In the very first words of his debut cookbook, New York City chef Alex Stupak addresses the elephant in the room: "Let's get this out of the way up front. I'm a white boy from suburban Massachusetts where Old El Paso taco nights were mother's milk." This voice, authoritative while acknowledging its outsider status, is the driving force behind Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, a book that "is as much a discussion of preparing tacos as it is a record of the twisty road I took to understand them," Stupak writes. The chef's journey to this point is well-documented: In 2010, he famously left his gig as wd~50's pastry chef to pursue his "off-the-clock obsession" — Mexican food. Stupak, driven by the Spanish word for "push," opened the taco-focused Empellon Taqueria in 2011 (Empellon Cocina followed a year later; Empellon al Pastor debuted in 2014).
In Tacos' introduction, Stupak reflects on the goal of his mini-empire, writing "I want to push through stale ideas about what Mexican food is or needs to be; to push through the impulse to simplify foreign recipes until they are no more threatening than a ham sandwich." To help home cooks achieve that end, the cookbook provides an in-depth look at the taco-making process, from building the ideal Mexican pantry to creating nearly two-dozen salsas to of course, the taco fillings. And because the tortilla provides the foundation for everything that comes later, the first section touches on nixtamal, corn, and flour versions — not to mention a slew of "neo-traditional" tortillas for home cooks who want to experiment with beets, rye, and chorizo.
"That’s what’s really happening in these pages: We’re using the taco as a Trojan horse."
Unsurprisingly, Stupak's book isn't concerned with authenticity. "Talking about tacos gives us a chance to talk about cultural exchange, about idea appropriation, and about the way we value — or undervalue — ethnic cuisines," Stupak writes. "That's what's really happening in these pages: We're using the taco as a Trojan horse." Recipes highlight Empellon menu items like a chicken-wing taco (with a salsa macha influenced by Frank's RedHot sauce) and a pastrami taco (which requires a multi-day brine and three-day cure). They live in the book alongside multi-day preparations for the whole-hog cochinita pibil.
Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, co-written by NYC food writer Jordana Rothman and with photos by Evan Sung, hits shelves October 20 (Clarkson Potter; pre-order here). Take a peek below: