Food

What Comes After Three Stars

A decade ago, Alex Stupak was one of the most acclaimed pastry chefs in America. Now, with his burgeoning Empellón empire, he’s one of the most acclaimed chefs, full stop.

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At the start of this year, Alex Stupak, chef and restaurateur of the burgeoning Empellón empire, wrote out a list of professional goals. Then he folded it up and put it away. “The list was: Open Empellón [midtown], close Cocina, get three stars from the New York Times — I wrote that down,” he notes, ticking off his fingers and nodding to emphasize his point. “Circle back to Al Pastor and audit it, which I just did. Circle back to Taqueria, audit it, which I’m now on the start of. And then, circle back to Empellón at the back end of this year and look at how we’re doing. Are we doing right by our customers?”

Fresh off a high from the three stars the Times’ Pete Wells awarded his sparkling new flagship in midtown, Stupak is nearing the end of the list. This goal-oriented, methodical focus is a departure from the mind-set Stupak had when he opened his first restaurant back in 2011. The chef had turned thirty the previous year. Already one of the country’s most trailblazing pastry chefs, he left a coveted gig at the now-closed modernist gastro-mecca WD-50 to open the original Empellón in the West Village, now known as Empellón Taqueria. Less than a year later, he followed suit with Empellón Cocina in the East Village. “I didn’t know what the fuck it was going to be,” he explains of opening two Mexican spots back-to-back. “All I knew was that Taqueria became Taqueria, and it immediately became taco-driven, very vibe-y, very party.” His tone changes as he goes on to mock himself: “I was just coming off of being the fucking pastry chef of Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne. ‘I’m a creative force to be reckoned with, I need that creative outlet!’ ”

For a chef from Leominster, Massachusetts, who enjoyed his first good tortilla just a decade ago — in East L.A., no less — Stupak’s affinity for the flavors of Mexico has come to him honestly: The tortilla epiphany inspired his first of many trips to Mexico; he began reading cookbooks written by authorities of Mexican cuisine; and his wife — the pastry chef Lauren Resler Stupak, who opened the original Empellón and Cocina with him and also put time in at Babbo — is half-Mexican. But Stupak dispels any altruistic notions of Empellón being birthed as some sort of homage to his wife’s culture. “It’s not a story that I fell in love with a beautiful Mexican girl, the rest is history,” he says. The simplest way to explain Empellón is that Stupak fell in love with tacos, and the rest is history.

The same could be said of his early days as a world-renowned pastry chef at both Alinea and WD-50, both temples to experimental haute cuisine. Stupak studied the culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America, and externed at chef Ken Oringer’s former restaurant Clio in Boston, where he was gifted with a copy of legendary pastry-chef Albert Adrià’s cookbook. After preparing a pastry recipe from the book, Stupak became obsessed with becoming a pastry chef. He cooked on the line at notable Boston-area restaurants before returning to Clio. Achatz, his former boss and current mentor and friend, cited Stupak’s gift for culinary mimicry as the reason for luring him to Alinea. “He came in and cooked for us, and it was, like, the most amazing pastry sauce that you could ever imagine,” remembers Achatz. “My thing when we opened Alinea was that we needed to find somebody that cooks sweet food like we cook savory. Stylistically, I wanted to make sure that somebody that was coming into our fold was somebody that could cook in the same way. And he came in, and stylistically he could mimic what we were doing. That was major, it was a big deal. The thing with us is that we spoke the same language.” 

Stupak’s need for challenges has led him to multiple crossroads in his career. “I used to think the idea of creativity or being author-driven or artistic was in diametric opposition to the idea of having a consistent, trustworthy place,” he says. There are peers he respects (but won’t name) who continue with that ethos, but time and experience have changed Stupak, who grew up with his father working in the food business, and a grandfather who was also a chef.

“I don’t think that way anymore,” he says. “In opening Cocina, I was very, ‘Fuck you, I don’t care.’ And now, I’m like, ‘I very much care.’ I care. From a creative standpoint, if you go out of business, you’ve run out of your medium, your ability to touch people or make your point, whatever that point is.”

