On a bustling corner in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village sits one of the most critically acclaimed Mexican restaurants in the country. Here, diners dig in to original takes on traditional dishes from all across Mexico, like fish tempura tacos with lime mayonnaise and smoked cashew salsa with chipotle. But while the food has won rave reviews from critics, it’s the man behind the mole that makes two-year-old Empellón Taqueria so extraordinary.
Meet Alex Stupak, the 33-year-old, Massachusetts-born mastermind behind Empellón Taqueria (and its sister restaurant, Empellón Cocina, across town in the East Village). Stupak’s career is a tale of ambitious personal and professional reinvention. In just a few short years, he’s not only managed to change his technical expertise but also his cultural expertise.
Stupak started life in the food world as a pastry chef—and a highly praised one at that. He boasted successful stints at WD-50 in New York City and Alinea in Chicago, two formidable temples of molecular gastronomy (an ultra-complex style of cooking that often incorporates scientific tools and techniques). On any given day at those acclaimed restaurants, you might have found Stupak experimenting with chemicals to suspend morsels of food in agar-based molds that are collectively referred to as hydrocolloids.
So how did Stupak find himself making ceviche, tacos and salsas—abandoning desserts in favor of savory foods and trying to master a cuisine he had no background in? “The most exciting thing about cooking for me is trying to learn and create,” Stupak says. “It’s the newness of it that attracted me to it. The first time that I had a perfect tortilla, it was an epiphany. I realized I hadn’t actually experienced one until then.” It turns out that his impetus for opening Empellón was simple—basically, he loved eating Mexican food.
And though highbrow desserts and high-end Mexican may not seem related, for Stupak, the former has indeed influenced the latter. “A pastry chef’s mentality stays with you forever,” he says, “so it plays into the day-to-day at Empellón. It may not translate directly, but the idea of accuracy and precision carries over into the savory cooking of my current kitchen.”
The skepticism that Mexican-food purists might bring to the table at a restaurant run by an Italian-Russian Massachusetts native only fuels Stupak’s pursuit of perfection. His hope is to change and expand the very concept of how Americans think about so-called “ethnic” cuisine. He draws parallels with modern French cuisine, where fusion isn't considered a novelty and a wide spectrum of restaurants—from simple cafes and brasseries to Michelin-starred hot spots—can all be called “French” without raising an eyebrow.
“Our goal is to discover, interpret and share what we perpetually fall in love with about this food. Mexican cooking--although deeply rooted in tradition--can also continue to evolve and progress.” For Stupak, the possibilities are endless.
To learn more about Alex's Volvo Joyride, go to: http://po.st/AlexStupak