations on the overnight success of Empellon Cocina! What was your
inspiration for the restaurant and why was it so important for you to create a “taco-less” menu this time around?
Thank you! Our goal for Cocina is to have a creative kitchen focused on Mexican cooking. It’s important to have a taco-free menu the same it’s important for some Japanese restaurants to not serve sushi or for some Spanish restaurants not to serve tapas. Mexican cooking is broad and vast and we want to explore all of it.
How would you explain the distinctions between the two restaurants beside the fact
that Empellon Cocina is more formal than the Taqueria?
Cocina is actually less formal is several ways. At Taqueria, we try to find products we
are compelled to cook and place them lovingly on a tortilla. At Cocina, we are
trying to have a fun and creative environment to sample Mexican flavors in.
How does one of the best pastry chefs in the country go from crafting desserts at wd~50 to cooking Mexican and leaving the desserts to your wife to boot?!
I stopped making desserts at wd~50 because I knew my work would not change in any
meaningful way. I was comfortable. Creativity has to be about doing something
you don’t know how to do. Mexican was a logical shift because it tastes better
than any other cuisine. I work with Lauren because she is dedicated and
tireless, not because of our relationship.
Where did you meet your wife? In the kitchen?
I met Lauren at the bar of the place I was working at, Clio in Boston. I was coming
up to get a quick drink at the end of service and met her then. She was a cook
at No. 9 Park. We chatted for a bit and the next day I called her at work and
asked her out on a date.
Do you miss the pastry station or are you content on the savory side of things these days?
I do miss it very much. I’d like to do something with desserts again. Maybe a book about the past if nothing else.
Empellon Cocina offers about a dozen kinds of mole. Did you learn the art of mole in
Mexico and how did you develop your recipes? Some restaurants have chefs solely devoted to mole, so in your opinion, what’s the key to a great mole?
I’m self taught when it comes to making mole and when we translate one into the restaurant world we write very careful recipes. Skipping what seem like meaningless details will end in bad results. We also only allow one person to
make a mole from start to finish.
Describe your ideal meal at Empellon Cocina right now.
Based on customer response, I’d say the carrots, shrimp, tetilla cheese, gordita, cod
and rabbit. That’s probably enough food for three people though.
We had one of the best meals for 2012 at Empellon Cocina a few weeks ago. How do you manage to walk the line between celebrating traditional Mexican cuisine while still experimenting with new flavors and techniques?
I’m happy to hear! We are always trying to pinpoint what makes a Mexican dish Mexican and if
it loses any of those qualities we don’t serve it. The goal is to create and
refine without stripping the soul out of the whole thing.
When did you realize that Empellon Taqueria was running smoothly enough for you to
turn your attention to opening a new restaurant?
It isn’t yet really because we keep making the operation more complicated. Nothing will ever be perfect, so you might as well keep pressing on. Once Taqueria turned a profit we began looking for another spot. That was in week
What regions of Mexico dishes have influenced your cooking the most?
Oaxaca, Yucatan and Veracruz.
Are there any skills you’ve developed while working as a pastry chef that have been really helpful to your current career as a savory chef?
Working with dough and hydrocolloids definitely has given me a unique perspective on masa.
How do you balance the grueling work of a chef with having a personal life? Does working with your wife make that more difficult or easier?
I don’t. There is no balance. Balance would feel unbalanced right now. There is good and bad to
working with your spouse but in my case life is easier and actually richer because of it.
Have you eaten at wd~50 since you left? What do you think of the pastries they’re serving now? (We won’t tell anyone.)
I have eaten at wd~50 since I’ve left and it is still my favorite restaurant in New
York City. With Malcolm Livingston running the pastry department, the desserts are better than ever.
When you left wd~50 to open Empellon, a few critics said that you were wasting your
talents. What do you say to those critics now?
I knew they were wrong then, so nothing has changed. Even if I fail it’s not a waste of anything because personal growth is priceless. Failure will make a certain group of people smile and success will make another group smile. It would be a waste of talent to do nothing but what your already good at for the rest of your career.
How do you think New Yorkers’ attitudes towards Mexican food has changed over the years? Do you still think most diners have a ways to go in terms of recognizing true Mexican cuisine?
I think everyone is looking for excellent iterations of ethnic cuisines beyond all the European ones so in my opinion the sky is the limit for this cuisine. From my experience there are just as many scholars as there are ignorant types that think in false absolutes. They grew up with something they loved and declare that the only authentic thing there is in the world. I’ve had people tell me that black beans in Mexican cuisine are not authentic. There is and always will be ignorance but that’s okay. It’s important to focus on all the positives and try to shut the rest out.
Other than your own, what’s the best Mexican restaurant in New York?
Hecho en Dumbo. In several ways, they are better than us.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years – with an empire of Mexican restaurants perhaps?
I hope so.
You’re on your deathbed…Sex or dinner? (Yes, you must pick one!)
Address: 105 1st Ave. bet. 6th and 7th St.
Phone: (212) 780-0999
Address: 230 West 4th St. nr. W. 10th St.
Phone: (212) 367-0999