From the get-go, Empellón Cocina aimed to distinguish itself from its popular older sister across town, Empellón Taqueria. In fact, Stupak went so far as to declare that tacos would not be served at his East Village location at all. That dictate would eventually change, though with more playful, experimental taco fillings stepping in, such as head cheese and falafel flavored with Mexican-inspired ingredients. His experimental hub received two stars from the New York Times and drew raves from the city’s restaurant criterati. But after six years , it wasn’t enough. “I knew that Cocina as it existed was coming to an end,” says Stupak. “That space could never evolve into what Cocina is in my mind.”

The restaurant closed abruptly this past May, after Empellón’s midtown opening in March and before its recent three-star review in late June. Though he doesn’t regret the closure, Stupak thinks about it all the time. Cocina was a chameleon of a restaurant that seemed to reflect Stupak’s state of mind, resulting in something of a split personality. “My problem over and over at Cocina was that there was so much creative angst and frustration, I don’t even know if I hit any home runs there or not because I never gave anything an opportunity to catch on,” he says. Toward the end of the restaurant’s run, Stupak knew he wanted to present an omakase-inspired tasting menu — so the four-seat kitchen table at Cocina was built as a last-ditch, half-assed effort.

“I chickened out,” he says. “The kitchen table was relegated to this one little area, and I kept the rest [of the restaurant] the same — people would eat tacos and ignore everything else on the menu. It was getting to the point where every creative idea we put out there, you might as well be doing it in the closet, in the dark.” Stupak discovered that he liked the intimacy at that table, and how it allowed him to give guests his undivided attention. “Having served that table every day for a year, or however long we did it, that became Cocina to me. It became the only relevant part.” He admits it was exhausting, but “also deeply fulfilling. It didn’t feel transactional anymore, it felt like you were hanging out in my kitchen.”

According to Stupak, the shared experience in the kitchen, or cocina, gets to the heart of what makes tacos so exceptional in Mexico: “There’s no restaurant between you and the taco. Think about sushi, and how people who know about it say the rice is still supposed to be warm.” Though, at nearly $600 for a tasting menu for two with pairings, it was a substantial transaction. Stupak is determined that Cocina 2.0 needs to be transportive, though he believes it will take years and a large cash infusion for that to happen. “I don’t know how yet, but Cocina needs to feel almost residential — it needs to let you forget yourself.”

The closure was announced on Cocina’s website in the week before its shuttering. “I always hated that, when a restaurant closes, everyone’s like, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe it, that’s my favorite restaurant!’ Then in your head, you silently have to go, ‘Well, then, where the fuck were you?’ I announced it very late, because I didn’t want it to be a pity party. I didn’t want a going-out party because I didn’t want anyone celebrating what I decided ultimately was not the fully baked version of Cocina.”

Meanwhile, Stupak was preoccupied with his newly-opened eight-thousand-square-foot flagship in midtown. And then, soon after crossing both Empellón’s opening and Cocina’s closure from his to-do list, Stupak had to contend with the one aspiration over which he had no real control: scoring that three-star review from the New York Times. “It was insane,” he says about the review’s aftereffect. “Like, the next day — double the covers, triple the dessert sales — I’ve never seen anything that has an impact like it. It was incredible.” The review, which raved about Empellón’s desserts, was also a source of vindication for a chef who first drew acclaim for developing the dessert programs at Alinea and then WD-50. “The way the dessert program was regarded was a great triumph for me,” he admits. “It was the first time where I reminded everyone that I’m still a pastry chef, and know how to do shit that other pastry chefs don’t know how to do.”

With his fledgling empire having taken root below 14th Street, midtown may not have been the most obvious neighborhood for Stupak to make his next mark. But once he came across a space that he loved, the chef began to realize the impact an Empellón could have there. “I think it’s aligned with Empellón’s goals,” he says. “Empellón’s hidden goal is to make Mexican cuisine — or our own version of Mexican cuisine, or my own version of it — vital to New York City. Historically, like thirty years ago, it couldn’t have been that way here. And that’s exciting to think about.” As other reviews rolled in, Stupak sensed that some critics considered his move to the commercial neighborhood a sellout. “To date, [this neighborhood is] our greatest challenge. You’re dealing with an area riddled with steakhouses and American brasseries where the menus, in my opinion, are similar and very safe,” says Stupak, who likens the new, flashier Empellón to putting out a major studio album after years of being an indie artist. “So to put this there, to me, was the most punk rock thing we could have done.”

