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Alex Stupak Only Wants Success on His Own Terms

New York's resident taco king is redefining creativity, and perfecting his soundproofing game in the process

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Want to hear someone tell it exactly like it is? Talk to Alex Stupak. The former pastry chef — who pivoted his career to become the force behind New York's growing Empellón empire — is totally candid about cooking Mexican food as a white guy, the need to stay relevant, and Nine Inch Nails, not to mention the grind he's on to outperform his culinary idols. Hear all this and more in his conversation with hosts Helen and Greg on this week's episode of the Eater Upsell.

As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.

Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 2, Episode 4: Alex Stupak, edited to just the main interview, here. For more from Greg and Helen — including Greg's on-air  sampling of his first ever cronut — you’ll have to listen to the episode in its entirety, above.

Greg Morabito:
Our guest today is Alex Stupak, the chef-proprietor of a handful of really awesome restaurants.

Helen Rosner: A growing empire.

Greg: A growing empire, very casual, but then there’s also a tasting experience.

Helen: Yeah, so how many Empellón expressions do you have right now?

Alex Stupak: Right now, we have three. We have Taqueria, which was the original, then Cocina, and then we have our bar at Tompkins Square Park, which is Al Pastor.

Helen: And then you also have, secretly inside Cocina, the chef’s table, which is not really a separate restaurant, but is a totally different experience.

Alex: It’s not a separate restaurant, but it is a completely different experience. Everything that we serve at that table is not served anywhere else in the company. And again, for us it’s just kind of a test pilot. I do think it will become its own thing, its own entity, someday.

Greg: So, we’re talking to youI mean, this will obviously be released at some point near a different datebut we’re talking to you one day after what I would imagine would be the busiest day for your restaurant group.

Alex: Yeah, yesterday was Cinco de Mayo, which is the equivalent of the zombie apocalypse if you’re Mexican-focused in any way, shape, or form. It’s busier for us than New Year’s Eve. It’s the busiest day of the year.

Greg: So how did you make it through? Did you stay at one restaurant? Did you not go to any of them? What was your strategy?

"Cinco de Mayo is the equivalent of the zombie apocalypse if you’re Mexican-focused in any way."

Alex: I didn’t go near Taqueria. Taqueria’s five years old and they kind of know what they’re doing. They do a great job at it. I started my day at six in the morning at Al Pastor 'cause, man, we do a ton of catering orders out of there. So people are ordering nachos and al pastor tacos.

Greg: We’ve gotten cateringor actually, one of our sister verticals did, and then they gave us the leftovers. And it was the best thing to have leftover Empellón catering.

Helen: It was taco day at Eater.

Alex: I just hope it showed up okay, it’s still a new thing for us.

Greg: Man, no, we were like, "Oh, look, it’s a giant hotel pan full of carnitas!"

Helen: People send us food pretty regularly, and we’re fairly jaded at this point. And then this table full of Empellón Al Pastor food showed up and we lost our collective minds.

Alex: Right on.

Helen: Which was great.

Greg: Okay, it started at 6 AM at Al Pastor?

Alex: Yeah, 6 AM at Al Pastor because we were putting out a ton of catering. Last year Al Pastor was brand new, I think we were a month old. And Cinco de Mayo happened and we were not ready. It got ugly. So this year I had all my best people there to make sure it went smoothly. And that’s it. Then I walked over to Cocina and served some lovely people at the kitchen table, and that was my day.

Greg: That’s awesome.

Helen: That’s very human.

Greg: I tip my hat to whoever got reservations at the kitchen table on Cinco de Mayo. That’s just a cool thing to do.

Alex: And they were great. I was a little worried becauseagain, you can’t complain, busiest day of the year for us, so we make a lot of moneybut you’re getting people who come in the restaurant wearing sombreros and all that stereotypical shit.

Helen: Sort of reductive, white people version of what Mexican is?

Alex: Yeah, like a taco bowl, or just blankly referring to people as Hispanic as opposed to what they actually are. You know.

Helen: That’s a Donald Trump reference if you’re listening to this after the news cycle has shifted. So how did you come to Mexican food? Because your background is in pastry. And it’s not just in pastry, it’s like

Alex: Weird pastry.

Helen: Weird pastry.

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: Like super high-end, really intellectual, Alinea, WD~50.

Alex: I chose it. There were some influences in my life that helped me to choose it, but I chose it. I was going through this existential crisis where a lot of us chefs, we’re weird. We have this magic number of like, we have to have a restaurant by 30. Which is honestly stupid. It’s a stupid thing, but that’s a thing amongst a lot of young, ambitious cooks. So around the age of 25, 26, I was like, "Well, what am I going to do?" You work for a guy like Grant Achatz, and you work for a guy like Wylie Dufresne, and you get really close to creativity. You start to understand what it is. Which is trying to do what’s unexpected, or trying to do what you don’t know how to do. So my resume and the third coming of molecular gastronomyeven though that was the logical path, the logical progressionit was depressing. Like writing that business plan, it became, well, you know. Someone who’s cooked pasta every day for the last 20 years. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it. So I was going through this crisis of what did I want to do? And I wasn’t sure.

Now, in tandem with that, I was eating a lot of Mexican food. I fell in love with Lauren Resler, who is half-Mexican and grew up in LA with a certain style of Mexican cooking. And that, in our household, became my adopted go-to. It just began to taste normal for me. It didn’t even taste Mexican to me anymore, it just tasted like good food. That, along with the idea that you start going to Mexico, and you start discovering how rare it is. You start seeing these products that you’ve never seen before. So for me discovering papalo or pipicha — is it Mexican? Yes. But for me it was just about new. The same way that you learned about the way Albert Adrià manipulated ingredients. Or the first time as a cook that you got to taste foie gras or dust the dirt off of a truffle. So all of that, plus I knew the idea that if I were going to do this, it was going to be blood in the water, which oddly attracts me to it more. So that’s why I opened a taqueria.

Greg: Was there an experience before you got really excited and started to explore Mexican food, where you had a similar period of exploration? Was it the Adrià stuff, or that kind of fine-dining?  And did you have to go in as sort of new person?

