Like so many good ideas before it, this one began with margaritas and mezcal.
A couple weeks ago, First We Feast columnist and food obsessive Dieselboy was eating at Empellón Cocina, discussing FWF’s upcoming #NachoWeek with chef Alex Stupak. I had mentioned that it would be cool if Dieselboy wrote a column with the theme in mind, and suggested that maybe he should talk to Stupak about collaborating on a nacho recipe. It seemed like a good fit since the two are friends, and Dieselboy recently deejayed Empellón’s raucous holiday party.
But like I said, mezcal got involved, and before you knew it a little friendly ribbing had transformed a potential collabo into an all-out battle royale. Suddenly, Dieselboy was agreeing to compete in a cook-off against one of the most talented chefs in New York City, and Stupak was agreeing to make a dish that, in his own words, “has nothing to do with what we do at this restaurant.” Pride and credibility were on the line, but the desire to talk trash and have a good time ultimately prevailed. And so it was the First We Feast Great Nacho Cook-off was born.
Did it matter that neither competitor had actually ever made nachos before? Hell no. They both brought their A-games and created nacho riffs that might make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about the dish. Here’s how it went down.
The first rule of the nacho cook-off is, there are no rules! This was not a Quick Fire Challenge, or a Ready, Set, Cook–style contest where everyone got a grocery store budget. The call-to-arms was simple: Do whatever it takes to make the best nachos you possibly can. The main aim was for each competitor’s dish to represent his definition of the “ulimate nachos.” Scoring was designed to give proper weight to the most important aspects of nacho-making: Taste, scored 0-10, counted three times; creativity, scored 0-10, counted twice; and presentation, scored 0-10, counted once.
DIESELBOY (LEFT): Dieselboy, né Damian Higgins, is a veteran DJ and seasoned world traveler who has a healthy obsession with food, cocktails, and cooking. Case in point: He once spent two years trying to get the recipe for the Torrisi Italian Specialties lasagna so that he could recreate it at home (that’s still healthy-level obsession, right?). Follow his FWF column here.
On his nacho philosophy: “I usually don’t order nachos, though I do find them delicious—the only time I really remember eating them, it’s sad to say, is at movie theaters. My nacho philosophy is that you need to have a crisp chip, and no one ingredient should overwhelm the others. There should be a nice balance so you can taste each element. And yeah, man—they’re a good stoner food.”
On his competitor: “Before I met Alex, I was a super fan, and I’m still a huge fan of his food. The opportunity to even have my cooking next to his is kind of ridiculous.”
ALEX STUPAK (RIGHT): Before turning his attention to Mexican food at Empellón Taqueria and Empellón Cocina, Stupak made a name for himself as a pastry chef in some of the country’s top restaurants, including Alinea and wd~50. Read about the 10 dishes that influenced his career here (spoiler alert: none of them are nachos).
On his nacho philosophy: “When I think of nachos, I think of a masculine, communal dish—it’s something you eat when you’re watching a football game or you’re at a bar. The consistent complaint you get with bad nachos is that all the tasty stuff is on top, and there’s some poor guy left with a bunch of dry chips underneath. I tried to create a production method that would eliminate that.”
On why Empellón has never served nachos: “Nachos were a dish that was created in Mexico, but like burritos and many other things, I consider them American food [so they don't fit into the vision of the restaurant]. I think it’s something that’s been absorbed by our culture, and when you do research on nachos, so many of the iterations you see really don’t have any echoing of Mexican flavors whatsoever. Nachos are really just a vehicle for deliciousness.”
On his competitor: “He hasn’t been keeping me up at night, but he’s definitely a contender. I’ve been getting scary pictures of him in the lab working on things. He plays hard.”
Nachos are really just a vehicle for deliciousness.
From left to right:
Foster Kamer, senior editor at Complex (@weareyourfek)
Mari Uyehara, food and drink editor at Time Out New York (@fedification)
Grace Parisi, senior test kitchen editor at Food & Wine (@recipegoddess)
Don’t mess with these judges, they will f**k you up and then eat your nachos.
