If you’ve ever complained that there’s no good Mexican food in New York, you probably haven’t eaten at Alex Stupak’s Empellón Taquería or Empellón Cocina. In his twenties, Stupak conquered the fine-dining pastry world, heading up desserts at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago and then at our own molecular mecca, wd~50. With nowhere else to rise, Stupak shocked the culinary contingent by switching gears, opening Taquería in early 2011 and, less than a year later, the less-taco-focused Cocina, where he’s already garnered a James Beard Award nomination.
Always on the move, Stupak is working on the proposal for a cookbook “probably about tacos.” He’s also thinking about the third spot he and his wife, pastry chef and business partner Lauren Resler, will open. It might be a bar, a place serving Mexican snacks (or both), or even a taco omakase joint (yep, you read that correctly). Point is, chefs: Stupak is hiring! We sat down to chat with the toque, who’s never short on provocative things to say, about his boredom with main courses and his dreams of bringing the humble taco the respect it deserves.
GrandLife: What’s this about you declaring you were tired of main courses?
Alex Stupak: As a chef, I’ve just decided that I don’t like working on them. And I just came to the conclusion that I don’t have to do them. It’s my restaurant. I can work on what’s more fascinating to me. It became something kind of silly. I wasn’t trying to declare a war on main courses. I don’t have a problem with them.
GL: I’m curious what the menu looks like when you get rid of mains.
AS: I can tell you that [at Empellón Cocina], we’re most interested in this section of the menu [points to the starters]. And at Taquería, right now we have 12 tacos on the menu, and this year I want this to turn into 21 tacos. We’re compelled to find an endless amount of delicious materials that we can cook and put on a tortilla. Whereas here, we’re utilizing tacos as more of an anchor. Here I want someone to get a beautifully composed plate.
It comes from being a pastry chef, but my favorite thing on earth is to plate. To compose the shape of the dish, the colors of the dish, the textures, the way the ingredients are manipulated is what I love to do. Maybe it had nothing to do with sweet or savory. Maybe it had to with, in terms of pastry – that’s when you get to manipulate most aggressively, and that’s when you get to work with the most textures and colors. But then as a chef, if that’s what I love, then I want to focus on it.
I also love adversity and rebellion. That’s a big part of Taquería for me, seeing how far you can push what you put on a tortilla. It ruffles feathers. People have very strong opinions about tacos. We may have talked about this before: I love the idea of sushi and what it’s accomplished. Did we talk about this?
GL: I don’t think so, but I saw that you tweeted something about it.
AS: Yeah. Sushi is still appropriate as street food or a snack or something simple, but it’s also appropriate in a three-Michelin-star restaurant. And I really dream that a taco can be that way. And I really want to open a restaurant based around that idea someday.
GL: I love that idea. So what are you putting on a tortilla these days that you’d consider rebellious?
AS: It’s more just about changing perception. We’re trying to look at a taco as nothing more than a vehicle for a product, or a way of eating. So if we want to take carrots and confit them in argan oil, there’s no cultural reference point, but it’s a delicious taco. Or if we want to take something as minimal as wild spinach or green garlic, well that’s a great taco too. Wild spinach is a euphemism lamb’s quarter, or in Mexico, “quelites,” and I love the idea that I’ve had a quelites taco in Mexico. But when you take it out of context and you serve it in the West Village it would seem trendy or made up. So it really is about…there aren’t so many rules for us.
GL: What do you mean by that?
AS: I guess now our only rule is that a dish has to begin with some inspiration point from Mexico, or, it has to be something delicious to put on a tortilla. I also have an idea for a restaurant where I would love to expand on [the snacks] section of the menu. A restaurant based around antojitos, or small bites. I think that would be a very exciting restaurant.
GL: Are they meant to go with beer?
AS: Beer or mezcal. That’s another thing, our wine list: we’ve really pared it down. It’s not because we don’t love wine. But I think historically at one point, serious Mexican chefs felt compelled to have a big wine list and a sommelier to prove that they were as good as a French restaurant or an Italian restaurant. I’m going in a different direction. I’d love to have a restaurant one day that just doesn’t have a wine list. At the end of the day, I’ll argue that mezcal and tequila will forever go better with Mexican food.
GL: Have you been back to visit Mexico recently?
AS: Lauren and I went to Mérida about four months ago. We found a new friend named Roberto Solis. He has a restaurant called Nectar and he’s incredible. He basically took us everywhere. It’s really fascinating, that cuisine, because habanero is the chile of the Yucatan, so I was prepared for it to be freakishly hot. It wasn’t. There’s a lot of spicy salsas, but the food itself is actually very mild. It’s interesting there that their limes – they call them “limas” – they’re very similar to bergamot. They have that Earl Grey quality. There’s this very similar dish called sopa de lima, which is a chicken soup. They slice the limes really thin and put them in the soup. And they use sour oranges.
GL: Are these ingredients you could get here if you wanted to use them?
AS: Sour oranges we can get. The limas I’ve never seen here. But that brings up an interesting point: As an American, if I experience something like that, then as far as I’m concerned I could begin using bergamot, or even more radically, I could begin using Earl Grey tea. How that resonates with people on the menu, I’m beyond the point of caring. But if someone isn’t aware of the thought process, they’ll be like: ‘Why the hell is there Earl Grey tea on a Mexican menu – it’s not a Mexican ingredient.’ You’re constantly trying to decide how far is too far. But I believe at maybe one point historically that it was offensive for a French chef to incorporate yuzu into their cooking. If it did, we don’t know about it – it happened before our time, and now we wouldn’t think twice about it.
