LIFESTYLE

New York chef uses tortillas as his canvas: 'It's about capturing the moment'

In this Oct. 20, 2015 photo, acclaimed pastry chef Alex Stupak, who shifted over to Mexican food several years ago, poses for a photograph in front of his Mexican restaurant Empellon Cocina, in the East Village neighborhood in New York. Stupak, who worked in kitchens known for molecular gastronomy, has come out with a cookbook that approaches tacos in a whole different way. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

In this Oct. 20, 2015 photo, acclaimed pastry chef Alex Stupak, who shifted over to Mexican food several years ago, poses for a photograph in front of his Mexican restaurant Empellon Cocina, in the East Village neighborhood in New York. Stupak, who worked in kitchens known for molecular gastronomy, has come out with a cookbook that approaches tacos in a whole different way. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Take a look at the cover of acclaimed chef Alex Stupak's new cookbook on tacos, and you might note something missing: acclaimed chef Alex Stupak.

"They wanted me on the cover, but I wasn't gonna stand there smiling and holding a taco. Not gonna happen," he says. And yes, we've left out a few choice adjectives. But like everything in Stupak's thoughtful, unusual and even fiercely passionate cookbook, there's a reason behind the cover choice of an empty tortilla.

"A tortilla is a beginning," Stupak says. "Now you can put an idea on that tortilla."

And those ideas are wildly diverse. The 50 tacos from Stupak, a self-described "white boy from suburban Massachusetts" who turned to Mexican cuisine after years as a pastry chef in two famous kitchens of molecular gastronomy, Alinea and wd-50, range from straightforward to infinitely more complex, from traditional to avant-garde. We start with chicken tacos with kale and salsa verde, then move on to fava-and-blood sausage tacos, fish tempura tacos, or fried oyster tacos. There are mashed pea tacos with parmesan, and raw porcini mushroom tacos. For breakfast, there are sunnyside duck egg tacos with green chorizo gravy.

There's also a "Scallops Tacos JGV," which replicates French chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's seared sweet scallops dish, to make the explicit point that "a taco can be as serious and sublime as any composed, haute-cuisine dish."

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Not surprisingly, there's also a reason behind the title of Stupak's book, co-authored with Jordana Rothman: "Tacos: Recipes and Provocations."

"It's gonna provoke people," Stupak explains. "It's gonna piss people off. This book is not about Mexican cooking. It's about an outsider's relationship with it." Those "provocations" in the title refer to periodic essays among the recipes, in which he ruminates on such issues as the relationship Americans have with Mexican food (we think we own it, basically), on why Americans expect beef in their tacos when Mexicans don't, or on why we expect Mexican cuisine to be" cheap eats," and never luxurious like French food.

Stupak, who at 35 already owns three restaurants in New York and plans a fourth soon, sat down this week at his Empellon Cocina in Manhattan's East Village and elaborated on his book, his career and on the food world in general. (The interview has been edited and condensed for length.)

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AP: So why Mexican food?

Stupak: Mexican cooking here is way, way, way underdeveloped, compared to other cuisines. So one of my goals is changing that. I'm trying to subvert perception of something. Why Mexican? Because creativity is the most important thing to me. And people say, but you were working in these molecular gastronomy restaurants. And I say, people don't know what creativity is. Here's what creativity is: trying to do what you don't know how to do.

AP: You spent years in as a pastry chef in famous molecular gastronomy kitchens. What is the vogue now?

Stupak: It shifts, it's like fashion. The pendulum swings. So if at one point we were talking about new ways of manipulating ingredients, changing texture, provoking by way of deconstructionism or whatever, now the current movement in vogue is about hyperlocal, hyperpurity, everything is of the place. So, whether you're a Viking and thicken sauces with reindeer blood, or whether your mom's recipe for fudge has Velveeta in it or whatever, either way I'm kind of (doomed). Because I'm from Leominster, Massachusetts. I wasn't brought up with ANY cuisine.