Helen: What got you into molecular gastronomy?

Alex: For the record, I had never heard that term when I cracked my first El Bulli book. I heard that term way later, and for me it was about — well, it started when I was working for Ken Oringer at Clio. They didn’t have a pastry chef there at the time, I was just a cook. I was on my externship for culinary school. And he was like, "Well, you’ve got to go down in the basement and make desserts." And I said, "Well, I don’t do that." Which is a really shitty thing to say to a boss, in retrospect. I was like, "I’m just not excited about pastry." And he handed me Albert Adrià’s first book, and he said, "Just read it." And I did. It wasn’t about dessert for me, it was just about ideas that were so artistic and strong. The idea of deconstructed tiramisu, or the idea of something that’s always hot is now cold, or something that’s always savory is now sweet. And I started wanting to be in that basement, making desserts. And then I started to not want to leave that basement. And that’s how I ended up becoming a pastry chef. It was partially about autonomy, because most chefs don’t like dealing with dessert. And if you’re a sous chef, at the end of the day, you’re a whipping post. You’re doing all the ordering, you’re running the line. As a pastry chef I got to hide away in a different kitchen and deal with a set of skills that the savory team didn’t want to touch. Which meant you could, at a very young age, actually put ideas on a menu, which was exciting. At the age of 22 to be able to do that, that was really cool and important to me. It just got weird because I started getting better and better pasty chef jobs. And then I looked back and I was like, "Shit, I’ve been doing this for 10 years."

Helen: And all of the sudden, you’re an expert and you’re creating the conversation.

"As a pastry chef, I got to hide away in a different kitchen. I could, at a very young age, actually put ideas on a menu, which was exciting."

Alex: Sort of! I mean, an expert in a very specific niche thing. I never had any desire to — I could do it, but I never had any desire to — make 50 pounds of pastry cream, or fill a case. I’ve only made three wedding cakes in my life, and they were for people that were either really close to me, or someone who said, "You can literally do whatever you want."

Greg: So when did you get into pastry, 2002?

Alex: I graduated culinary school 2001, and yeah, it was 2002. I took a job in Boston as a sous chef and the pastry chef either quit or got fired, depending on who you ask. And being an opportunist, I just said, "Well, okay, I’ll fill in." I said, "Here’s the deal, I’ll be the sous chef and the pastry chef, and you don’t have to pay me more money. Just put my name on the menu and let me make whatever I want for dessert." And that was my first pastry chef job. Which then turned into another job, and another job, which ended up being Alinea, amazingly.

Helen: Which like, of all places.

Alex: Yeah, Alinea when I was 25. Which was really cool. Then I moved to New York, and I was Wylie’s pastry chef for four years. And that was my only job ever in New York City.

Helen: What made you decide to come to New York?

Alex: It was actually personal. Lauren and I — Lauren, my wife, who’s also a pastry chef — she moved to Chicago after me. It was a dare, and she took the dare. I was like, "Well just so you know—" We were living together more or less. And I was like, "Well, I’m moving to Chicago, and I’d love for you to come." And she was like, "Well, I don’t want to come." And she didn’t. And I moved anyway. Three months later, she ended up moving out. And then we lived together.

Helen: You called her bluff. Someone called someone’s bluff.

Alex: Yeah. And Chicago was great, but we had decided, well, we’re like a real couple now. And it just never felt like home. She wanted to go back to the east coast. There was no way in hell I was ever going back to Boston. So we looked at New York, and then when we did, I was like, "Well, there’s only one restaurant in all of New York that would actually let me cook the way that I’ve been cooking." So I sent Wylie a letter and said, "Look, I know you have a great pastry chef, but if anything ever changes, give me a call." And then literally a month later, he was like, "Oh, by the way, Sam Mason’s opening this restaurant and let’s talk." And that was it.

Helen: It was fate.

Greg: I’ve got to say, sometimes I’ve chatted with chefs about their influences and stuff, and they’ll point to one restaurant, during one year. Like, "Oh, the best was French Laundry, 2004. That’s what I aspire to." Or whatever. It seems like you worked at Alinea and WD~50 during what I think a lot of people would consider to be those peak periods for what they were doing.

Alex: Maybe. The cool thing about it for me, though, is that four years is actually a short period of time in the span of a career. I only worked for Grant for 18 months. But you remain friends with those guys, they actually become your friends, and they are truly creative and progressive in every sense of the word. So it’s like,  even though you’re no longer working there for them , you continue to learn, just by watching. Because you were in the kitchen for a minute, so you understand the processes, but then you see what they’re continuing to come up with. So the dividends on it are incredible.

Helen: Have you been following the Alinea renovation-slash-overhaul?

Alex: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Helen: How do you feel about it?

Alex: I’m dying to go back.  I’ve eaten at Alinea three times now, and every time it’s just gotten better and better. I would refuse to ask to go untillike, it’s a new restaurant. I know it’s 11 years old, but it’s still a new restaurant. I just always believe in letting the chef have a minute. ‘Cause you know how it is when it’s new, everyone’s sort of knocking the door down and they’re coming over the walls. But I’m dying to go back.

Greg: I think it’s so interesting that you still collaborate with some of those people. I mean, it sounds like you guys are all still kind of following each other.

Alex: Oh yeah.

Greg: And part of some greater sort of community. Whereas I think a lot of people aren’t like that when they leave a certain place, or leave a certain job. You know?

Alex: Yeah, which is unfortunate. I’m really lucky, I mean, those guys are the guys. I mean, Ken Oringer, too, in Boston. We’re all very good friends. And I’m very proud that I have restaurants now. I mean, that’s the thing: you look up to these guys, but you also want to either equal or, in some way, top them. Grant, for me, is the big one. Because his creativity is tireless. And people don’t understand it, but — if you listen to Radiohead, which I think is an incredibly creative band, and if you ask Thom York who his greatest influence is, he’ll say Michael Stipe. And if you really look at REM and Radiohead, you can’t really draw a line, in terms of like — they’re similar. And I think that’s really cool. So the idea of opening a restaurant that was doing Alinea-esque food in 2005even though that to the public is a more creative thing—for me, tacos or trying to figure out masa was more creative. And I’m looking forward to seeing, I don’t know, what that manifests in.

