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Empellón's Alex Stupak on Creative Cooking

Photo: Daniel Krieger

It's kind of an old story by now: Alex Stupak leaves wd-50 and the world of pastry to open up Empellón Taqueria, a Mexican spot, on West 4th Street. From the start, he does the savory and his wife Lauren Resler does the sweet. Almost exactly one year after that, he opens a second restaurant, Empellón Cocina, in the East Village, with no tacos and a freewheeling menu that nods to the state of Oaxaca ("It is authentically Mexican," he firmly argues). In the following interview, the chef talks about how he fell in love with Mexican cooking, the instances where he has publicly defended his restaurants, and the notion that what he's doing these days might actually be more "progressive" than what he'd have found on the path he first charted.

There was that great Frank Bruni profile on you, but there isn't much in there about how you fell in love with Mexican cooking. Let's start with that story. Alex Stupak: It wasn't quick. It was a very slow assimilation into it. When I was working as a pastry chef, I would cook a lot at home. I got into Mexican cooking from meeting the woman that eventually became my wife. I would cook at home so much that she would occasionally, out of guilt, cook for me. She'd cook what she grew up with, which was basically what I'll call California Mexican food. That's what her mother cooks for her. I found it to be really delicious. What I'm into now is completely different, but she was kind of the portal for me.

You knew nothing about it before that? Nothing. I don't care about it, I don't know about it, and all that matters is elBulli and molecular gastronomy.

That's kind of how it started. We moved to Chicago together. I'm one-dimensional and have no hobbies, so on my day off I'd go shopping and cook something. I'd go to an Asian market or to a Mexican market — Chicago has amazing Mexican markets where you can get 60 limes for a dollar. You know how you can go into an Asian market and see an ingredient you don't know? I'm the guy who always gets that. I'd do that at the Mexican market. I'll bring it home and research it. I also befriended Brian Enyart, who was the chef at Topolobampo at the time. That was a step closer.

When we were planning our wedding, Lauren's mother would take me out to eat in really interesting restaurants in East L.A. that didn't have front entrances and the servers were the same people that made your guacamole. Those were the places where I first tried fresh masa tortillas. It's similar to the first time you have a baguette in France, where you realize the sandwich doesn't matter if the bread isn't good.

What really drove it home for me was when we went to Oaxaca after the wedding. We went without a plan or knowing what to do, so we just wandered around the markets. Those markets gave me a feeling I didn't know I was craving. It's like the first time you go into a big deal kitchen and someone whips out black truffles. You feel like you're in this exotic new world. It's the same feeling when I read Albert Adrià's first book. That's the feeling that drove me to be a pastry chef. I sort of faked my way through that, since I didn't know anything about pastry before then.

It wasn't really about Mexican food as much as it was that feeling.

So the same thing could have happened in another part of the world? It might have, yes. I think it was at a time when I felt really lost.

Lost in what sense? You were at one of the most exciting restaurants in the world. Even at Alinea, I knew I was going to hit a dead end. I knew I wasn't going to remain a pastry chef and I knew I wasn't going to open a progressive restaurant. I'll say this publicly: "progressive" means constantly changing, and that's diametrically opposed to the idea of a restaurant, even if a restaurant markets itself that way. What has happened is that in the same way that you expect to get a signature pasta dish at an Italian restaurant, you expect to see someone pouring liquid nitrogen on your plate at a "progressive" one.

Progressive begins to define a set style. Yeah. If it's truly about creativity, then you throw every technique out and start over, which is impossible. elBulli came very close, but they were open six months out of the year.

You think it's dead? Anthony Bourdain just said something to that effect. It's deader than dead. Thinking about food in new ways will never be dead. It's stupid to say that. People conflate molecular gastronomy with creative cooking, and those are two very different things. Molecular gastronomy is about understanding the science behind the food, which is valuable for any restaurant. Mark Ladner might know more about the molecular aspects of Italian cooking than some asshole pouring steam all over food, but the latter guy is the one they call the molecular gastronomist. Changing the way people look at something, that's creative cooking

So, my point is that modernism is dead. The way I see modernism in food is the same way I see modernism in art: it was about the process more than it was the result. It's more about coming up with a new way to paint a painting. In cooking it was about creating new techniques, manipulation, and you saw that at these culinary conferences where these chefs felt pressure to come up with new forms of manipulation. I think that's dead. Those techniques have been so extrapolated upon and the information has become so widespread and it became such a battle to get it into the cookbook first that it left people disinterested and bitter. Now what?

Now what? I think it's a lot more interesting time now, since you can just do what you want.

You think people will still latch onto modernism, though? I think people will still latch on, but I guess I look at things different. Once something has caught on, it's time to abandon it. That's just the way I am.

