Empellon Cocina and Taqueria chef Alex Stupak just dropped a video for the third installation of Push Project, a quarterly guest chef dinner series that has so far featured collaborations between Stupak and Enrique Olivera of Mexico City’s Pujol and Jordan Kahn of L.A.’s Red Medicine. This time, the host chef will share the kitchen with Chris Cosentino, who’s flying in from San Francisco’s Incanto.
We caught up with Stupak, who weighed in on how the series is going so far and why he picked Cosentino for dinner No. 3.
Back up and tell us about your inspiration for Push Project again.
From a chef’s perspective, there are certain things that you establish as hard and fast rules. For instance, it’s inexcusable if you don’t open your doors at 5:30. There’s no way that you’re not going to do that. But there are other aspects of the restaurant that you might not treat with the same level of severity. A guest chef dinner has a big impact, particularly on the kitchen, that’s so meaningful and positive. It’s a disservice not to push ourselves to do it. So we made a hard granite rule that four times a year we’re going to bring in a guest chef.
So how’s it going so far?
It’s been successful in that we’ve stuck to it. We’re staying on schedule.
Why Chris Cosentino?
Chris Cosentino is a chef that I respect and admire, but more importantly, when talking about who to invite next, four of my five sous chefs voted for him. They were incredibly interested in his cooking, and they wanted to learn from him.
When you’re looking to learn from another chef, sometimes you seek an approach or a thought process that’s different from yours, if not completely opposite. Chris is an incredibly talented chef, but he’s also incredibly spontaneous. He’s extremely tied into the seasons, and he makes it a point to know the people producing food. He comes in every day and creates seven new specials and puts them on a chalkboard. Those are qualities I really admire, and I’m maybe not as up to par with them as I should be. By juxtaposing yourself next to that, it lights a fire under your ass.
What did you learn from the first two chefs?
With Enrique, I’m pretty intimate with his cooking style, so it was interesting to see his and mine side by side in terms of how we perceive Mexican cuisine. It was also interesting to see how many pieces of the puzzle are missing to truly execute Mexican cuisine flawlessly, and that’s something I hope to be involved with changing over the course of my career.
I worked with Jordan at Alinea. He’s a brilliant chef and pastry chef, and working with him is more of a reminder of his work ethic and drive and how much he pushes himself. It was great to see that again. In this business, it’s important to systematically get outside of your own head and get outside of your own rut that you’re slowly crafting for yourself, and that’s what this does. That’s why it’s a steadfast rule.
How long do these guys spend in your kitchen?
It depends on the chef. It’s really whatever they want to do. Sometimes we prepare in advance, sometimes they like to spend a day or two or even a week prepping. With Jordan, it was extremely complex. We needed virtually double the number of cooks in the kitchen that we’d originally thought. Jordan is not a minimalist, and let’s just leave it there. We were dealing with dishes with upward of 16 or 17 complicated components. He actually didn’t sleep the entire time he was here.
What does the Push Project foster?
With the first two of these that we’ve done (and I’m certain it will be the same with the third), the kitchen is getting to see something and learn something, and each individual chef gets to take something away from it. From the guest perspective, with the first two, by the time the last plate was served, there were so many people in the room that knew one another that the whole thing just turned into a big party. I wish every night could be like that. It was really magical. Almost everyone was industry. It was really cool to have a room full of people who were there because they’re into food; they’re your ideal customers.
At the end of the day, these are actually financially bad for us. You’re paying for flights, hotels, video, and ingredients when you have no idea whether they’re costed properly or not. But one of the things that’s most touching about all of this is the generosity of time from guest chefs. The thing I love most about the business we’re in is that the chefs are congenial, generous, and grateful even when they are so, so busy. The unanimous “yes I’ll do this” is really special for me. I’m so happy to have the opportunity to be a part of that. I’ve cooked at Enrique’s restaurant, and if I could cook at any of these restaurants, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
The third installation of Push Project happens June 28 at Empellon Cocina. Two seatings are available, at 6 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Call the restaurant at 212-367-0999 to reserve a space.