Ex-Chicagoan conquers Mexican food

From sweet to savory, Alex Stupak triumphs in N.Y.

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Alex Stupak

Chef Alex Stupak: Food & Wine named Stupak to its Top 10 list of Best New Chefs in April (Daniel Krieger Photography)

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.

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