A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

In the midst of Push Project IV at Empellón Cocina, the chefs—and former colleagues—discuss holiday traditions, taking risks, and what to expect from night two.

Photo: Liz Barclay

Photo: Liz Barclay

Grant Achatz and Alex Stupak have a reputation for being ahead of their time, so it’s not really surprising that they decided to cook Thanksgiving dinner three weeks before everyone else this year.

The meal, which went down last night at Empellón Cocina, was part of the fourth installment of the Push Project, in which Stupak invites guest chefs into the restaurant to shake things up and push his kitchen to its limits. While previous guests have been illustrious—Enrique Olvera (Mexico City’s Pujol), Jordan Kahn (Red Medicine), Chris Cosentino (Incanto)—this edition might be the most epic. Achatz has not only redefined avant-garde cooking in the U.S. through his Chicago restaurants Alinea and Next, but he’s also Stupak’s former boss, and the two decided to take on the most iconic of all American meals: the Turkey Day feast.

Not only that, but they’ve decided to cook together again tonight (throw up a Hail Mary for last-minute tickets here), this time with no theme, no repeats from the previous evening, and a couple more of Stupak’s mentors—Wylie Dufesne and Ken Oringer—added into the mix. Why? “That was Grant’s idea,” laughs Stupak.

Yesterday, we stopped by Empellón before service to take a sneak-peek of night one. Achatz popped in and out of the kitchen to add some thoughts as he hustled to get everything ready, and Stupak sat down with us to chat about playing with perceptions of Thanksgiving, teaming up with his old bosses, and why he’s excited to curate an unprecedented culinary moment.

Alex—for readers who might not know, can you explain your background with chef Achatz. How did you guys first end up working together?  

Stupak: I was hired as the opening pastry chef for Alinea, which was in 2005. I got introduced to him through a mutual friend—a woman named Judy, who was the owner of Terra Spice Company, which is based in Indiana. I used to buy all their spices and when Grant was at Trio, he used them as well. Because Judy is a friend of mine I was talking to her—and I had been at Clio [in Boston] for about five years—I was looking to, kind of, move on to something else. She said, “Well, Grant, he’s opening a restaurant in Chicago and the word is that he’s looking for a pastry chef.” That’s kind of how the introduction was made. Next thing you know, like three weeks later, I was packing up mise-en-place and FedExing it out to him and doing a tasting for him at Nick Kokonas’ house, his business partner. And this was before the restaurant was even built. Grant’s a huge inspiration for me. I hold him and his career as a model for what I want to accomplish for my own. That’s basically it.

What’s it like working with your mentor again now? A lot has changed for you since 2005…

Stupak: I wasn’t nervous at all asking him because I didn’t think he was going to say yes. He’s a really generous guy with his time, but he’s got to be so busy, you know? I keep pretty busy these days, and I just assume that it must be busier by a factor of five for him. But he was like, “Sure, let’s do it!” So then I was like, “Okay!” Then I got nervous, because then it became real.

You noted on your website that the first idea that came up for the dinner was to return to those Alinea days, but somehow you ended up cooking a Thanksgiving dinner instead. How did that happen?

Stupak: Well, this was the first time, for these dinners, that we actually tried to put a theme on it. And that was completely from Grant, because anyone else I had asked to cook with was like “sure!” and that was the end of the conversation. With Grant, it was unique because he went, “Sure,” and then he said, “What are we doing?” And when he said that, he really meant, “Why? Why are we cooking together? Why are we doing a dinner?” The idea of us doing stuff from Alinea year one was kind of obvious, and hence boring and uncreative. I was kind of left stuck with trying to figure out a purpose or an idea for it. I think one of the great pathways for creativity is focusing on what’s familiar, because people have a reference point for it and everyone has an opinion on it. When something’s familiar or something’s been a part of someone’s life, you have the ability to kind of tug at heart strings sometimes. And due to the time of year being November, that’s when I pitched Thanksgiving and he said, “Sure.” We basically wrote the menu a week ago.