Dieselboy’s entry: Short-rib nachos with habanero cheese sauce and jalapeno-three-ways pico de gallo
Dish description: “I got my tortilla chips from the restaurant La Superior in Williamsburg. I’m doing two kinds of meat—a miso- and beer-brasied pulled short rib seasoned with árbol chiles and roasted garlic, and another short-rib concoction seasoned with chorizo oil, as well as Benton’s bacon. The cheese sauce is four-year aged sharp cheddar and jack with toasted habanero, and I’m doing a pico de gallo with three types of jalapenos: smoked; smoked and pickled; and fresh, plus a little bit of heirloom cherry tomato, onion, and a touch of pineapple—one of the short ribs was also sweetened with grilled pineapple. It’s finished with a lime crema.”
Judges’ notes: If there had been scoring for ambition, Dieselboy would have received full marks—all three judges agreed that he had “moxie” for taking on the challenge in the first place. His nachos performed best in the creativity category; there was a consensus that he had a smart idea to “upgrade the super trashy, gas-station Cheez Whiz style nachos” by using a béchamel, and one judge applauded the “classic build presentation” and the unexpected use of “a sort of sweet, tropical-style salsa instead of a traditional pico de gallo.” Most of criticism focused on the execution of the individual elements, as well as the overall balance of the dish, which veered “a little too far on the creamy-sweet side.” The cheese sauce “could have been punchier” and “needed some tang.” One judge thought the “meat needed a bit more salt,” while another noted that the “sweet smokiness” of the short rib compounded the richness problem. And despite liking the idea of the salsa, there was a feeling that “the jalapenos introduced more sweetness on top of the meat instead of cutting it with spice,” and one judge pointed out a “slightly chemical charred jalapeno thing happening.” Overall, all judges agreed that the nachos needed “some sort of acid or vinegar hit for balance.” However, they also said they would keep eating them, and loved both the idea and the construction of the dish, noting that “each chip in the stack was well-represented.”
Final scores: Taste: 63/80. Creativity: 46/60. Presentation: 19/30. Overall: 124/180.
Stupak’s entry: Duck-confit nachos with tetilla cheese, chorizo-verde gravy, and chicharrón dust
Dish description: “The nachos are topped with pickled jalapeno, minced onion, duck confit, and tetilla, a soft sheep’s-milk cheese. They’re finished with a sausage gravy made out of chorizo verde, some micro cilantro, some cotilla cheese, and also some chicharrón dust.”
Judges’ notes: There was little debate about the success of Stupak’s concept, which felt like it “came together” into one cohesive whole. The most universal plaudits went to the meat—“the idea of using duck confit is great, because when you crisp it up like that it’s sort of like a pork carnitas”—and the combination of “the tetilla for melting and the cotija for garnish.” While one judge felt that the “flat layout” of chips was redolent of a “Taco Bell Mexican Pizza,” the others appreciated the “beautiful green and white color palate” and the idea of ensuring that “each chip is balanced with ingredients.” The biggest source of contention was the chorizo gravy: One judge wondered whether it was “a little breakfast sausage-y”; one called it “f**king bananas”; and one praised it for “combining creaminess with spice and a real brightness.” Small details also caught the judges’ attention, such as “bright, biting onions to cut through the richness” and the chicharrón dust that “dotted the nachos with little crystalline pieces.” The chips were “fresh,” but potentially oversalted and “right on the edge of being too greasy.” There was a feeling that the whole thing could use “a little more cilantro” and “one more bright, acidic element—maybe tomatillo—to make it next level.” However, it was agreed that these were minor quibbles, and overall the “execution was excellent.”
Final scores: Taste: 72/80. Creativity: 50/60. Presentation: 24/30. Overall: 146/180.
While it certainly wasn’t a runaway blowout, the ultimate verdict was from the judges was that Dieselboy had huge huevos for showing up, and that Stupak’s pro-chef execution was simply too much to compete with. Stupak nabbed the win in the First Annual First We Feast Nacho Cook-off, earning himself the coveted Viking Helmet of Nacho Excellence. Congratulations, Alex! ‘Til next year…
Special thanks to the crew at Empellón Cocina for hosting the nacho battle, Alex and Damian for battling valiantly, and our gracious judges for giving up an afternoon for the pursuit of nacho perfection.