AP: When did you decide to be a chef?

Stupak: I knew I wanted to cook at a very young age. About 8 years old. I had my first job when I was 12. When I make a decision I stick with it. I hate spontaneity. You can't have three restaurants in four years without good organization and finite goals. What has changed along the way is, I never thought I was going to be a pastry chef for 10 years, and I sure as hell never thought I'd end up cooking Mexican food.

AP: Pastry vs. tacos: Discuss!

Stupak: My love for them is very different. The emotions that bubble up when I'm making tacos are very different than the emotions that bubble up when I'm making desserts. But philosophically, the taco is about capturing the moment. And that moment is highly fleeting. It's like the perfect sushi. It's less art and more craft.

AP: How important is the tortilla?

Stupak: If it's not done right, don't even get out of bed. There's no charcuterie that will save (terrible) bread. There's no sauce that will save bad pasta. There's no piece of fish flown in from wherever that will save bad sushi rice. And there's no salsa and no filling that will save a bad tortilla.

AP: You speak in your book about a disastrous opening night with your first restaurant, Empellon Taqueria.

Stupak: I've never had an opening go smoothly. Opening a restaurant is one of the worst feelings ever. In every way, shape and form. It's the most tense collection of things, I couldn't even begin to describe it.

AP: So why do it?

Stupak: There's a difference between passion and love. Love is a choice. Passion is something different. You have no choice. I open restaurants because I have no choice. What else would I do? I have no hobbies. I have to open restaurants. Between the ages of 25-30 I was trying to figure out how to open a restaurant. The ages of 30 to 35 were about laying the foundation. So I think the next five years from 35 to 40 will be about, what is your legacy? What do you want to be known for?

AP: "Empellon." What does that mean?

Stupak: It means to shove something out of your way — to jostle something. So, it's the idea of pushing against your limits, pushing against adversity. Maybe that thing that you're trying to push away is yourself, your fear. Now, if I put the word "empellon" on the door and then I become complacent, I'm a joke, because I'm not even following my own damn mantra! So for me, the name is a reminder. And I like it because people DON'T know what it means.

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LEFTOVER TURKEY TACOS

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Makes 12 tacos

For the cranberry salsa:

1 tablespoon lard

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium yellow onion, minced

1 to 2 tablespoons minced chipotle in adobo sauce

1 1/2 cups leftover cranberry sauce

1/2 cup water

2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

Hefty pinch kosher salt

For the filling:

1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil

1 1/2 pounds leftover turkey meat, shredded

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano (preferably Mexican)

To assemble the tacos:

12 corn or flour tortillas, warmed

12 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 avocado, halved, pitted and cut into 12 slices lengthwise

1/2 medium white onion, minced

1/3 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

2 limes, each cut into 6 wedges

To prepare the salsa, set a medium saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the lard and heat until it melts and begins to shimmer. Add the garlic and onion and cook until they begin to brown, about 4 minutes. Stir in the chipotle and cook for another minute, then add the cranberry sauce and water. Bring to a simmer, then season with salt and pepper.

Reserve 3/4 cup of the salsa, leaving the rest in the pan.

To make the filling, to the pan of salsa add the lard, turkey, salt, cinnamon and oregano. Heat, stirring often, until simmering and warmed through.

To assemble the tacos, lay out the warm tortillas on a serving plate. Place 1 tablespoon of mayonnaise on each tortilla and spread using the back of a spoon. Divide the turkey filling into even mounds atop each tortilla. Evenly distribute the avocado slices among the tacos. Dress the turkey mounds with a spoonful of additional cranberry salsa. Add some minced onion, a couple pinches of cilantro, and a squeeze of lime to each taco, then serve the rest on the side.

Nutrition information per taco: 320 calories; 150 calories from fat (47 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 500 mg sodium; 28 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber; 15 g sugar; 15 g protein.

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