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NYC Chef Alex Stupak’s Cookbook Will ‘Stimulate the Hell’ Out of the Mexican Food Conversation

Empellón chef Alex Stupak shares the latest on his new restaurant in New York City and an upcoming cookbook.

Hillary Dixler

New York City chef Alex Stupak's next project is delayed. In order to open up his highly anticipated third restaurant — a casual, al pastor-focused bar and tortilleria in the Alphabet City neighborhood called Empellón Al Pastor — he and his team need to practice with brand new equipment: a tortilla machine to make tortillas in house and a trompo, a sort of vertical rotisserie. It's a "daunting" way to open a restaurant, Stupak says, "because they're two techniques that we couldn't practice."

Of course, opening a new restaurant is never easy, so Eater met with Stupak last week to talk about what's on his to-do list, what a third restaurant means for his restaurant group, and why staying out of the kitchen is sometimes the best thing he can do for his team. Stupak also discusses his upcoming cookbook with Clarkson Potter, which he's in the process of writing now. "We're not trying to dominate a conversation or steer it in one direction," explains Stupak. "We love everything about Mexican cooking. All of it."

Tell me about the building and the space for Empellón Al Pastor.
I don't want the space to feel Mexican, I want it to feel New York City ... Everyone right now, everyone's talking about oh God, rents keep going up in New York and it all just keeps getting more and more developed.

I don't want the space to feel Mexican, I want it to feel New York City.

I liked the idea of going further east into Alphabet City and what would've been here? If this was a dive bar in 1984, let's do our version of a dive bar that just happened to do the bare minimum to put a functioning taqueria in it ... We're really excited. We're slightly delayed. (Just like every other restaurant opening I'm sure you hear about.)

Do you still feel like it's any minute though?
Yeah. I can't call a date. We originally thought we were going to be open September 1st. We're now getting into October. I don't think it's going to be late October or anything like that. I think it's going to be the first or second week, but everyday you get new information. That tortilla machine was supposed to show up a month ago, but it's a custom made machine.

What are the highest priority things on your to-do list right now?
Right now, the most important thing we can do is get that tortilla machine hooked up and working.

Have you worked with it before?
It's all uncharted for us. It's funny, what's happening right now where you see ... Danny Bowien opened Mission Cantina and Enrique Olvera is coming into town and Rene Redzepi is opening a taco shop with [Rosio Sanchez] who actually used to be the sous chef with me at WD~50. It's amazing, but it upsets me personally. I'm disappointed in myself because if you read our original business plan for Empellón Taqueria, we said we were going to build a fully functioning tortilleria in the space.

Those words are on paper and I didn't do it. The reason I didn't do it is the same reason that we're delayed and I'm biting my fingernails right now, which is that you're building a business around something: You can't practice it. It's not like practicing with a knife on a cutting board. You need to get it in. You need to spend the thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars that it costs to get it in there and deal with plumbing inspections and dealing with people who look at it as a foreign piece of equipment and have a problem with it and all this other stuff.

Think about this. Look at Italian cooking or French cooking, what it's done in New York City in the last 30 years. It's pretty incredible in that we as New Yorkers, we own our own version of Italian cooking and we have our own opinions on it. Now it's like, I want risotto. I can go to my grocery store and I can decide whether I want arborio rice or carnaroli rice and I have an opinion whether the way Michael White cooks his is just right or the way Mario Batali cooks his...

This new place is also going to supply tortillas for our other two restaurants. Lauren [Resler, pastry chef of the Empellón restaurants] makes really really great flour tortillas which whether anyone likes it or not, are a part of Mexican cooking. They exist in Mexico. We need to get to the point. The [current] masa craze needs to reach this fever pitch, so maybe the idea of opening a northern style Mexican restaurant that only does flour tortillas. Think about that.

I want to see Mexican cooking run this gamut the way Japanese cuisine has or the way French cuisine has.

Think about the idea of truly regional Mexican cooking in Manhattan. You probably have a favorite Italian restaurant or French restaurant for seafood and vegetables. You probably have a favorite one for dollar pizza. You probably have a favorite one for a splurge. You probably have a favorite one for everything, but when it comes to Mexican, we're still at this point in 2014 where it's tacos. It's still all about tacos and it's weird that I'm saying that because this is actually our cheapest place. Everything on the menu is four bucks. I want to see Mexican cooking run this gamut the way Japanese cuisine has or the way French cuisine has or the way Italian cuisine has in New York City.