One of the prevalent ideas in modernist cooking is that amid all the progressive technique, you have to find to connect with people’s memories—tug their heartstrings, as you say. Is that easier with something like Thanksgiving that everyone’s familiar with, or is it counterintuitively more difficult since holiday traditions are such a personal thing.

Stupak: I think any time you’re manipulating or reinterpreting something that people have an opinion on, or they’re familiar with, it’s a touchy subject. I do it all day long in Mexican cooking. In America, we feel like we own Mexican cooking. We feel like it’s ours. And I don’t know if that’s just because we’re adjacent to the country, or because so many of us are from California and we grew up with a great iteration of Mexican cooking there, or what it is. We all feel like we know what it is. The same thing [is true] with Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving seems to be a trickier subject because when you start talking about it, it’s like, “Well, what’d you eat when you were at Thanksgiving?” There seems to be certain consistencies, like your gravy and your mashed potatoes and your turkey and your stuffing and your sage. Grant said, “Well, I have this every year.” If you ask [pastry chef] Lauren [Resler], she’d say, “Well, I have this every year.” You start finding new opportunities to inject flavors into the menu that are sensible but also maybe not 100% obvious. There’s a bite of herring on this menu tonight and there’s persimmon in things. It’s all based on people’s personal relationship with the holiday.

Achatz: I think we really approach it two ways. We said we can either really try to hone in and focus on being in that thunderbolt of nostalgia, or we could go the other way and show people a different aspect of Thanksgiving that probably wasn’t present in their life. We did our research, and what a lot of people don’t realize is that traditions change regionally across the United States. In Puerto Rico, they eat certain things, in the Northeast there’s always oysters in stuffing, you know what I mean? There’s all those little things. So it was really fun for us to go, “Are we doing food that the pilgrims would’ve done or the food we grew up eating?” And I think ultimately we came out of it as a blend of everything and so we harkened back to our childhoods a little bit, but we’ve also done some very traditional [dishes]—you know, Alex is doing his dark mole, a very traditional turkey mole. So I think we just kind of went everywhere with it and it’ll be fun.

I’m very much reminded of what it was like to work at Alinea in 2005. Eight years later, it’s kind of all coming back to me.

Did you surprise each other when you started talking about the menu and realizing that maybe you had totally different conceptions of what Thanksgiving is all about?

Achatz: Yeah, I think so, not only with Alex but with my team that I brought [from Chicago]. When we started brainstorming, one guy’s from Boston, another guy’s from Texas, another guy’s from Louisiana I think. So everybody remembers something different. But I mean, there are commonalities of sorts. So we just tried to hit on them all.

Last time you were cooking in New York, it was at Eleven Madison Park. Obviously that was a completely different dinner conceptually, but also in terms of the scale of the kitchen, the amount of staff, and so on. How do the physical realities of the restaurant play into a dinner like this?

Achatz: You have some limitations with size of kitchen and the dining room and the staff. Eleven Madison Park is an enormous restaurant—we were all so fortunate to do it for five days in a row. While it was exhausting, you were able to get into a rhythm. Everybody knew what they had to do by day two. And the funny thing about what we’re doing now is, we’re getting all setup for Thanksgiving and then we’re getting ready tomorrow for another one that is completely different. [Laughs.] I don’t know why we did that. But in our working relationship going back to Alinea, Alex and I were always the guys that were wanting to push and see what we could accomplish—first ones in and last ones out. So I think this really embodies that spirit.

And what’s it like being in Alex’s kitchen now, as opposed to the other way around?

Achatz: Obviously, they’re organized differently and laid out differently and staffed differently, but you know, Alex and I are close enough now that it’s still all camaraderie. We still call each other “chef”—or now we even call each other by our first names. There’s no jockeying for position or ego, we’re just trying to be a part of it and work together and have fun.

Alex, what have been the challenges of adapting your restaurant for a dinner of this kind?

