Alex Stupak is, simply put, one of the most exciting chefs in the country right now. A culinary wunderkind who cooked Thanksgiving dinner for his entire family ate age 14 before scoring a full ride to the Culinary Institute of America, Stupak has, in short order, racked up the experience and accolades of chefs twice his age (he’s only 32).
What’s more impressive is that Stupak’s career doesn’t follow just one arc: He first drew acclaim behind the burners at Chicago’s Tru and Boston’s The Federalist, before his desire to exert more creative control led him to the pastry station instead. After a stint at Boston’s renowned Clio, Stupak got a call from Grant Achatz to head the pastry program at Alinea; from there, he headed to New York to make desserts at Wylie Dufrense’s wd~50. Through it all, he maintained an extremely disciplined devotion to his creative vision, pushing the boundaries of modern pastry to new levels.
And yet…it still wasn’t enough for the ragingly ambitious young chef. Stupak decided in 2011 to switch gears yet again, this time leaving the pastry world to pursue a passion for Mexican cuisine. While it seemed to some like an unlikely pairing at first, his two Empellón restaurants in NYC (Cocina and Taqueria) have proven what everyone should have already known: When Stupak does something, he does it for a reason. His approach to Mexican cooking is thoughtful without ever being precious, and inventive dishes such as wavy masa crisps with sweet shrimp and sea urchin mousse have effectively silenced critics who suggested that he should stick to sweets.
Driven and articulate, Stupak approached the selection of his career-changing dishes with the same careful consideration that goes into everything he creates. Here, he shares his memories of the first dish he ever served another person (red cabbage with Russian dressing for mom), the modernist master who inspired him to pursue pastry, and the transcendent taco experience that changed his professional path.
This interview has been edited and condensed.