Helen: I think that question of creativity is a really essential one, right? You nailed it. I think that there’s a certain type of diner — probably the majority of diners — who look at a deconstructed plate, or something that’s very vertical, or has weird, crazy curlicues going on. And they say, "Oh, this is so creative." But once you encounter that thought process a lot with dishes, you start seeing it over and over again.

Alex: It’s a format. And by definition, you can continue to be creative within the format to an extent, but then sooner or later it starts to fizzle and wear out. One of the most basic rules of creativity is just to change one thing about it. So if this is always sweet, now it’s savory, or if it’s always cold, now it’s hot. Then you started to see in that movement of cooking, it’s like, "Okay, we’re going to make a foam. Okay, now we’re going to dehydrate the foam. Okay, now we’re going to take the foam that we dehydrated and we’re going to freeze it in liquid nitrogen. And we’re going to smash — " And it’s just extrapolation upon extrapolation. Which means that phase of modernity, that hyper-manipulation — it’s still worthy of doing, but it’s not avant-garde anymore, by definition. It’s not avant-garde. And you see cooking now, it’s like the pendulum has swung so far the other way. And again, people are copying. Now everything is of-the-place. Everything. And I get it. We’re in Copenhagen and now it’s of-the-place. Okay, well now I’m an Eskimo and it’s of-the-place. Or, I’m Native American and it’s of-the-place. And that also becomes a box. A box that you’re working within. It’s not a bad thing, but then sooner or later it’s like, well, what’s next? What is the future?

Helen: Yeah.

Greg: Like a bunch of different patterns or something.

Helen: Like the path keeps moving forward, but you’re still on the same damn path, you know?

Alex: Yeah, yeah.

Helen: Like, "Okay, we’re dehydrating it, but we know we’re going to do something else next."

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: And then to pull way back — I think the El Bulli cookbooks, which you mentioned a little bit ago, are so fascinating as documents. I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a look at them, Greg but they are

Greg: I’ve never cracked — I’ve seen them on a bunch of bookshelves. I should open one, next time I see one.

Helen: They’re amazing, and what they really are — I mean, in theory they’re cookbooks. But what they actually are are absolute how-to manuals for creativity. And when you read them, you realize that Ferran Adrià more than anything else really was just obsessed with learning. And obsessed with discovery. So he’d do this thing where the restaurant would be closed for six months, and he’d just experiment. And then he’d reopen, and then he’d close again, and then he’d totally overhaul the menu. And then he’d just move on to the next thing. And all of this intelligence and all of these facts and these concepts would synthesize as the restaurant would evolve. And it’s sort of speaking to what you're saying: like, masa is more creative if you’ve already maxed out with, you know, making curlicues out of sugar.

Alex: Sure.

Helen: Because you’re still learning.

Alex: Yeah with Ferran, I think the importance was that it was about talking about things in clear terms. So, "Oh, this is creative. Well, what does that mean? What defines it as that? And let’s document it." He said something very interesting, and I’ll paraphrase. But he said something very interesting in a demonstration once which was that, was Escoffier really the most brilliant cook of his time? Or was he the only one who could maybe read or write, and actually took the time to write something down?

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: Very interesting. I mean as writers, as journalists, it’s like, 100 years from now, there will be all new people. And thoughts and culture and everything will have shifted drastically to the point that if we were reborn, we wouldn’t recognize it anymore. So all you have at the end of it is the document, which is fascinating to think about.

Helen: And the durability of the document. It actually relates to something  we were looking into, not too long ago, with Eater. We were looking at the oldest restaurants in New York. Classics. And it turns out that all of these places that we love, that we think of as the iconic, really old New York restaurants, like Keens Steakhouse, or Katz’s Deli, they’re great because they’re old, but it also turns out they all own their buildings.

Alex: Right.

Helen: And so the reason they’ve lasted for forever is not probably because they were the best of their era, it’s because they were the ones who had the document that persisted. Like Escoffier was the only one who wrote it down? Keens was maybe the only one who thought to buy the building.

Greg: And hopefully stayed in the same family so that operations kept getting passed down.

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: They had the intelligence to fortify.

Helen: Yeah. So you look at the present, and you’re like, what do we think the past is? What do we think greatness was? So much of that is informed by whomever had the record that made it to today.

Alex: Yeah, yeah. It’s fascinating and again, the idea of hunkering down. It’s the talk of the town right now. Everyone’s talking about the restaurant apocalypse.

Helen: Really?

Alex: Oh yeah, everyone’s talking about, "Okay well, minimum wage is going up and it’s going to keep going up. And then this law’s going to change, and then that, and we’re all going to close, and we’re all going to die." That’s just kind of — you’re hearing that a lot right now. I think that’s a little bit of an exaggeration.

Greg: It’s refreshing to hear you say that, man, because every time I hear people talking about this, I’m very sensitively listening. And I very much want to hear everyone’s thoughts on this. But it’s also kind of like, as many risky restaurants open, five dumb-fuck whatever bar-and-grill’s open and stay open for 20 years.

Alex: Yep, and they’re doing fine and they’re not going to ban tipping. And do I think all those things? Like do I think maybe one day tipping will become completely defunct? Yes. Okay, so this tasting menu used to cost $120 and now it costs $168, fine. Does that mean a dollar pizza in New York City is now going to cost $2? I don’t think so, I don’t think you’re going to see that happen. What I do think though, in thinking creatively, I think you’re going see a lot of new business models. Beyond the QSR or even beyond the ghost restaurant, and I don’t even know what the hell those are yet. But that’s fascinating to think about. Because look, it’s a catalyst for change and with change comes new, fresh ideas. You have to look at it that way. You have to look at it positively.

Greg: So you have three restaurants, you’re gearing up to open your fourth. They all serve a variety of purposes. You keep them fresh and interesting. I’m just kind of curious. I know there’s not one simple answer, but how’d you make it work? And did you have to make any sacrifices or any changes after the restaurants were open to keep it going and to spin off another one?

Alex: Yeah, 100 percent. And thank you, by the way. What we’re trying to do is, like you said, they all serve a purpose. Whatever that purpose is, I’m always trying to get closer to identifying it, and making it more of that purpose. So, in terms of what I love about cooking, I love super high-end, ego-driven stuff, and I also like nachos and fried chicken. And I don’t like those for commercial, sell-out reasons, I actually enjoy cooking them and eating them. So if Al Pastor is supposed to be this bar where everything’s on paper plates, and if you were drunk, what do you want to eat? Well, that’s why I’m going to put Mexican-style hot dogs next year, wrapped in bacon with avocado and mayonnaise and all that, like they have in Mexico City. Or that’s why we’re going to put a frozen-drink machine behind the bar, let’s make it more of that. And I look at all the restaurants that way. To answer your question, though, how do you stay open? It's tricky. We grew for a couple of reasons. One, I opened Cocina out of ego, it was stupid. Everyone told me Taqueria wasn’t going to work, and then it worked freakishly well, and I looked at all this money in the bank account. And I should have kept it, because then maybe my son would go to college, now it’s a little iffy. But I saw that money, and we were three months old, and I was like, "No, we’re going to open another restaurant right now, because we can." And years later I look at that and yes, we could, and we did, but that doesn’t mean we should. Because the team wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t ready yet, I didn’t even have a clear idea of what Cocina was yet. Which is why it’s changed so many friggin’ times in five years. And we’re still kind of honing in on, well, what is it?

"I opened Cocina out of ego. Everyone told me Taqueria wasn’t going to work, and then it worked freakishly well, and I looked at all this money in the bank account. And I should have kept it, because then maybe my son would go to college."

I opened Al Pastor because I was honestly scared of becoming irrelevant. And I know that sounds crazy, but it’s different now. Staying within the dialogue is tricky. You see your contemporaries opening a restaurant every six months and I’d be lying if I said you don’t start to get a little panicky. So we opened the bar and we said, "Okay, we’ll sell alcohol." And the alcohol will pay the rent and it will allow us to figure out how to get our masa game together. And figure out how to grind corn. And that’s why we did that. We also did it because we had some really good people that we didn’t want to lose. But we had some new good people coming in. So where the hell do you put them all? And that’s actually probably the biggest reason we’re opening the fourth one. We’re actually going, "Okay, well, if we’re never going to close, or if we’re going to stay in New York City and we’re really going to have staying power — how are we going to do that?" We’re opening a restaurant that’s gonna have a lot of seats. It’s basically going to double the size of Empellón. It’s going to force us to actually become a real restaurant group, so to speak.

Helen: What’s the difference between a fake restaurant group and a real restaurant group? An HR department?

Alex: Yeah, like a COO, or you know —

Helen: Oh, you’re going to be real.

Alex: Yeah, all that. There’s a sustainability issue. You can run your three little restaurants downtown, and squeeze ’em for cash. But at the end of the day, someone slips and falls in front of your restaurant, and they’re going to call someone to sue. They’re going to call you. You’re going to have to deal with that. Or you’re going to have to deal with compliance issues, like HR, all that stuff you’re talking about. And you start to realize, "Well, shit, I’m not cooking anymore." I didn’t even put on my chef whites today. And when you think about that, you’re like, "This is the reason that I got into this, and now I’m not even doing that anymore." How do you afford the people who are oddly passionate — "I went to business school and I’m really good at finance." How do you get that person on your team? You can’t do it, or I can’t do it with two tiny little things in the East Village and Taqueria. You have to do this big thing, and for us it was Midtown.

Greg: I love that you're opening in Midtown. Midtown is the neighborhood where the Eater Upsell studios are based. It’s a much-maligned neighborhood amongst food-lovers and restaurant nerds, even though there are some great restaurants in this neighborhood.

Helen: Are there? Are there really?

Greg: Oh, totally, there’s some classics. You know, The Modern, 21 ClubWu Liang Ye.

Helen: I’m just feeling very skeptical about all this.

Greg: Keens Steakhouse. I mean, there are some proper classics, it’s just not a very — I think the things that are not great are pretty bad. And the layout is not as fun.

Helen: But we’re getting an Empellón.

Alex: Yeah, I have some opinions about this. I think the most important word you said, Greg, was "neighborhood." And I think you have to treat it like a neighborhood. I think you have to think about it that way. So rents here are probably factually the highest, higher than anywhere else in Manhattan, so there’s a very high barrier for entry. Hard to get in. So you have a lot of restaurants that are not that good that are grandfathered in. And they can get away with serving four shitty IQF shrimp on a half-melted bed of crushed ice with a ramekin of ketchup for $29. And they’re busy and they’re going to get that money. And I feel like they got in there, and maybe they were trying once, and they’re not trying anymore. And they’re taking it for granted. So my goal with the new one — I don’t want it to be considered the best Mexican restaurant in Midtown, I want it to be considered an awesome Midtown restaurant. One of our goals is to not change our focus, but we’re trying to take the word "Mexican" out of the dialogue a bit. Like when you think, "Are you in the mood for Italian?" Do you say that? Or are you in the mood for really bad-ass pasta?

Helen: Right.

Alex: So, Italian cooking has — New York City has developed its own version of it, that if you were to remove it from New York City it would be like removing a vital organ. We wouldn’t survive without that. And there are other cuisines that have done that in New York, and I feel like so long as we keep talking about Mexican, Mexican, Mexican, authenticity, this is from Oaxaca, or this is from there — we’re actually holding ourselves back. Where it’s like, is your favorite restaurant in Midtown because it’s Midtown, or is it because it’s French? You know what I mean? Say a restaurant like Le Bernardin, it’s French, but I think people think it about it often more as a seafood restaurant.

Helen: Right, exactly, yeah.

Alex: More than as a French restaurant. Or a French seafood restaurant. It’s just a great seafood restaurant.