Anchoring Empellón’s main dining room is a 27-piece sculptural installation by the artist Biata Roytburd featuring a menagerie of curious creatures. These represent Stupak’s spirit animals, and each of his restaurants has one. “Empellón is the hummingbird,” he says. “To me, it’s symbolic of tirelessness, like working in a tireless fashion. Pollination to me is symbolic of dissemination, of spreading something, and I had in my head that Empellón was going to be the thing where we’re going to start taking over the city.”

At 37, Stupak has reached significant professional milestones as an innovative pastry chef, respected cuisine interloper, Manhattan restaurateur, and now a three-star chef. He should, in other words, be in a pretty good place emotionally. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the phantom force of peer pressure,” he admits, before citing, as an example, having gone to culinary school with Rich Torrisi, whose Major Food Group just opened its ninth and tenth restaurants in the old Four Seasons space a few blocks from Empellón. “ ‘Look at all the restaurant’s he’s got, and I only have three, and I closed one…’” He lets the thought trail off. “There’s a little bit of that feeling,” he admits. “I think maturity is, ‘Mind your own business, stop worrying about what other people are doing.’ I want to grow Empellón and I have an idea of how I want to do it, but that clarity certainly came later. With maturity, patience and discipline have to be consistently applied.”

It’s a Saturday afternoon in late summer, the sixth day of Stupak’s work week, and the one where he allows himself to enjoy a drink — mezcal, neat — while working by an open window at Al Pastor. Located on easternmost St. Mark’s Place, where it runs into Tompkins Square Park, Al Pastor is Stupak’s favorite branch of his Mexican-inspired domain, which is more a testament to the disposition of the bar-tortilleria than to its menu or success. “We just got an office — I hate being in it,” Stupak says wryly, rolling his eyes. “I love this corner so much, especially here when it warms up and all the doors open up.” He tries to get to all three restaurants on a daily basis — not to cook, as he’s kicked himself upstairs, but to focus on self-editing. “Creatively, I like to be the sensei who comes into the dojo and likes to remind everybody that I can kick their ass, but otherwise, I shouldn’t be better at running [the kitchens] anymore. I’m actually worse at it now. A good chef has to focus myopically, like,’ this dish is the only thing that exists — as long as the dish is good, life is good.’ I don’t have the luxury or ability to do that anymore.”

Today, though — mezcal day — is reserved for big-picture ideas, like revisiting the menus at his restaurants, or pondering how “a passion for pastry has to manifest in all the restaurants somehow someway. We don’t have a dessert program at Taqueria, and that’s fucking pathetic, shame on me,” admonishes Stupak, who has since remedied its lack of sweets. Al Pastor’s dessert menu, meanwhile, remains a work in progress. “We tried doing popsicles once, and it didn’t work, but who cares about a popsicle? Manipulating masa is a very fascinating concept for me within Empellón. Yes, it’s a dough, and we know how to make tamales and sopes, but we also know how to make waffles, corn-dog batter, and all sorts of aggressive shapes. That idea is in my head, it doesn’t exist — so I need to work on that.”

On this particular work day, Stupak has no real agenda. “I try to make Saturday my ‘I can drink while I’m working’ day, where I’m thinking about fucking spirit animals and what Cocina’s going to be. Just weird, cerebral, pretentious shit,” he says, then pauses. “I’m terrified [I’m sharing] all this stuff, because, ‘Shut up, you make tacos! Who’s this asshole who thinks he’s this artist with spirit animals? Make fucking tacos, dude.’ I think publicly I don’t think you should refer to yourself as an artist as a restaurateur, because it will open you up to being called ‘pretentious,’ but I do like thinking of all this stuff. I definitely think very deeply about all this shit in very deep ways.”