What do you think the barriers to getting people to embrace regional Mexican cuisines are?
It's just us. It's ourselves. To look at things in a cold blooded business way, your check average or what your customers are paying when they sit down informs everything. It literally informs the entire restaurant. It informs the clothes on your servers backs. It informs the music. It informs the lighting. It informs the volume. It informs the plateware. It informs the budget that the kitchen has to spend on food. Everything.

We're still at a point where $60 for a meal ... We can go right now to a casual Italian restaurant and pay $60 a head. We'll both get an app and we'll get a pasta and a main. We'll split it. However we break it. We'll spend $60 a head and I would consider that a mid-range price point. It's average. $60 a head is the most expensive fucking Mexican restaurant in New York City. Just is.

Whether you hear that from Yelp or whether you hear that from a commenter space on a blog. Wherever you hear it, you hear it. I'm really happy because we're hearing it less ... It seems like it's going in the right direction. I'm impatient and I want things to go as fast as humanly possible. Part of the idea, this restaurant is two blocks away from Empellón Cocina.

Right.
Cocina when it originally opened, we set out to never ever serve a taco and we did that because we said there's so much else [Ed note. Cocina currently has a taco section on the menu] ...  We've gotten into a good place, but we're not yet at a great place and sometimes you have to force change in a violent, counter-intuitive way. Besides Al Pastor just being great at what I want it to be great for, if I have a place where you can go and get an amazing taco and a beer and still spend under $10...Well then Cocina shouldn't do [tacos] anymore. It's forcing change. They're in the same neighborhood by design... That's the only way we're ever going to really experience the evolution that I want for [Cocina].

Where do you see that evolution taking you?
We're purely speculating, but right now [Cocina] is divisive and I haven't decided if that's a good thing or a bad thing .... I haven't made a decision, but I can tell you that if [Al Pastor] is all about beer, then [Cocina] needs to be all about wine. If this one is serving the best tacos that we have in the entire company because our tortilla machine is just in such close proximity to where we produce them, then what is Cocina going to become better at? What are they superior at? Now that you have three restaurants, you're literally trying to get them to compete with one another and differentiate themselves.

Empellón Cocina, NYC. [Photo: Daniel Krieger]

If everything closed tomorrow, if all three of them just burned down tomorrow, that would be hard for me to get out of bed. All the opinions I have now, I could never have them unless we've been through what we've been through. I didn't have any opinions on music when we opened the restaurants. I didn't have any opinions on lighting or plateware or the size of a table in relation to the size of the plate... I was a pastry chef who was like, "Oh shit, I've never cooked savory at this level and I've never done Mexican food. Leave me alone, I'll be in the kitchen." Then we've been lucky because now I'm in a position where I can focus on everything.

Then it's like, okay what music do you play there and why? I actually decided that I'll eat and enjoy anything, but just me as a restaurateur, I've decided I'll never serve a menu that comes with instructions ever again.

Did you get backlash? Or was it just you felt like it wasn't working?
All I can attest to is what we experienced. However you tell people to eat, they're going to go in the opposite direction ... If you want people to share food, don't tell them to. Build a menu in an environment that's so conducive for it, it's actually awkward to do anything else...

I have chefs now in both my restaurants, so I don't have a schedule anymore. I can go and be in the kitchen all night if I wanted to. I could stand in this dilapidated, unbuilt restaurant. I could do whatever I want. It's really fortunate. Only in that way can you start being the restaurateur and having the opinion on everything. To not do that is insane because people are going to judge you on it whether you made the decision or not. You have to. If everyone goes, "I hate that place," but you made the decision and you thought about it and you stand by it, that's okay...

What does that mean for you, to be running a team of chefs instead of being the one back in the kitchen, figuring it out?
It's initially extremely awkward. It feels weird. If you've gotten to a position where you can actually be autonomous and say where is my time best spent right now? If it was factually true that at that moment your time was best spent on a computer and you're legitimately working on something, you're writing a book or you're working on the layout of a menu or you're corresponding with someone either within your team or whatever it is.

You can't help but feel like a fake because you've been conditioned that you work 5 to 6 days a week, standing up with a knife in your hand.