Helen: Because it’s transcended that box, you know?

Alex: Yeah, I want to see our chosen genre do that. And I think Midtown’s a great place to try to test that experiment.

Helen: Yeah, I mean, Midtown is, in many respects, what Danny Meyer likes to call "captive audience dining." Because so much of the population of the New York area works in Midtown. So you have this incredibly robust daytime population.

Alex: You’re trapped.

Helen: You’re trapped here.

Alex: Either order Maple or go eat somewhere for an expensive lunch.

Helen: Yeah, so you get those places like the ones you mentioned with the incredibly shitty, incredibly expensive, shrimp cocktail.

Alex: Right.

Helen: Where they can perpetuate forever because people are stuck here, and they’re stuck with them. And I’m really excited to start getting good restaurants here. You can only eat Maple so many days.

Greg: And I stand by the argument that there are some great restaurants in Midtown, but maybe not — there’s nothing like an Empellón, I’ll say that.

Alex: Right. And we want to try our hardest — we’re going to keep our DNA, that’s the thing. There’s the Venn diagram: you want to be of-the-place, and be respectful of the place. I feel like sometimes, unfortunately, restaurateurs, when they think of Midtown, they think, "Well of-the-place is ‘douche bag.’"

Helen: Right.

Alex: I think that sucks, I’m sorry. Like, "Okay, well, we’re going to put $38 martinis on the menu. Or whatever the hell we’re going to do." I think that’s lame. I think you can be of-the-place but also not lose yourself in the process. And then a third ring of that diagram would be, like, can it be new, can it be provocative? That’s the best thing. I think the best chefs and restaurateurs have an unreasonable goal, but I think it’s a really important one. Which is that we want success, but then we also want to be loved or revered for it. And we want it all on our friggin’ terms.

"Chefs want success, but we also want to be loved or revered for it. And we want it all on our friggin’ terms."

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: Which is really weird when you say it out loud. That’s like — to do that is not reasonable.

I mean, it’s the ultimate paradox of I think, any kind of success, right? I mean, you want to be exactly who you are, you don’t want to change anything, and you want everyone to adore you for it, and also reward you with a lot of money.

I feel like you’ve cracked the code at Cocina, specifically though, in terms of that being both very accessible and also very unique. And there’s something challenging if you poke around the menu, and how you order —you can have a bunch of different experiences.

Alex: Thank you. I think that’s right. What we’re going to try to do is — how to describe it? I think the new one’s dining room is going to be very Cocina-like in it’s a la carte phases. Which then goes, like, "Well, what do you do with Cocina?" And I’m doing that to the company to force that. I mean, I did that with Al Pastor where — it’s an East Village thing. The East Village again, as a neighborhood, you walk down the sidewalk and there’s all those A-frames, all those chalkboard A-frames on the sidewalk, which are saying, "Hey, come in here for happy hour." And happy hour in Midtown basically means that you’re in a restaurant during happy hour.

Helen: Right.

Greg: Yeah.

Alex: That’s all it means. Whereas in the East Village, it’s real. People walk into Al Pastor and they’re like, "Well, what’s your happy-hour offering?"

Helen: Oh.

Greg: Man, I do not think about happy hours in Midtown at all.

Helen: We do have a perpetual question because we don’t have good bars near the office, so maybe Empellón will save us.

Greg: I feel so bad at my job whenever people ask where they should get a drink around here. It’s like —

Helen: It’s a wasteland.

Greg: "Okay, you want to hear the spiel? Let me cut to the chase: there’s no good place."

Helen: But that’s interesting. In the East Village, you actually have to offer an enticement. You have to compete against the other people on your block.

Alex: It’s either play the game in that way, or you’re a sushi spot. And then either you’re the all-you-can-eat sushi spot or you’re the no frontage, no menu

Helen: $180 omakase.

Alex: Yeah, you see a lot of those manifest in the East Village, which is interesting. Again it’s like — the cheeseburger taco was discovered in Mexico. And Jordana and I wrote about it in our book, and we offered that at Cocina, but it didn’t feel right there. I love the taco but it belongs more at Al Pastor. Long story short: there’s still a lot of things we’re doing at Cocina that are for the neighborhood, that don’t feel right for the restaurant. Which means, sooner or later, you’re going to have to — it’s like, either open for brunch

Greg: Right.

Alex: Which I really don’t want to do there, and we won’t — but it’s either open for brunch, and hunker down, and make the menu inexpensive, and try to remain there for 20 years, and be like the next Hearth or the next Prune. Or demolish the frontage and remove the signage, and make it tasting-menu-only. And then, if you’re doing that, it doesn’t matter what neighborhood you’re in. Because now you’re defiant, back to that El Bulli thing. You’re making the journey to there. You’re not walking down the sidewalk looking for a lunch deal. You’re arriving.

Helen: You’re planning it three months ahead of time and pre-paying through Tock.

Alex: It’s all very interesting to think about, but at the end of the day, restaurants are — whether it’s tasting-menu-only, three-Michelin-star thing, or a dive bar on the corner trying to get you in for cheap shots, I think they’re all very similar. You have to strategize this.

Helen: So what brought you to the four-seat tasting counter at Cocina? What made you decide that you wanted to get back in there and hand people food yourself?

Alex: It was that, like with all the restaurants now, I don’t have a place to stand anymore. I don’t have a place to expedite, I don’t have a place to be — so I wanted to make a place to be where I could stand and see my kitchen and not just stand there like an asshole. I wanted to keep my hands busy, there was that. The other part of it was that we were thinking for a minute like, well, let’s just renovate the restaurant, let’s make it tasting-menu-only. Let’s just do that. In making that decision, you are also making a decision to fire a bunch of your customers. You’re basically saying, "Okay, by the way, all of you people, everything you loved about this, it’s not here anymore." And people don’t think about, "Oh well, now I can get it at Taqueria . " They don’t think that way. You took away what they loved, and I wasn’t ready to do that. The big thing with the tasting table is dipping your toe in the water. So, you’re going to have a tasting menu in your restaurant. Cool, what does that mean, it’s another chef’s counter? Those are a dime a dozen right now, that’s not an interesting, new idea. So what would it be? And the answer — I don’t have an answer yet. I don’t know what that is, but that kitchen table allows me to put things out there and test the waters and see what sticks and what doesn’t.

