Six degrees of inspiration - New York
by Jordana Rothman • In partnership with FOOD & WINE
FOOD & WINE Best New Chef Alex Stupak of Empellón Taqueria, Cocina and Al Pastor shares the New York people and places that have left their mark on his work.
Joshua Liner Gallery
This Chelsea gallery specializes in works that engage with social and political issues, from artists all over the world. It was here that Alex first encountered the work of the painter Sylvia Ji. She had an exhibition in 2010 called Las Adelitas, named after a folk song about the female soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution. Alex and his wife, Lauren Resler, fell instantly in love with the rich and sensual images of women in traditional dress, with pale skin and darkened eyes reminiscent of Día de los Muertos calaveras, or sugar skulls. Alex bought Lauren one of the paintings as a gift, and they hung it together in the dining room of their first restaurant, Empellón Taqueria. Ji’s work has became a tradition—her paintings now hang in each of the Empellón restaurants. Alex also recently discovered another artist, Jeff Soto, at the gallery and commissioned him to paint a mural at Taqueria.
Joshua Liner Gallery: 540 W 28th St, New York, NY; 212-244-7415; joshualinergallery.com
Alex’s pastry career began at Clio in Boston and took off at Alinea in Chicago, but it was at wd~50 where he really laid roots in his adopted city of New York, and absorbed many of the lessons that would help guide the rest of his career. The Lower East Side restaurant, which closed after 11 years in 2014, was considered a paragon of modernist cuisine, counting figures like chef Mario Carbone and mixologist Eben Freeman among its many superstar alumni. “When I think about Wylie’s relationship to New York I think about the Ramones or Lou Reed,” says Alex, who headed up the wd~50 pastry kitchen from 2006–2011. “These are all artists that are very much a representation of the city and its counterculture. As a chef Wylie took exceptional risks and that takes a lot of guts when you have a lease to pay. He never compromised, right up to the last day of service.”
Tompkins Square Park
When the tortilla machine jams or the trompo’s on the fritz, this small leafy park, just across the street from Empellón Al Pastor, is where Alex heads to recharge in peace. The park is a historic gathering place for all manner of Alphabet City eccentric, from beatnik figures like Allen Ginsburg, who chanted the Hare Krishna mantra beneath its elm trees in the 1960s, to saxophone aesthetes who have gathered there for the last 23 summers to celebrate an annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival. “If you need to be reminded of the sheer and utter diversity of New York City, just sit in Tompkins Square Park for 15 minutes,” says Alex. He also loves the Sunday farmers market—lesser-known and not as mobbed as the one in nearby Union Square.
Tompkins Square Park: 500 E 9th St, New York, NY
The shelves at this dreamy shop are stacked high with neat jars of fragrant spices, nuts, chiles and more—scrolls of flaky canela, black speckled orca beans, bright Sicilian pistachios and musky selim pepper pods. “It’s like a stationary gypsy caravan for food,” says Alex. “The owner, Atef Boulaabi, is the sweetest, most unpretentious woman. Every time I go I end up buying something on impulse. I recently took home some dry wormwood; another time she showed me a pure Turkish rose oil that makes rosewater seem silly.” S.O.S. is also known for its gorgeous selection of dry and fresh mushrooms and, come truffle season, some of the loveliest specimens in town.
SOS Chefs: 104 Avenue B, New York, NY; 212-505-5813; sos-chefs.com
Saint Vitus Bar
Black walls, black bar, black rafters—the vibe is dark at this Brooklyn heavy metal bar where Alex heads to see bands like Bongzilla and Neurosis. “Metal music is incredibly complex, but it requires something of its listener to appreciate—you have to get past the sonic power of it to be able to grasp how technical it really is,” says Alex, who celebrated the completion of his first book with a Swedish black metal concert. Alex brings the spirit of this music into his cooking, and the character of his restaurants as well—with its brash murals and red neon, Al Pastor is the chef’s vision of a classic East Village rock bar; at Cocina he serves eight guests a night a 21-course tasting menu at an aluminum perch he refers to internally as “the metal table”; and when he isn’t wearing whites, he’s often seen wearing a shirt printed with a graphic designer’s heavy metal interpretation of the Empellón logo.
Saint Vitus Bar: 1120 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY; no phone; saintvitusbar.com
Ukrainian-born Brooklynite Biata Roytburd is known for her avant garde ceramics— stark, arresting sculptures that abstract the dimensions of human and animal forms. Alex first connected with Biata when he commissioned a custom 30-foot serpent that snakes along the southern wall of Empellón Cocina. “Some of Biata’s work is so physically daring in its scale and delicacy that you’ll never get a chance to see it, because it breaks,” says Alex. “I identify with her work, because I think it’s very symbolic of trying to push a medium beyond its limits.” Her work is also on display at Al Pastor, and Alex recently commissioned her to create the service ware for his tasting menu Cocina. In addition to the fine bowls and plates, the collection includes a grasshopper vessel for serving chapulines and a gorgeous pearlescent oyster platter.