There’s absolutely nothing Mexican about pastrami [which appears in a taco at both restaurants], but there is something very New York about it. You can either just say it’s a delicious taco, or you can say I like the idea of reverse colonization. If Mexico were to have colonized New York City years ago, what would the results have been? That’s an interesting way to think about a dish.
GL: Do you feel more free of Mexican cuisine’s constraints because you’re a white guy?
AS: I feel very free – maybe it’s because of my background. But it’s just a matter of approach or how you think about it. If you had asked me before I opened the first restaurant, I would have told you everything was going to be a study in authenticity or tradition. And I tried to do that for a second, and I decided that it just didn’t make me happy. I love when other people do it. But I need to be able to change my mind often.
One of the difficult things about this game is that if you don’t pigeonhole yourself, if you don’t have restaurants where people understand what they’re good for, you’re in big trouble. The scary thing is you get pushed to define your restaurant before you’re even done thinking about it. We’ll be slower to open our third restaurant, because I don’t even want to begin searching for the space unless I’ve completely defined the concept and answered all the questions before we’ve opened.
GL: Cocina seems to be evolving constantly – every time I visit, the menu looks different.
AS: We’ve changed a lot and we’re still figuring it out. As a restaurateur, you have to make a decision to bet on yourself or not bet on yourself. I’m in the process of increasing my kitchen staff by 40 percent, and we can’t afford it. But I just believe that it’s going to be key to transforming us into something more. I look around this room and there’s a million things I want to change, and I’m going to do it all in the next year. I don’t like that row of chili jars underneath those paintings. I can’t afford the sculpture we’re going to put in place of those chili jars, but I’m gonna do it. You have to rip yourself apart and start questioning everything you do.
Right now our bar program is very margarita-driven, and I don’t think we’re ever going to stop selling margaritas, but we’re about to put a major investment into our bar program. My brother-in-law Matt, we just basically sent him on sabbatical to Oaxaca. Very few people know about Matt Resler, but I’m confident to say he’s forgotten more about tequila and mezcal than most “experts” in this country know. But the insane thing is he had never been to Mexico. We got him an apartment and he’s living in Mexico city and Oaxaca for the next six months, just to study the spirit. And I have every intention of building a new concept around him that’s much more spirits-focused than it is food-focused.
It’s much more fun to think about the present than the future though. My top-line objective is I NEED MORE COOKS. New York City is so competitive, that’s what I love about this city. I get excited when a new restaurant opens, but I also get scared. At any second, one of my colleagues can completely top me. I had an amazing meal for my birthday at Carbone. I know everyone’s talking about that restaurant, and I thought the concept was so spot-on. It was so well-framed and so well thought-out. I’m excited for them, but I’m also simultaneously jealous. When I have a meal like that it compels me to think: 1) What am I doing with my current restaurants to make them better? And 2) What am I doing towards opening a third thing?
GL: It seems like you’re always thinking. Yet that also translates to really good food.
AS: My job is always changing. I can tell you right now that I run two restaurants with five sous-chefs and no executive chefs. That’s going to change. I’m not just the chef, I’m the CEO, the one who has to sign off on every decision. It’s fine if you don’t have an opinion about anything but food. And when I first opened the restaurants I didn’t have an opinion on anything but food. But now I have nothing but opinions on every single facet. But I need to hire a chef. I need to hire someone to run my kitchens for me. Because at this point they could probably do it better than me, because they could focus on it completely.
GL: Why are you increasing your kitchen staff?
AS: We’re always going to be a casual restaurant. But a true, three-Michelin-star restaurant would have a person or people coming in to set up a station at a level of detail that most restaurants don’t ever realize. I need every cilantro leaf to be considered before it ever gets put in a container to arrive on a station. I need more filtration. So that’s why we’re increasing the staff. We’re going to have a person or people dedicated to every station and begin crafting a mise en place for each station before a customer even walks in the door – if we’re going to get tacos to look the way I want them to look and have the presence I want them to have.
Right now I think we’re playing a game other people are playing. And that bothers me. We’re just trying to make really good tacos, and it’s fine. But I want to transform us into playing a game no one else is playing. I think back to the sushi example: Maybe the best tacos I’ve ever had are tacos from a street stall somewhere, just because of the physical nature of the interaction. Meaning there’s no restaurant between you and the taco. But if I’m eating sushi, the person who’s making it is handing it to me, and I’m eating it. Well, if you think about, the best tacos are that way too, and it’s kind of the nature of what makes a great taco great. Which is freshness. So I would love to build a restaurant someday where there’s a chef who’s making a taco and handing it to you, and you’re eating it, and it’s a progression just like that.
GL: Like a taco omakase?!
AS: I’m very excited about that idea. Because then you can really, really hone in on the nature of the ingredients. A tortilla is best when you make it, griddle it, put something on it, and serve it immediately, within seconds. When you have a restaurant, when you have servers, and service, even though those are things we want in a restaurant, they’re actually hurting the product.
This restaurant I’m talking about doesn’t exist yet. The idea of eating tacos at street level, I just want to refine that experience. The actual minimalist experience of a person making something for you, and then handing it to you and you’re eating it. And then continuing to hand them to you at your own pace until you say “uncle” – that’s what I want to refine. I can’t get the idea out of my head, so I think I have to do it.