It's legitimate that you've decided that that's the best thing you should be doing, you can't help but feel like a fucking phony and a sellout and a fake because you've been conditioned since the age of whenever you started cooking that you work five to six days a week, standing up with a knife in your hand. Nothing else registers as work anymore. You feel guilty. I can't describe it any other way. How do you deal with it? Life has changed in a big way. I never used to get up early.

Now if I don't, I don't ... once the phone starts ringing, the day is done. Once the phone starts ringing and all the emails start coming in, you're now officially the rag doll of your own team. You're responding. You're putting out fires. You have to get up at 4 in the morning, there's no other way. I don't know how else you can do it. It's different. Sometimes if you're not in the right frame of mind, if I'm pissed off about something that's happening at this restaurant and that's going to effect or impair my judgement at one of my other ones, you actually have to stay away for a minute.

Right now, I'm spending all my time [at Al Pastor] because I'm trying to see if anything goes wrong at the other two places. If it does go wrong, to what degree? Can that be sorted or fixed without me? The classic chef mentality is, "Well if I'm not there, it's all fucked up." It's garbage if I'm not there. You do that and then you open restaurant two. You quickly realize if that's the truth, that means you basically acquiesce to the idea that one of your restaurants is always going to be a failure.

You're going to work seven days and even then, if you ping pong back and forth, one of your restaurants is always going to be at a 0. It can't be that way. You have to put the trust. You have to find great people. You have to build an inspiring environment and you have to let them play the game. You have to start being a coach. I'm so excited about the new place because I actually get to cook.

For the first three months, I'm just going to stand behind the line and cook. I'm looking forward to that. If I have chefs in my restaurants and if I walk in the kitchen right now and go, "You know what, I'm going to do this." You're sending the picture to the team that well [the chef de cuisine's] the boss, but here's the real boss. Sort of listen to [the chef de cuisine] when I'm not around ... All you're doing is dis-empowering that person. You're setting them up for failure.

What are some other ways you create that inspiring environment?
The way I do it and this has bit me in the ass before is that I try my hardest to be an open book. I try my hardest to tell everyone what I'm thinking or what we're planning or what we might do all the time. That's important [in] the same way that growing another restaurant is important. You have to grow and open more restaurants to keep the good people you have. It's a big catch 22.

You have to grow and open more restaurants to keep the good people you have.

You need good people to grow and you need to grow to keep your good people and to continue to afford them. There's that. I think by creating a culture of movement happening. Stuff's happening. It might not happen today, it might not happen tomorrow, but something major's going to happen. Instead of being like this with the information, being like, "Hey, this is what we're thinking of doing. What do you think?"

I hope that's inspiring because that's the reason I do it. You're actually telling the team without telling them that they're not just a cog in the machine. That they're part of something bigger. Or they can be if they want to be involved in that way. That comes at a price too because if you're within that circle, then I'm going to call you on your day off. I'm going to email you. I'm not going to respect boundaries.

Where does your traveling fit into all of this? I know you've been spending time in Mexico.
This year, we only went twice.

Does your staff go with you?
We just started doing that this year and it's a very small ... it'll be a small handful of people. 5 or 6. Again, back to another reason to grow. If you can have a big enough team and a deep enough bench, then everyone gets to go. What Rick Bayless does is incredible. Me just trying to take my bar manager and one of my chefs and our director of operations to Mexico City for 2 nights just to eat some tacos and then go eat at a restaurant like Quintonil or something like this.

The returns on that in terms of inspiration are incredible. Imagine if you could do what Rick did. That's our goal. If we can do that, then we know we're actually successful. Doing a cookbook, there's external reasons. You're transmitting information externally, but think about even internally. Think about the French Laundry cookbook. I've never worked there and I probably have 10 stories that Thomas wrote in that book burned in my brain.

How cool is that? Imagine the effect that can have on your own people ... We have 100 employees across two restaurants already. With that, you're already at the point where you can't even come close to doing anything like talking to everyone everyday. You just can't. You need to start documenting, recording, codifying. You need to start doing things in more sustainable and permanent ways in terms of inspiration.

Empellón Taqueria, NYC. [Photo: Facebook]

Can you tell me more about what the cookbook will be about and what you want readers to take away?
We're still writing it and we have to get stuff all in soon...

