NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a promising chef known for his inventive pastries, American chef Alex Stupak took an unexpected turn and sought Mexican food as inspiration for his two restaurants in New York City.
After working for chefs like Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne, both leaders in molecular gastronomy, Stupak opened Empellon Taqueria in 2011, followed by Empellon Cocina. His spins on traditional Mexican fare such as tacos and a melted cheese dish called fundidos have won praise.
The 33-year-old, who grew up in Leominister, Massachusetts, spoke to Reuters about striking out on his own and his desire to own a three-star Michelin Mexican restaurant.
Q: You were known for your ultra-modern desserts. Why did you decide to open two Mexican restaurants?
A: For me to open up a restaurant of third-generation molecular gastronomy, I would be doing what people were expecting me to do. I would have considered it a tremendous failure. I believe creativity is about doing something that’s unexpected. For me, rather than opening some pastry-driven, modernist restaurant, I found it far more compelling to focus on the cuisine I honestly love eating the most, which is Mexican cuisine.
Q: Were you surprised by the reaction to your decision?
A: It was difficult at first because everything I had expected to happen happened, which was people critiqued me for it or didn’t understand why I would do that. They thought I was taking a step back or thought it was me taking the easy way out. There was a ton of absurdity to it. I‘m very much an anarchist and a nihilist and I believe that people are basically sheep. They govern most of their decisions out of fear. I try my hardest to fight against that.
Q: Why do you think some people reacted that way?
A: Unfortunately when people think of Mexican food in the United States they think of one thing which is a taco. I kind of want to begin there. You want to build a serious kitchen with serious cooks that make tacos. Can you do that? Can you build a taqueria that uses good ingredients. Those are very important things to me.
Q: How did you conceptualize your idea of refined Mexican dishes?
A: Neither of my restaurants are traditional or authentic in any way. They are arguably not even Mexican restaurants. They are American restaurants. At the end of the day, what I try to do is to find a point of inspiration in Mexican cooking. I don’t believe in trying to replicate something I had in Mexico. I just think it would be a futile act. What’s most important to me is creativity and working on new things.
Q: Did you always want to be a chef?
A: I wanted to be chef when I was 8 to 9 years old. I knew at a pretty young age. In the household I grew up in, my dad did all the cooking. My mom did not. My dad was the first person who taught me how to use salt or chop a garlic glove. I actually got a job as a dishwasher when I was 12. I just did that so I could get into the kitchen to peel potatoes, carrots or whatever food they let me touch.
Q: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
A: I would like more restaurants. I would like to work on a restaurant that will earn three Michelin stars for Mexican food. I would like to build a restaurant that doesn’t serve wine. I would like to build a restaurant that serves only mezcal (a Mexican liquor). I would like to structure a meal in a unique way like they do in Mexico.
Chilaquiles Verdes with Chicken, Black Beans and Sunny Side Eggs (Serves 4)
12 each corn tortillas
1 batch salsa verde (see below for recipe)
2 cups cooked black beans
8 ounces shredded cooked chicken
2 ounces crema Mexicana (akin to sour cream)
2 ounces queso fresco (a soft, white Mexican cheese)
2 ounces minced white onion
50 each picked cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
1. Stack the tortillas and using a knife trim the rounded edges in order to create perfect squares.
2. Cut the squared off tortillas into 1/2 inch squares and fry them until crisp in 350-degree Fahrenheit vegetable oil.
3. Cook your eggs sunny side up and place aside in a warm place.
4. Bring the salsa verde to a simmer. Add the black beans, and shredded chicken to the salsa to warm them through.
5. Add the crispy tortilla squares to the mixture and stir them to make certain that they are coated evenly with the salsa.
6. Divide the mixture amongst four serving plates.
7. Sprinkle the chilaquiles lavishly with the crema, queso fresco, minced onion and cilantro. Top each serving with an egg and serve immediately.
1 pound tomatillos
10 garlic cloves
1 large white onion
8 each jalapenos
1 bunch of cilantro, roughly chopped
As needed, Kosher salt
1. Peel the tomatillos and rinse them under cold water.
2. Peel the garlic cloves.
3. Peel the onion and cut it into 1/4 inch thick slices.
4. Cut the stems off the jalapenos and quarter them.
5. Place the tomatillos, garlic cloves, onion and jalapenos in a pot with enough cold water to cover them 2 inches.
6. Bring water to a boil and allow to simmer for two minutes.
7. Remove the vegetables from the water and allow them to cool.
8. Place the vegetables in a food processor along with the cilantro and process into a coarse puree.
9. Season the salsa with salt.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Eric Walsh