We Chat With: Chef Alex Stupak of Empellón

"So if it takes me ten or fifteen or twenty years or I never get to it, at least I'm trying to do it. I'm trying to reach for something that's very far away."

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

Chef Alex Stupak may read as bracing, controversial or overly opinionated, but in person his humility and drive come across more than anything. The celebrated pastry chef made waves when he left wd-50 to open a Mexican restaurant—a cuisine he had no previous personal attachment to. But since opening Empellón Taqueria and the recent Empellón Cocina, Stupak has been collecting both upraised eyebrows and ample praise.

But praise doesn't drive Stupak. Nor does fear of failure. What does? We had a chat to find out.

You've made it pretty clear why you left wd-50 and why you opened your restaurants. What were you feeling after that announcement? I was still putting out desserts at wd-50 while my restaurant was being built, so the fear was kind of building up. People started asking questions way before I was even prepared to talk about anything. So that just built a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, and a lot of stress.

Do you work well with fear or do you hate it? I love it and I hate it. I'm worthless unless I have a gun to my head.

Why did you choose to branch to Mexican cuisine, specifically? It was less to do about Mexican cooking and more to do about "new and exciting." I was exposed to something and the more I learned about it the more I was intrigued by it.

So much so that you tried to stick to traditional Mexican cuisine? Okay, we make a start-to-finish textbook mole poblano. If you order mole in Mexico you're going to get about 16 ounces of sauce with about one to one and a half chicken thighs in it. Of course we're not going to serve it authentically because people aren't going to enjoy it. So we make a dish that I'm proud of but it's not authentic Mexican cooking. I will still argue that it's Mexican cooking though.

From what angle? Because we balance it to feel and taste like a Mexican dish. It's how you handle the ingredients.

You opened Empellón Cocina eleven months after Taqueria. What are the differences between the two? The only difference should be that one has a section of tacos and one does not. The challenge of Taqueria is, "can you treat tacos like any other honorable cooking discipline?" Because people don't think of tacos that way. so it's trying to run interference on that idea.

Is that something you went into intentionally? When we first opened we tried to be all things to all people. And maybe because I was a newcomer and I'm not talented enough of a Mexican cook yet I couldn't do all these different things well. I still hold my standards of what a good dish is based on some pretty lofty places like Alinea or wd-50. At those places the food is perfect. It really is. I still have a lot of work to do to get to that level. So we more or less eliminated as much as we could, which was easy because people were not ordering elsewhere on our menu—they were ordering tacos.

The press has been somewhat poetic about your menu here. Does art play into the way you craft a dish? No, it doesn't. I do think food should be beautiful. But the idea is, "how do you make it look Mexican and beautiful?" Because I think a lot of people would agree with me that Mexican cooking just doesn't strive to be beautiful. So how do you makes something beautiful without stripping it of its soul?

Do you think that perception has to change? You're not gonna change anything. You're not.

So what do you do? Do you adapt when a review says, "this dish was off mark?" Absolutely not. I think that if you were to adapt based on what critics say then you're a puppet or a whore of sorts.

So when do you adapt? You adapt to yourself and your kitchen. We do not have perfect dishes on the menu. But that's okay because I'm not racing. People don't believe me when I say this but I'm truly free in that I'm not afraid to fail. I love what I'm doing, but I'm also a nihilist in that I don't believe in the deep importance of it. It's food, and it's not even food in terms of nourishing the masses. We're restaurants; we're in the entertainment industry.

Your position at wd-50 put you in an even greater spotlight; people were saying pretty lofty things about where your career could have gone versus where you chose to take it. I think it would have been safe, and cowardly. Creativity has to be about doing something you don't know how to do. That's creation. So doing what I know how to do blindfolded and drunk to get praise for it, where's the personal excitement about it? Or the stress or the fear? I would just much rather try to do something that hasn't been done.

You've compared your first time with an "authentic" masa to tasting your first baguette or truffle. Texturally it's an epiphany.

Any other such eye-opening moments? The first time that I ever opened Albert Adrià's pastry book was a huge game changer. He was thinking about things in a very modernist way before the term 'modernist' was getting thrown around.

Do you miss pastry and being part of the modernist cuisine world? I do miss pastry, but I'm not concerned at all about being known as one of the "influencers" of modernist cooking. That's part of the reason why I left—because I never would be. Look at Ferran [Adria] and Heston [Blumenthal] and then look at the tier underneath them, the Wylies [Dufresne] and the Grants [Achatz]. Look at what they've done. And I very much want to do that. But I couldn't do that by being an extrapolation. So you abandon and move on.

Is modernist cuisine still important to you? It's still important to me. But I'm somehow okay with that. Because I'm doing something I haven't done before. So if it takes me ten or fifteen or twenty years or I never get to it, at least I'm trying to do it. Because, again, I was so inspired by these guys I worked for that I'm trying to hold myself to that standard. I'm trying to reach for something that's very far away.