"I wanted to make a place to be where I could stand and see my kitchen and not just stand there like an asshole."

Helen: So is it only you who cooks at the kitchen, for that table?

Alex: No, initially it was only me, for the first seven months it was only me. Now it’s only me and one other person, Jason Beberman, who’s — I guess he’s our Director of Culinary Operations at this point.

Greg: Awesome title.

Alex: Yeah, he’s been the chef at Taqueria, he’s been the chef at Cocina, he’s done everything in the whole company. So now, if I’m not serving it, he’s serving it.

Helen: I’m always interested when I dine at tasting counters, when the chef and the cooks are the servers. How much thought do you put into the actual performance of it? Like how much thought goes into, "Oh shit, these people are watching me cook. They’re watching me hand this over to them."

Alex: Quite a bit. Sometimes we’ll put a new dish on the menu, yeah it’s a good dish, but there wasn’t any excitement to it. There wasn’t any anticipation. Like we just put a new dish on the menu a few days ago, where we’re actually literally making a piece of sushi for you. Like in front of you, we’re actually making the rice and we’re holding it in those little Japanese wooden vessels that keep the rice warm. And we’re actually forming it. Are we awesome at forming it yet? No, but it’s cool because it throws the sense, like why—they can see me doing it for five minutes. They’re like, "Why is he making sushi? I thought we were having a Mexican experience." And that’s the whole point of it, it’s sushi with Mexican flavors but the idea is to make you — I guess to kind of destroy expectations.

Greg: You should do a tasting menu experience where it starts as your brand of Mexican-inspired food, and then by the end of it, it’s just actually an omakase.

Helen: Just like a straight Japanese, all-in?

Greg: Yeah, right.

Alex: I agree, I think that would be a great idea. I mean one of the guys that I really admire—and  he gets credit for everything, but I don’t think they talk about this—is Dave Chang. Because what he’s been really really good at is refusing to be branded as any one particular cuisine. I had a meal at Ko, and the awesomeness of it was it was all over the friggin’ place. Like culturally, technically, yet it all — that didn’t feel weird there, that didn’t feel jarring. And that’s a very tricky thing to do, to make it seem effortless, because I don’t think it is effortless.

Greg: Auteurism, I think.

Alex: Yeah.

Greg: You go there because you believe in the person who’s behind it.

Helen: But it’s especially exciting because of the sort of fetishistic obsession that I think food culture has right now, with this idea of rigid authenticity. Like there’s a certain frozen-in-amber thing that is Korean food, or is Japanese food, or is Mexican food. Or is American food. And when someone like Chang comes along and — with complete authority and confidence in the cooking — is just like, "No, no. We’re going to do something that makes logical sense. And it’s not some crazy fusion for the sake of fusion. We’re going to approach this deliberately and ignore all of your attempts to restrict us." It’s thrilling.

Alex: Sometimes I worry about and this is going to sound awfulsometimes I think the color of your skin matters.

Helen: I would say that’s accurate.

Alex: A little bit.

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: I think Rick Baylessagain, a chef I respect very much—I think he spent a career really proving how much he knows about authenticity. And how if you look at his TV show, "Look at how much time I spend in Mexico." Like, "Look how Mexican I am."

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: As an outsider. Whereas I feel like, someone like Enrique Olvera, he’s Mexican, so by default, anything he does outside of the realms of tradition is immediately deemed as tradition or authenticity. It’s very interesting to think about.

Helen: That’s really interesting and it’s very subtle, because he is Mexican so he doesn’t have to prove his Mexican-ness to a predominantly white audience in New York.

Alex: Right.

Helen: So he lends this imprimatur of realness, even if he were to go open a hyper-focused Japanese restaurant, people would still call it Mexican-Japanese. Just because he’s touching the food.

Alex: Right, I think it’s picture versus frame, but sometimes I don’t think the frame isit’s not only the country that you’re eating in or the actual physical environment of the restaurant, but it’s back to the author, and having this backstory on the author which somehow affects — I don’t know, if a Japanese person hands you sushi does it taste more sushi-like than if I hand it to you?

Helen: I mean it’s a constant conversation, pretty frequently in the comments on Eater, and if you look at the Yelp reviews of sushi places. People get very fixated on the idea that the sushi chef has to be Japanese.

Alex: Sure.

Helen: And you’ll see people say, "Well, oh no, their sushi chefs are Korean, or their sushi chefs are Mexican." And it is, I think, exactly what you’re saying, picture versus frame. There’s a certain type of diner who wants to feel like they’re buying — not food, but a certain tourist experience, almost, you know?

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: And they don’t want the person who is the best at making this dish making the dish, they want a person who fits their mental image of what someone probably in the 1950s who made this dish ought to look like.

Alex: Yeah, I mean, my attitude is this: if you want the authentic experience, go to that place. If you want to eat cochinita pibil, for real, go to the Yucatán, and have it. I think New York City should continue to be proud of its nature of subversion. And of making things its own and absorbing them into the fold, until you sort of forget, almost .  I mean back to the Italian thing, it’s like people have opinions on what rice you should use for risotto that have never been to wherever the hell risotto’s made in Italy.

"My attitude is this: if you want the authentic experience, go to that place."

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: I suppose that could upset a certain set of people, I just find it interesting. Because then maybe there’s more freedom to do something extremely non-traditional with that risotto.

Helen: And you’ve spoken and written in your cookbook before about how that line pretty reliably tends to be drawn between food that’s cooked by white Europeans and food that’s cooked by people of color.

Alex: Oh sure, ethnic — I would think of Italian cooking or Spanish cooking or French cooking as ethnic cuisines. That would mean anything outside of your backyard as American is ethnic. What it really means is brown people food or yellow people food, it means food that — it means you’re either scared to go to that country, or you need a tour guide, or something. That’s what it really comes down to.

Helen: It’s like this line between an us and a them.

Alex: Yeah.

Helen: And it’s like, well it’s their food, so I want it to be cooked by them, which is —

Alex: So Japanese cooking is ethnic food, but that’s one that has allowedfor a host of reasonsit’s become precious or it’s worth a lot of money. Whereas Mexican cooking or Chinese cooking ethnic food, not worth that much money.

Helen: It’s interesting to think about this in the context of the kind of cooking that you were doing at Alinea or at WD~50 that — now I don’t wanna call it molecular cuisine, but weird food, right? Like sort of science-y, cerebral, weird food.

Greg: What’s the best term for it. Modern?

Alex: I like modern. I like avant-garde the most.

Helen: Avant-garde.

Alex: Because the purpose of many of those dishes was to jostle people’s sensibilities or be provocative in some way.

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: So I like avant-garde.

Helen: So avant-garde. Within the context of avant-garde cooking, there was so much drawing from the entire globe.

Alex: Right.

Helen: Right? And like flavors and techniques and styles — it was the opposite of the kind of frozen-in-amber rigidity that people tend to apply to certain types of ethnic cuisines. But then it also, itself, was such a defined culinary style. Like you could almost say like there is a culture of avant-garde-ism that is its own thing.

Alex: Sure, it has its own list of rules and it’s actually that — when you look at that cooking, it had more rules. It had more rigid structure to the point where it’s actually really hard to put a dish on the menu at a place like WD~50 or Alinea. There’s so many filters. It’s not just like, "Oh, well, morels are in season. Fuck, let’s just sauté those with some shallots, and asparagus. What grows together goes together." That’s a dish at so many restaurants right now in New York City. Whereas often times we would, at those restaurants I worked at, we would miss entire seasons. It’s like, I really want to do something with watermelon. Because I love watermelon. Okay, cool, but you can’t just put good watermelon sorbet on a plate ’cause it’s just friggin’ sorbet. That belongs at this restaurant or that restaurant. So what the hell do you do? The next thing you know watermelon was out of season and you didn’t do shit with it.

Helen: But you’ve got a whole year to come up with the narrative of your dish.

Alex: Sure. Yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. It really is. Thinking about food that way. It’s fun, but it’s a pain in the ass.

Greg: As you approach a new restaurant, are you like, "Okay, I am writing new recipes. I am working on new ideas," or what is that process like creatively as you approach a new venture?

Alex: Yeah, 100 percent. Because Empellón is slightly successful now, there becomes pressure within the company, amongst your employees, of okay, we’re gonna just do our greatest hits. We know what works and we have sales data on it, so these are the dishes we should do. We’re not going to repeat any dishes in the new place. We’re going to do an entirely new menu. And for me now the creative process is not just the menu, it’s also what the restaurant’s going to look like. When Pete Wells reviewed us at Cocina, he had some very valid issues, which he was like, "Okay, well, you are telling me the food should be shared, but you’re making this shit impossible to share. And it’s like, fine, everything is on a beautiful plate, but the beautiful plates are too big for the friggin’ table you’re putting me at and you’re plowing course into course." And that was true, and I wasn’t thinking about anything on the guest side, and I know that sounds awful. I was just thinking like a chef. I was like all right, all that matters is the food. My food is bad-ass and it looks good going out the kitchen. The end.

Whereas now, I think of everything equally. What does the dining room feel like, and are plates going to fit on the table, and is the dish you’re making appropriate on that plate?Or what music are they listening to? Is the place appropriate, where f I am wearing a suit‘cause okay you are in Midtown, I might be wearing a suitdoes it feel good for that? Okay. But then now I am in Midtown but I didn’t wear a jacket and tie today. But I want go there, does it feel okay for that too? And that’s — you’ve got to be careful. How big are the tables? They have to be good for, like, a secret Tinder date, and also that same size has to be appropriate for someone trying to close a deal. So there’s a lot of psychology that goes into it.

Helen: Do you like thinking about that stuff?

Alex: I love it.

Helen: It seems like a fun puzzle.

Alex: It is and it starts — I can start to see where chef turns into restaurateur. I can start to see it. It’s like, you are a chef, but come on, you’re not the chef anymore. Being a chef in a kitchen is like watching a six-month-old child. Sometimes it can be a little bit boring once you get the hang of it. But the second you stop watching it, the child falls off a set of steps or falls off the couch and starts screaming.

"Being a chef in a kitchen is like watching a six-month-old child. The second you stop watching, the child falls off a set of steps."

Greg: You’ve just described a lot of restaurants in Manhattan specifically, by the way.

Alex: So the chef’s got to watch it. The chef’s the chef. So then to that point, I’m not the chef anymore. I’m the boss of the chefs, but they’re doing it. So, then, what are you? You have to step back and look at the entire environment. It is exciting. Lighting matters. Sound level matters. Your food will taste better in a well-lit room. I can’t prove that, but I believe it, to the point that we invest in it now.

Helen: Yeah. Well, because the way things taste is often the least important part about how they taste.

Alex: Sure, or I mean, again, back to environment. If you walk into a temple or a church, you’re going to, for the most part, behave like you’re in church. If you walk into a hospital, you’re going to behave like you’re in a hospital. I do believe that when you go to eat barbecue, it should feel like a barbecue. Like it should be picnic tables and they should be beat up and you should see chalk boards there.

Helen: It sets your expectations.

Alex: That gets me in the mood to eat barbecue. Now I am excited for it. It’s all very interesting to think about.

Helen: Do you miss calling yourself a chef? I mean, you still call yourself a chef.

Alex: No, I still do and I mean, I still cook. It’s just for me, it’s the evolution of — and I will talk about Grant Achatz again. It’s like, okay, well, I’m a great chef and I know how to cook good food. But you can see at one point he was like, "Okay, what about the plate that it’s going on?"

Helen: Right.

Alex: I’m going through every catalog of plateware. There’s nothing out there that I want. So you have to employ a full-time designer and start making your own stuff. That’s exciting. It’s just another level of control.

Greg: When you read that Pete Wells review, where he’s talking about the plates, the music, or whatever. What was your initial reaction? Were you like, "You’re wrong!" and then realized the changes you had to make?

Alex: I was like, shit, honestly, he’s right. We just started doing it. We just started putting the plateware out there and — this doesn’t fit on the table, and we’re not giving people a minute to enjoy it, and if we are telling people to share it, we’re not constructing it in a way where I can scrape it onto my plate and have some leftover for the other person. It’s just simple mechanics. That’s no different than, like, "By the way, here’s a pizza, but I’m not going to cut it."

Helen: Right.

Alex: "There you go guys. Have fun." Well, what the shit is that? Like, it could be the best pizza in the world, but how —? It starts creating tension and anxiety amongst the diners. Sometimes you need to read it in a review. I wasn’t a mature enough person to think about that in advance. I needed to hear Sam Sifton say, "Taqueria is the loudest fucking restaurant on Earth and they need soundproofing in a friggin’ bad way." And we had it the next month. I was like, "Shit, you’re right, this place is loud as fuck."

"I needed to hear Sam Sifton say, 'Taqueria is the loudest fucking restaurant on Earth and they need sound­proofing.' We had it the next month."

Helen: I think it’s a really important creative lesson, and it’s a hard one to learn. As an editor, a thing that I often say to my writers is — though I frame it a little bit more delicately than I am about to — it doesn’t really matter what you say. The only thing that matters is what people read. So if you’re not thinking about how it lands — you’re not going to be there with them to hold their hand and explain why they are misunderstanding you, or explain that they should be liking this part. Why aren’t you liking it? It’s your job to make sure that people enjoy what you are putting out there and that means you have to think about them.

Alex: 100 percent. Dissemination ultimately leads to dilution. Serve a dish on the tasting table. You make it. You explain it. There’s zero dilution. Open a restaurant with 25 servers, all of those 25 servers are snowflakes. They’re all human beings. Like one is hung over, one’s late for work, one’s really great at their job, one really sucks at their job and you want to fire them. But you haven’t found their replacement yet and you don’t want to throw off the schedule. Blah blah blah. Start passing all that shit through that filter and then see if the customer gets it. You’re right. So you have edit it way more on the back end. You have to be very careful how you write the script.

Helen: Yeah. You sort of make sure it lands the way you want it to land, which is a hard—

Greg: That’s awesome. I love that.

Helen: I love it. Valuable lessons.

Greg: All right, so Alex we have come to the time in the Eater Upsell that we call the lightning round.

Alex: Oh geez. Okay.

Greg: Yeah, nothing to be — well, you can be afraid of it, if you want.

Helen: It’s going to be fantastic, you should not be afraid. It’s not scary.

Greg: We’re just going to ask you some questions. We ask everyone that comes in here these questions. Just the first thing that comes out of your mind, just say it.

Helen: Question number one is, when you walk into a bar that you’ve never been to before, what is the drink you order to test out how good the bar is going to be?

Alex: Oh geez. I don’t have a good answer for this one. I’m a Negroni drinker. So that’s usually, if I don’t know what I am going to drink, I’ll get a Negroni. If the Negroni’s really good, I’ll then start looking at the rest of the cocktail menu. If it’s not, then I just default to gin and tonics.

Helen: That seems like a strong strat. Negroni’s are a good place to start. Equal measures and stuff like that. Cool.

Alex: Yeah.

Greg: So you have an hour to kill in an airport, what do you do? What’s your strategy?

Alex: An airport is the only time I ever buy magazines, and I always buy dumb — like I always buy Men’s Health. And I labor under the illusion for an hour that I am going to start exercising or being healthy in any way, shape, or form. And then I get on the plane and I look at, like, two pictures, then I fall asleep.

"I always buy Men’s Health. And I labor under the illusion for an hour that I am going to start exercising or being healthy in any way, shape, or form."

Greg: I like that. It sounds like you want to use that to be productive or something. You know?

Alex: Yeah, it doesn’t — my wife’s like, "Why the shit are you buying magazines? You’re never, like, gonna change your life, this is so stupid."

Helen: On a week night, when it’s your turn to cook dinner, what do you make for your family?

Alex: I cook a lot of, oddly, Italian at home, or Italian-esque, with no real focus. Like we always have dried chiles and Parmesan cheese and chickpeas and dried pasta or polenta. So it’s usually something in that realm.

Helen: If you were not a chef-slash-restaurateur, what would you be doing with your life?

Alex: Lately it might have been architecture or interior design. The more restaurants we do, I really start to appreciate the idea of building something permanent or semi-permanent that human beings are going to interact with, on both a conscious and a subconscious level.

Greg: So you have a road trip. It’s a day-long road trip. You’re by yourself in the car, you’re gunning down the highway. You’re playing some music and you’re singing along to it. What is it?

Alex: Lately that would be Nine Inch Nails, The Fragile. That album. That whole album.

Helen: That’s classic.

Alex: That’s real. Like, I’ve dusted off that album just recently. That’s actually embarrassing because I’m kind of a metal head. So like black metal and death metal, that’s kind of considered — Nine Inch Nails is kind of considered sissy.

Helen: Yeah.

Alex: Because it’s synthesizers and shit. But it’s oddly dark and yet somehow empowering the same way, like, I don’t know, like a pop song is.

Helen: I respect that. I respect the shit out of that. That’s really strong. If there were some kids sitting right in front of you, like some 17-year-old, you’re their role model, they want to be just like you when they grow up. What’s the piece of advice that you drop for them?

Alex: Take your time and and be respectful. And that would be the best advice I can give.

Helen: It applies outside the culinary world as well. Cool.

Greg: True that. Well, hey, Alex, thanks so much for coming and chatting with us today.

Alex: Thanks for having me.

Helen: Real pleasure. Alex Stupak, chef of many Empellón restaurants in New York, and the author of one of the best named cook books of all time — Tacos: Recipes and Provocations with Jordana Rothman. Cool! Thanks for coming by, Alex.

Alex: Thanks for having me.

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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin


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