So in addition to that, one of the crucial things was that I realized that Mexican cuisine was inexhaustible. When you make the leap and open a restaurant, it's hard to go back. You've jumped the fence. If I fail here in New York, you'll never hear from me again. You are married to it. So, when it comes to Mexican cooking, there is so much. Look at Italian cuisine and all the ways that idea can manifest itself in New York. You can have a Roman place, a place that does specific kinds of pizza, or a four-star. That's really cool. Mexican cuisine is just as complicated, and all those manifestations — I'm lightyears away from them. That's what wakes me up in the morning.

Why hasn't that happened here like it has for Spanish cooking or Italian cooking? Out of fear. I think people think it's exciting, but they don't really know what it means. If you opened a Oaxacan restaurant, the guacamole might have grasshoppers in it.

One of the important things about Cocina was that it didn't have tacos, which are usually obligatory. If you can make people enjoy it without that, then you're moving a step closer.

In a way, you're trying to be progressive? Yeah, I think so. The point of these restaurants has a long way to develop, but Taquería is really about running interference on the idea that this cuisine is worthless. If you demand a level of seriousness and dedication from your cooks, you can't hand them the shittiest piece of pork shoulder because people don't want to spend more than $3 for a taco.

There's a strong didactic element to these places, which a good number of people would take issue with or find arrogant. How do you feel about getting heat for it? It's not bad anymore. Believe it or not, I don't like to fight. Restaurants are supposed to be fun and congenial. But I get offended when people try to jar you out of things with the "I'm the customer" kind of attitude. But we really don't get that much of it.

We definitely got it when we opened this one. I think the customers who didn't like it went away. They'd come in and say that something should be a certain way, when that's not true. Even in Mexico they can't agree on the right way to do things, which is great. I'll try to accommodate as much as I can, but there are certain things that I can't have my cooks do. These are definitely not "Fuck you, this is the way it's going to be" restaurants.

Some chefs don't feel like they should have to defend themselves at all, but in the early stages you publicly addressed certain criticisms and incidents. I don't regret it at all. I'll get legitimately angry at first and see the landscape now, where so many people have a voice, and fair is fair and I'm going to respond. I only really do it if someone is legitimately doing something that is wrong. Let's say the New York Times critic gives me zero stars. I actually believe in the system and won't whine about that. That means that the person has legitimate problems with the restaurant. I don't believe that someone will shoot you down because they don't like you.

I keep track of everything because I'm a big fan of editing. I thought Sam Sifton gave us a fair review, even though I was sad about it being one star. I knew that the restaurant was too noisy, but the fix was going to cost $75,000 that we were saving up for. I was hearing from the customers that Cocina didn't have enough vegetables, and now we're introducing a new section to the menu because that was a valid criticism that I was paying attention to.

In general, it's just as hard to come up with new things as it is to keep certain things the same. We served 25,000 fish tacos last year. I can't take that off the menu. If you're having the same dish you had at a restaurant ten years ago, that bite should be better than the first time. You have to account for that game of telephone that can happen.

Maybe I am too sensitive, but sometimes that doesn't matter and you have to put on your big boy pants and address things. Someone said something, so something has to be wrong. But of course, sometimes someone will say something just because they're a jerk. Oftentimes, though, it's legitimate.

I think most chefs are sensitive. We're all divas. It's a funny game, because there's such a punk rock perception of "I don't give a fuck and I'm going to do what I want." Well, if you really don't care, then don't show up for the Beards. Or, if you win, go up there, pick it up, and throw it into the audience. No one ever does that, so it's all bullshit. They all want to be the prom queen and they all want to win. I wish I could be that guy that says flatly "I don't give a shit, this is what I'm going to do," but I care and I want people to like it.

Did you ever think that you were moving too fast in deciding to do Cocina? Yeah, for sure.

Why'd you do it? I did it for multiple reasons. The fact of the matter is that I'm a pessimist and found two spaces I love. I thought there was no way to get both, but I went up to the community board — one of the most grueling, demeaning things a human being can do — with two. It just so happened that I got them both, and I had to pick one. I loved them both, but I picked this one [Taqueria]. It was bumpy in the beginning, because I couldn't research as much as I needed and couldn't think about things like? the food. If you hold it up to what we are doing now, it was doing bad.

So four months in it was working really well, and I was greedy and wanted that space. So, as illogical and scary as it was again, I decided to forge along. It's like having a kid. There's never a good time, you just have to do it. But in a way it made us overcompensate. There are still problems, though, eleven weeks in.

You say this is a 20-30 year commitment. Do you want to open anything else? It probably wouldn't be a restaurant. It would be a place that supplied masa to my two restaurants. You could come in and get a few antojitos and three tacos. It would be a taqueria in the traditional sense. No servers, guacamole, plate ware, silverware, etc. Those things don't matter in that setting. It won't happen anytime soon.

· All Coverage of Alex Stupak [~ENY~]

Empellon Cocina

105 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003 212 780 0909

Empellon

230 West 4th Street, New York, New York 10014