“You must push yourself beyond your limits, all the time.” — Carlos Castaneda
I miss being a pastry chef sometimes. Don’t get me wrong—I wake up every day thankful for my two restaurants, but life has become a lot more complicated as a result of them. When I was working as a pastry chef I had absolutely nothing to worry about other than making sure I was giving my boss the most creative desserts I could muster.
Everything has changed. I still try to work on new dishes for Empellón as much as possible, but now so much of the time that was once spent on contemplating cuisine goes towards the team, or the facilities, or simply making sure there is enough money in the bank to keep checks from bouncing.
Once you’re actually running a restaurant, all of your team’s problems become your problems, and oftentimes you find yourself calling a meeting to discuss all of your upcoming meetings.
We may be too old for this shit.
In order to take break from a life of responsible restaurant ownership, I created a quarterly pop-up dinner called The Push Project. The purpose of the dinners is simple and selfish. We invite someone we admire into our kitchen in order to break up the monotony and absorb the thoughts of a brilliant cook.
Because I was missing those days when all I had to do was be tight with my ice cream game, I decided to invite one of the most creative pastry chefs I have ever known into the mix.
Jordan Kahn is the chef and owner of Red Medicine in Los Angeles, where he uses Vietnamese cuisine as a reference point to create his own hyper-composed, wildly herbaceous cuisine. Before all of that though, he was a pastry cook at the French Laundry, Per Se, and eventually Alinea, where we first met. Although Jordan worked under me at Alinea, he pushed me just as much as I pushed him. He had his own arsenal of bad-ass techniques and crazy flavor combinations to bring to the table. We worked together non-stop for a year, and some of the dishes we made were unreasonably ambitious. It was dessert as sport, and looking back, I realize we may be too old for this shit now.
Regardless, we are going to give it a go. I baited Jordan to NYC for two days to slay a menu with three goals: 1) Showcase what we are working on now; 2) Showcase what we were working on then, and; 3) Collaborate on the final dessert course together.
Inviting a guest chef into your restaurant to prepare a special pop-up dinner is a huge pain in the ass. This is because any chef worth a damn has a big ego and a set way of doing things. As I write this I realize I should be worrying about where the hell I’m going to source ingredients like morning glory, daggered crystal lettuce, and something called dragon’s blood resin.
One of the key ingredients to a long career of creativity and progression is a healthy dose of destruction every now and then.
You don’t make money off of these dinners either, by the way. The cost of the tasting menu barely covers the cost of plane tickets, hotel rooms, extra staff, and expensive-ass ingredients. You’re basically making the decision to throw your livelihood into a state of anarchy for a week. However, it is so, so worth it. Why you ask?
This will sound strange, but I think one of the key ingredients to a long career of creativity and progression is a healthy dose of destruction every now and then. The only thing you are trying to destroy, however, is whatever comfortable rut you are in the process of making for yourself. That was my whole point of leaving the pastry chef world behind (and probably Jordan’s as well).
What you begin to realize is that sooner or later, you’re going to get known for something and people will expect that thing from you. Try to imagine a world where Lynyrd Skynyrd has the collective balls to not play “Free Bird” at the end of every concert. Is molecular gastronomy out? Are hydrocolloids and concepts like deconstruction passé?
Let’s bring it all back for just two nights and see what happens.
The Push Project II takes place at Empellón Cocina (105 1st Ave between 6th and 7th Sts) this Thursday and Friday, with two seatings on each night; the price is $125 per person. For reservations, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 212-367-0999.
Alex Stupak is the James Beard-nominated chef and owner of Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria in New York City. Before opening his own restaurants, he garnered national acclaim for his work at a pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50. This is his first article for First We Feast.