Take Out: Alex Stupak Hangs with Rescue Cats

For our latest chef field trip, we drag the Empellón maestro out of the kitchen for a little feline-fueled R&R at Soho's Animal Haven.

Welcome to Take Out, a column where writer Sophie Brickman (@sbrickman) takes over-worked chefs, bartenders, and restaurateurs out of their normal environments for a day on the town. (Illustration by Amy Chen)

Alex Stupak, chef-owner of Empellón Cocina and Empellón Taqueria, gets more than 100 emails a day, but when we shot him a note asking if he’d like to hang with some cats at an animal rescue center, he responded within the hour:

“This sounds like an awesome idea. The only stipulation I have is that I need Lauren Resler with me. When cute kitties are involved we never exclude each other.”

And so it was that one muggy Tuesday afternoon, Stupak, his wife Resler, and their friend, food writer Jordana Rothman, found themselves at Animal Haven on Centre Street in Manhattan, cooing at cute kitties.

Fastidious, self-sufficient, self-cleaning—cats exhibit all the qualities of a good line cook.

“When people say they don’t like cats or can’t stand them, I don’t get it,” said Stupak, sizing up a large orange cat named Rapunzel with a dead-on stare. A menacing tattoo, depicting Lucifer as a fallen angel, snaked up one exposed arm and down the other. Rapunzel blinked. Stupak didn’t. “I think cats are cool.”

Stupak and Resler both grew up with cats and now have three of their own—Lee, Percy, and Charlotte—all adopted from shelters in New York, with personalities that Resler lovingly refers to as “attention-seeking and whorish.”

%name Take Out: Alex Stupak Hangs with Rescue Cats

A portrait of Percy—one of three Stupak cats—by artist Boris Jairala

The cats roam the couples’ two-floor apartment in Williamsburg but, says Stupak, “are scared to death about going outside”—apparently taking after many chefs who happily live their lives aloof and outside the spotlight, behind the swinging doors. (Stupak is not alone in the Venn diagram intersection of feline-lovers and chefs. Andy Ricker’s Instagram feed is filled with cat selfies. Bobby Flay acquired Taco, a Maine Coon, after the opening of his Noho restaurant, Gato. Fastidious, self-sufficient, self-cleaning—cats exhibit all the qualities of a good line cook.)

“We love all animals, but cats are the best because we’re out of the house 16 hours a day, and when we come home, they definitely chill me out,” said Stupak.

Chilled-out cats have been a necessary antidote to Stupak’s increasingly frenzied life. The wunderkind chef quickly became a New York sensation after abandoning his posts in the pastry world—first at Chicago’s Alinea, then at Manhattan’s wd~50—to open up, of all things, a Mexican restaurant. After some head-scratching, media attention and accolades arrived: He was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2013, and nominated for a James Beard Award. This fall, he and Resler, who is also a prodigious pastry talent, are poised to open their third restaurant on St. Mark’s place.

I stupidly put up a Craigslist ad for someone to paint a cat and got a million responses.

Through it all—the long hours, intense ups and downs, the scrutiny—the cats have been a constant. A few years ago, Stupak and Resler decided to pay homage, beginning with Lee, cat #1, who weighs in at 17 pounds.

“I stupidly put up a Craigslist ad for someone to paint a cat and got a million responses,” Stupak said. He settled on Boris Jairala, an independent painter whose website hawks, in addition to photo-realistic paintings of pets, “HereAfter Frames” that are custom designed to “give you the option of combining your loved one’s image with their urn and keepsakes.” (Featured on the page are both humans and “Floppy,” a rabbit since passed.) A stoic portrait of Lee, looking stage right, now graces their first restaurant, and Jairala’s paintings of Percy and Charlotte will appear in the couples’ two other restaurants.

%name Take Out: Alex Stupak Hangs with Rescue Cats

Charlotte’s portrait will soon grace the walls at Empellón

Stupak remained mostly silent through the cat visit, though the stoic veneer crumbled in the kitty room downstairs. He lovingly bopped one striped kitten on the head for a while as it put up its tiny paws to protect itself, then grew calm as Resler plopped Amy Poehler, a black kitten, into his hands. Poehler sat there, in a sort of kitty plow pose with its paws up by its ears, purring audibly and matching his unblinking stare with wide eyes. Keeping eye contact with Stupak, Poehler stuck out her paw to touch Resler.

“Now, that’s cute,” said the chef, allowing his first wide grin of the visit. “Cute.”

It looked, for a moment, as if the Resler-Stupak household might have found themselves a new member, but a moment later, Stupak relinquished Amy Poehler to her cage and started to make his way uptown to Empellón Cocina.

“Once you get to four, it starts getting a little weird.”

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