Stupak: We’re executing a dinner [in the kitchen] that we’ve never done before and the restaurant might not necessarily be built to execute. Same thing in the dining room. Expectations, I imagine, are really high, so it’s a poignant moment. That would be the best way to say it. When you go down the road of working to be a tasting menu-only restaurant [like Eleven Madison Park], you’re immediately presented with a different set of problems or puzzles to figure out in terms of the configuration of the kitchen, how it’s set up, layout low, all those things. This restaurant was built for cooks to do, like, an appetizer and some tacos or a main course, or something like a three-course dinner for 150 people a night. That’s what we built this for. So to go from that to 96 people multiplied by 13 courses—that’s over a thousand plates going out to the dining room. Right now, if you count Grant and myself, there’s about 16 in the kitchen. And the idea of that is, well, if you begin the dinner and things start to go awry, there’s enough talent in there to put out a fire very, very quickly.

Right. Grant’s style involves a lot of flourishes in the service. Is it hard to bring that into a restaurant of Empellón’s size?

Stupak: At the end of the day, Grant doesn’t just think of food, he thinks of what surface it’s sitting on, what it smells like when you’re experiencing it, and all these other things. That is a big part of his cooking—I think most chefs start with conceptualizing a dish and then they put it on a piece of plateware in their restaurant. So there are tableside and interactive elements to this that we just have not done yet on a daily basis at Empellón Cocina. But again, for selfish reasons, it’s all super inspiring for me, because when you hold someone as a model…I wanted to cook Mexican food because I love it, but also because I would never want someone to look at my work and see evidence of Alinea in it, or wd~50, or anything like that. But just in terms of thinking outside of the box perspective, it’s like, of course, you can’t ask [Grant] not to do that—that’s what he’s known for, and that’s his whole mentality.

Any examples along those lines that you came up with for the Thanksgiving meal?

Stupak: We’re going to ask the guests to select their own squash that we’re going to cook for them. Each table gets to fight over the wishbone, just like on Thanksgiving. Sometimes the actual surface of the table is going to be augmented or manipulated.

push project 11 A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant AchatzEven though this concept is entirely different from the day-to-day of Empellón, did you try to inject any of the restaurant’s Mexican identity into the menu?

Stupak: We did. Grant and I said like, “Well, we gotta do turkey.” And then we said, “Who gets white meat and who gets dark meat? We should do two different courses.” Grant called white meat, so then I took dark meat. We talked about turkey and how it’s more or less for sandwiches or Thanksgiving in this country, whereas in Mexican cuisine it’s kind of an everyday protein because it’s an indigenous bird there. So then, to that point, turkey with mole was a no-brainer. We liked the idea because moles are not seasoned just with salt, they’re seasoned with sugar. Moles typically have some sweetness to them. We both liked the idea that the last savory course was beginning to become sweet before the transition into desserts. That would be a nice sort of progression.

There’s a pot luck element to most people’s Thanksgiving—the aunt who has that one dish she always bring. Did you get your staffs involved in that way?

Stupak: Grant collaborated with his team, and I collaborated with mine. I wrote a series of 14 different dishes that I liked the sound of on paper. Then we said, well, how many courses are there going to be? Sooner or later it comes down to this: There can only be so much collaboration via e-mail. Grant handed me six dishes that he wanted to execute here, which basically completely re-informed what I had to come up with to get a cohesive menu. That’s kind of how we arrived at [the final product].

Besides turkey, were there any non-negotiables that were like, “It’s not going to be ‘Thanksgiving’ without this”?

Stupak: Sage, which is prevalent in a few dishes that we’re going to serve tonight. Sage is one of those herbs that, when I smell it, it’s the Thanksgiving herb for some reason. It’s the flavor of stuffing.

You decided to not only add a second night, but also to throw out the Thanksgiving theme entirely and start from scratch. What was the motivation behind that?

Stupak: That was Grant’s idea. [Laughs.] He basically said, “Well, if we’re ready then, well, what the hell? We’re already in New York so let’s just do it another night.” If we’re going to do it another night, he thought it was boring to do the same menu twice. He said certainly if we get it right the first night, we’re going to get it right the second night. He basically challenged the whole ethos of why I did these dinners. He said, “If they’re to kind of test your limits or push yourself, then let’s do it this way.” I’m very much reminded of what it was like to work in that restaurant [Alinea] in 2005. Eight years later, it’s kind of all coming back to me.

