Farewell to Hydrocolloids
Chef Alex Stupak’s Mexican food dreams
Few chefs, cuisine or pastry, can compete with Alex Stupak’s palate, artistry, and flawlessly integrated use of experimental ingredients—for example, using tapioca maltodextrin to create a shot of innocuous fluffy powder that transforms into a luscious, chewy salted caramel right in your mouth. The 27-year-old was the opening pastry chef at Alinea restaurant in Chicago. Alinea’s Grant Achatz still calls him “the most talented pastry chef in the country” and has yet to replace him, 18 months after he left. CHOW spoke to Stupak, now at NYC’s WD-50, about eating cookie dough, the tyranny of chocolate desserts, and his plans to open a restaurant with wife Lauren Resler, pastry sous-chef at Babbo.
Click here to see Alex Stupak’s recipe for Yuzu Curd … Shortbread, Pistachio, Spruce Yogurt
I wouldn’t say bogus. It’s a jarring experience. You have, like, 10 minutes before you go out to check your pantry ingredients and then you’re pushed into the bright lights and smoke. You have one hour to cook all the food and have one portion plated. That’s why winning the coin toss is a big deal, because you can pick if you want to go first or second.
I thought it was so funny that you got Battle Chocolate, because of the face you made one night at Alinea when we were talking about how clients always want chocolate desserts.
I don’t hate chocolate, but it’s the only flavor on Earth that, if it’s not on the menu, heads will roll. It’s not that way with vanilla or coffee. It’s the shrimp of the pastry world. Why can’t we break free from that freaking format? The spring menu is going to be my first one where I’m not going to have any chocolate. Everything is delicious, so if people don’t like it they can go to hell.
What else is going on, besides work?
I’m in the March issue of Vogue. [Food critic Jeffrey] Steingarten came in for a day to work on desserts. And I’m going to have a website soon. I’ll have my stuff up there, and Martin Kastner [who designed Alinea’s website and sculptural tableware] is designing it. I’m also coming back to Chicago to do some photo shoots for the Alinea [cook] book because most of the desserts in it are mine. I’m also working on a business plan for my own restaurant in Manhattan, but that’s a good two years away.
What’s it going to be like?
I’m going in a completely new direction cooking-wise. We’re planning on opening the best Mexican restaurant in New York City and maybe the country.
Is it going to be experimental Mexican, like Enrique Olvera’s restaurant Pujol?
No, it’s going to be highly traditional and family style. It’s going to revolve around fresh, handmade tortillas, and everything will be brought to the table and passed. Lauren is Mexican on her mother’s side. I’m going to be the chef. Lauren’s title is the tough one to define. She’ll be the pastry chef, but she’ll also be the liaison between front and back of the house.
Are you serious?
It’s the food we really love to eat and cook and serve to each other at home. It’s going to be delicious food at lower prices. When we go out we don’t like to get dressed up and sit for four or five hours—I mean, sometimes we do. But that kind of restaurant is not in my heart right now. We’re going to take regional specialties and try to perfect them. My favorites are Yucatán and Oaxaca.
What’s your family background?
I’m a mutt: Italian, French, and Russian.
We’ve talked before about our mutual obsession with the Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermé. How has his work influenced you?
I’ve read all his books back to front. I took his lemon cream [from Hermé’s famous Tarte au Citron] but changed it to yuzu. And I figured out a way to hydrate agar-agar into the yuzu juice so when my yuzu curd sets it’s sliceable; it almost becomes plasticized, which suits my style of plating, which is a lot more aggressive. It looks like it’s going to be stiff and rigid, but the texture is just as delicate as his lemon cream.
How do you serve it?
It’s on the menu now with pistachio, spruce yogurt, and shortbread, where the pâte sablée [classic French buttery, short crust] is puréed so it’s like eating cookie dough, because I like eating cookie dough.
You and Lauren recently got married. Who catered your wedding?
We got married October 27th in LA with a humongous Mexican wedding with 300 guests and a mariachi band. Patina catered, but Fantasy Frostings made the cake. It was four tiers: two German chocolate and two lemon/black currant. It was decorated in silver and black Jackson Pollock splatters with purple glitter. I didn’t have anything to do with it—I just showed up.
So getting back to your restaurant plans, do you think you’ll ever open a restaurant that’s more your own personal style of cuisine?
It is my dream someday to open a place where I can show off my parlor tricks, where other chefs come in and have no idea what I did. But for now we looked at what we think New York City needs, not what my ego needs. And we can’t spend $4 million on a restaurant, so we’re planning a place that’s smaller, a bit more humble. I’m planning to leave the liquid nitrogen and hydrocolloids for now.
Louisa Chu is a chef and food writer who’s cooked her way through the world’s hottest kitchens, from El Bulli to Alinea. And yeah, that’s her taking Anthony Bourdain on the Paris meat market tour in No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Louisa can currently be found in Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie on PBS, Gourmet’s Choptalk, and her own food blog, Movable Feast.
Photo-illustration by Sean McCabe