We love everything about Mexican cooking. All of it. You meet cooks who are fine dining or die and you meet people that are like, that's all pretentious bullshit and I'm rustic and I do this. You meet people who are like, "This is Mexican cooking. It's traditional. In Oaxaca, it's done this way" and you meet people who, "Well, I was born and raised in California and these are the best fucking tacos ever." All of that stuff. I used to think we were going to be one or the other or something and the answer is we love all of it. We adore all of it. I think what we're trying to do is we're trying to ... we're not trying to win an argument or debate.

Maybe argument's a bad word. Conversation. Let's say conversation. We're not trying to dominate a conversation or steer it in one direction. We're actually trying to stimulate the hell out of it. I got asked a question the other day by somebody. They said, "The new place. Are you doing traditional tacos al pastor?" This was a Mexican writer and I said, "What's a traditional al pastor taco?"

I was just [in Mexico] for four days only eating al pastor tacos and other than the fact that it's spit-roasted pork on a tortilla, I can't find one fucking consistent. I can't find any one. That's it. Those are the only two things. Some had pineapple, some didn't. Some were rubbed in adobo, some weren't. Some use this salsa, some use that salsa. Some had black bean puree on it, some served them with guacamole. Some the salsa verde was enriched with avocado. Some it was raw, some it was roasted.

That's just one type of taco. It's the same thing with mole. It's the same thing with enchiladas. It's the same thing with all these things. Why are we wasting our time declaring what the real deal is? If people get upset ... let's say we do something incredibly untraditional. Let's say we do something borderline fusion. You put pastrami on a tortilla. Whatever the hell you do. That pisses off a whole group of people over here and that's really fascinating to me.

If the stance of that group is, "Traditional is traditional. I've lived here for 20 years and this is how this is done, don't you dare fuck with it." I completely respect that, but why get upset because nothing we do will change a system of cooking that deeply rooted and that diverse and that complex. You're not going to change it. Avant-garde, modern, x y z French cooking exists. It has not destroyed anything in France.

I'm sorry I'm going off on a tangent, but I think about that a lot. To the point of the book, it doesn't have a single stance. It doesn't. It'll show dishes that are like, "Look, we had this in this place and we got as much data from that experience as we could and we love it so much we're making it that way." It's everything from that to a pure game of adaptation.

So in a way that ties into what you're trying to do with Empellón Al Pastor...
There seems to be a roving pack of foodies or whatever the fuck you want to call them. They literally knock down your door on day one, come in, judge it for better or worse, and then they're gone. From my experience, it takes about three months to cycle through all of those and then you're left with the neighborhood. The neighborhood doesn't give a fuck. From my experience, they don't care if you're famous. It's like, "I come here for this thing and it's awesome every time."

There seems to be a roving pack of foodies— they literally knock down your door on day one, come in, judge it for better or worse, and then they're gone.

On the 10th time, if it wasn't what it was the first nine times, then they don't come back ... This new place, when you look at it I want it to feel like it's always been there. That's why we're putting our own graffiti there because graffiti is clearly a part of this neighborhood.

...When we were originally thinking of Al Pastor, we were actually thinking in a very traditional, fast-serve concept. Come to the register, here's your food, we take your money for it, and you go sit down. When you're done sitting down, you crumple up your disposable whatever and you throw it away and you get out. When we look at this area, it's riddled with bars. We felt after getting into it, we actually scrapped the whole design and started over because if it didn't have that tavern element, I think it would stick out like a sore thumb in this neighborhood.

It's called Empellón Al Pastor, so we can't change our mind.

How will you know that you're ready to open the doors?
When I get the tortilla that's in my brain in my hands and I slice my first slice off of my trompo and I go, "Okay, that's where I want it." That's it. Everything else, the rest of the menu, the bar, the volume, all that other stuff I'm happy to tweak in the first month. Those first two things, they're non-starters if they're not right. That's daunting too because they're two techniques that we couldn't practice. They're dependent on physical structures that you don't have yet.

I hope that I've worked it out of my system. The idea of, "Hey, let's spend seven figures on something that we don't know how to do yet." This is now factually the third time we're doing that and I'm hoping I've worked it out of my system because it's stressful as hell.

Empellon

230 West 4th Street, New York, New York 10014

Empellon Cocina

105 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003 212 780 0909

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