And there’s no Thanksgiving without the day after Thanksgiving. But I’m assuming this won’t be leftovers. What direction are you going with it?

Stupak: There’s nothing Thanksgiving about it—it’s a completely new collection of dishes. The way we said we would do it is that each one of us would come up with one course. So Grant’s doing a course, Dave Beren is doing a course, Eric Rivera’s doing a course, Lauren Resler’s doing one, my chef de cuisine Michael Coté’s doing one, Andrew Brochu [from Aviary], and we have guest chefs coming in. We said we’d do 10 courses and we got up to eight and needed two more, so we were like, “Well, who gets two?” It didn’t seem fair, so I called my other two old bosses, Ken Oringer [Toro] and Wylie Dufresne [wd~50], to see if either of them would be interested in doing a course, and they both said yes. So it’s complete anarchy—you’ve got a chef mastering their own dish and that’s it, so you’re not in control.

emp menu A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

The Stupak/Achatz Thanksgiving menu

How do you communicate on something like that to ensure that the meal makes sense?

Stupak: I got the dishes from everyone just to avoid any redundancies. It’s whatever each chef wants to do—it should be interesting.

I want to ask about pricing an event like this. One of the criticisms lobbied at modernist cooking sometimes is that when the emphasis is placed on creativity and pushing limits, the diner is often paying for something untested—you’ll hear people say, “I don’t want to pay for an experiment.” What’s your outlook on that as a chef? You want to do something new, but you also want to make sure you don’t fail…

Stupak: You certainly can fail for a host of reasons. I don’t think experiment is an appropriate word here because, for example, I can tell you the dishes I’m serving tonight and I’m very confident with what I’m putting on the plate. And Grant certainly is. So if there were to be a failure or a glitch, which I’m not anticipating, it would be that we are literally trying to absorb a style of service [that's new] without any practice. That’s the challenge.

To have Ken Oringer, Wylie Dufresne, and Grant Achatz in one kitchen, that’s historically never happened. That’s a very interesting, magical moment that we’re curating.

And how about with night two, when you and Grant are ceding some of the control? 

Stupak: The thought is, everyone is responsible for their own dish. I can tell you the dish I’m making, I’ve never made before, and I haven’t seen Grant do anything yet for his dish yet. So we are staying true to what we said [of starting from scratch after night one]. We don’t have a choice because we don’t have time—we’re neck deep in turkey right now.

So maybe a good analogy is a jazz musician—you know there’s going to be some improv, but you trust that the artist has enough talent to make it worth the money?

At the end of the day, the cost of the meal—$325—it’s with all the beverages and tax and everything wrapped up in it, but also it costs a lot of money to fly all these chefs and ship out all their plateware and source all these ingredients. It’s expensive stuff, it just is. I mean, I’m not trying to defend it—I don’t feel like I need to—but if anything, we’re trying our best to curate a moment. It’s not going to happen again. Never say never, but if Grant were ever to cook in my restaurant again, it’s going to be a really long time from now. And vice versa. I worked with him eight years ago and we haven’t cooked together since then. And to have Ken Oringer, Wylie Dufresne, and Grant Achatz in one kitchen, that’s historically never happened. And I’m not saying it’s one for the ages, but that’s a very interesting, magical moment that we’re curating. I think it’s a bargain.

Check out some of @empellon‘s Instagram photos of Achatz and Stupak’s Thanksgiving meal below.

emp amuse A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

5 Bites: Crudité, Herring, Heart, Skin, Walnut.

emp carrots A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

Roasted carrots

emp grant A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

Grant Achatz at work (photo: Daniel Krieger)

emp dessert A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

Cranberry sorbet by Lauren Resler

emp leftovers A Modernist Thanksgiving with Alex Stupak and Grant Achatz

All guests were sent home with leftovers.

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