With it’s graffiti-splattered decor, chilled-out vibe combined with a meticulous attention to detail, Al Pastor, Stupak acknowledges, is the restaurant that most reflects his personality. A study in faded black with forearms sleeved in tattoos, the father of two likes the idea of challenging the status quo, and he loves loud music. There’s an autographed photo of Jello Biafra mounted in Al Pastor’s restroom — “the Dead Kennedys are my favorite punk rock band,” he admits. “Punk rock at its core has a very clear, nihilistic agenda. It doesn’t want to succeed, and if it does, in spite of itself, it will figure out a way to drag that back down into the gutter. Punk rock does not try to make things pretty. Or if there’s beauty in it, the beauty is destructive and trying to make things not beautiful. And symbolically, that’s sticking a safety pin through your nose or not bathing, to whatever.”

“Look, this is a nice clean space, but I spent a lot of money making it look fucked up,” he concedes. “When I look at this neighborhood — when I see Doc Holliday’s or the now-closed Mars Bar or whatever — I’ve thought about what will make me that in twenty years. And what would be the beacon of what this neighborhood used to be about.” Part of the restaurant’s operating budget goes to the six graffiti artists Stupak sourced through Craigslist, who continue to tag the space and advance the “patina” the chef finds characteristic of the neighborhood. “There’s something about graffiti that’s special to me. The work itself isn’t necessarily artistic and some graffiti artists aren’t tremendous artists, but the overall artistic concept to me is that it’s the neighborhood, or society, claiming the physical area it’s manifesting — it’s like moss growing on something, but man-made.”

As Al Pastor is more bar and less restaurant, Stupak has tightened up the focus of its menu to reflect a cultural mishmash of bar snacks, mostly American and reinterpreted through a Mexican-inspired lens: Corn dogs are prepared using a batter with house-made masa; baby back ribs get the slow-braised carnitas treatment; and salsa macha is Stupak’s stand-in for the hot sauce ordinarily doused over chicken wings. Some taco options will be sent to the chopping block next year — “I’m gonna get complaints because there’s not going to be a vegetarian thing and there’s not going to be a that thing, but it’s to force this other facet of the menu” — and he wants to “figure out how a blooming onion applies to Mexican cuisine.”

“I do believe that the restaurants can continue to evolve and become more like themselves, but simultaneously not piss people off,” he says of the recent changes he’s implemented at Al Pastor, including what Stupak hopes will be a unique neighborhood amenity of fresh tortillas for sale to the after-work crowd. “It’s hard to say if this is how, or if this is the path. It’s such a competitive marketplace, there’s a shiny new exciting thing opening up every three seconds or so. To that point, I believe there’s greater risk in not changing. I think it’s risky to stand still.”

Amid Al Pastor’s riot of graffiti are two sculptures by Roytburd: a lady rat situated in an alcove of the bar and a baby version in the tortilleria down the hall. Meet Stupak’s spirit animal number two. “I opened this restaurant at a time in my life where I was having a falling-out with one of my business partners, Cocina was not doing well, Taqueria was basically keeping Cocina open, there was nothing on the horizon, and the space came about through negativity and through arguments among people internally,” he recalls. “I built this place out of fear and desperation of the continuity of the brand. I gave it the rat because rats are malleable, adaptable, and they’ll do anything to survive.”

Stupak’s auditing of Al Pastor has ceased for now, so it’s Taqueria that’s up next. “If I was [at Al Pastor] working on the blooming onion, it’s back into that Cocina trap, where I was working on this one so much, but I wasn’t giving it a chance,” he says. The singular focus made it too easy to ignore his other restaurants, so he’s cautious about repeating that misstep.

The first of his restaurants is also the one where he took the biggest risk. “Nick [Kokonas] and I basically said, ‘You’re crazy. And this is going to be a failure,’ ” recalls Achatz, referring to his longtime business partner. “[Alex] proved us wrong. That’s kind of the core of why we hired him as the pastry chef. He is ambitious in a way that most people are not. In other words, he throws the gauntlet out there and just tries to accomplish it. He knew he was coming from Alinea and coming from WD-50, and opening a Mexican restaurant, that was a big challenge for him. And he just put that out there, like, ‘I’m going to figure this out.’ And that’s the core of WD-50, Wylie, and Alinea — just figure it out. And that’s what Alex’s ambitions are. There’s very few people that have that ambition.”

Taqueria’s new dessert program — an ice cream foray inspired by the flavors of the Neapolitan cartons of Stupak’s childhood — has been underway for a few weeks, and the chef is ready to hone in on the restaurant’s tacos. He won’t reduce the extensive number of options, but he wants to go all out. “One of the appeals of the restaurant is, ‘Wow! Look at all these tacos!’ Well, we need to turn it to, ‘Wow! Look at all these fucking tacos!’ We have that sweet collection of thirteen tacos, but I’m looking at those and going, ‘How do we make those better?’ ‘Somehow you made me love it more, I don’t even consciously know why, but now what are the new facets that I didn’t know I wanted but now I know I do.’ ”

Though Stupak is up front about his proprietary hold over the menus at all three Empellóns — “When it’s actual creation, my rule is I have to be there looking at it for a while” — he is quick to adapt and acquiesce when a newer, potentially stronger idea comes along. The chef is considering the addition of corn tortillas to Taqueria, where they currently use flour tortillas using a recipe from his wife’s grandmother. “Gustavo Rodriguez [the chef de cuisine at Taqueria], he’s like, ‘I don’t like your masa at Empellón,’ ” he says, referring to the masa made in midtown that gets delivered daily to Al Pastor for use in making their corn tortillas. “And I’m like, ‘OK, shut the fuck up, because it’s awesome.’ But I do like the idea of, ‘Hey, Gustavo, here’s your fucking corn grinder, motherfucker. Show me what’s better than what I’m doing.’ Look, the bread program at Babbo might be different than the bread program at Del Posto, and you might have two different pastry chefs with two different opinions on bread. But that doesn’t mean one’s better than the other and they’re not both awesome. So maybe we have something that’s good, but different and unique to that place. That would be great.”

At present, Stupak considers Taqueria to be “the menu where I have the most work to do, the most changes. [But] it’s the one I’m the most proud of because it was our first,” he says of his six-year-old restaurant that has been profitable since its second week of business. For that reason, Stupak sees the rooster as being emblematic of his first restaurant. “The rooster is symbolic of pride,” he explains about Taqueria’s spirit animal, while noting that the restaurant’s mural includes rooster imagery the artist included at Stupak’s behest. “No one said I was going to make it, and it’s so stable, it’s so solid, people love it — so I’m really proud of it.”

Stupak has no desire to open more Empellóns in the city beyond Cocina, which he is adamant will return. The next ambition is going global, to a city like London, with its international makeup, as well as the gaping Mexican hole in its culinary scene. “I have three different unique sets of DNA in New York City,” he says. “If I open a place, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be a copy of midtown. It also doesn’t mean it’s a copy of Al Pastor. I like that we can be malleable in every other city based on real-life experiences in New York. I also like that I’m keeping New York precious. And I’m hoping that these three, going on four restaurants can over time be seminal to New York City.”

As is to be expected, it is Cocina’s spirit animal that is the most esoteric. “It’s a sea nautilus,” says Stupak, referring to the prehistoric creature that most closely resembles a fanciful snail. “As this animal grows — and let’s use ‘grow’ as a metaphor for progression — it seals off its last chamber [in the shell]. So what that means — symbolically, to me — is that as it moves forward, it accepts that there’s no going back. If Cocina is supposed to be my most creative manifestation, creativity is about not copying. So this animal, when it dies, has created a system where no one can backtrack and copy it. I thought it was just so beautiful.”

Stupak once claimed his spirit animal was Lucifer, the “light bringer,” a fallen angel associated with both Satan and Venus. He appreciated the entity’s position as the challenger of ideas, but to be fair, Lucifer isn’t an animal. The sea nautilus seems a more apt metaphor for Stupak, sealing off chamber after chamber before he can grow and open the next Empellón, whether it’s a new spot in London or Cocina’s return to New York.

“I hope I’m not painting the picture that everything’s all fucked up, because it’s not,” says Stupak. “But you don’t focus on the good, you focus on the negative — you gotta throw down at that. I’ve seen a lot of three-star restaurants close. You can’t get comfortable, you gotta push. ‘Empellón’ means push. You gotta keep pushing.”

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