Chef Alex Stupak is fearless. Once the star pastry chef of restaurants such as WD~50, Stupak walked away to open Empellón Taqueria, a modern Mexican restaurant, without any formal chef training or a background cooking Mexican food. “My method toward everything in life is to leap first and look later,” he says. “You can’t be afraid to make mistakes or let fear govern you in any way, shape or form.”
His risk paid off: Empellón has spawned two more restaurants, Empellón Cocina and Empellón Al Pastor. Stupak’s first cookbook, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations comes out October 20. We talked to Stupak about Americans’ biases against Mexican food, accusations of cultural appropriation and his love for Norwegian black metal.
What can readers expect from Tacos?
The point of the book is that I have a deep passion for Mexican cooking and Mexican cuisine, but at the end of the day I’m very much an outsider to it. I’ve learned everything from in that stance. And I think tacos are the one foodstuff from that part of the world that everyone has an opinion on. The book gives me a few opportunities: One, to teach everyone how to make a proper tortilla. Two, to get everyone to take a second look at the cuisine itself and see it for what it really is. As Americans we generally have a chicken-beef-pork mentality with sour cream and cheese, when it’s actually very much a vegetable-driven cuisine. We call it Tacos: Recipes and Provocations because we know that a lot of the ideas that we have in it will start a debate.
What kind of debate?
The book is three chapters: a chapter on salsas, one on tortillas and one on how to make tacos. Peppered throughout the book is a series of five essays that talk about my philosophies and my experiences with Mexican cuisine. To the point of provocation, one of our essays is titled “The Tyranny of Cheap Eats.” We go into detail about how Americans tend to value a certain set of cuisines and devalue another set of cuisines. And we link that directly to socio-economic bias from our country toward our neighbor to the south. People think French and Italian cuisines are something you spend money on and something such as Mexican you spend nothing on. That sort of mentality keeps Mexican restaurants in this sort of economic ghetto based on what Americans think.
You call yourself an outsider to Mexican cuisine. What got you interested in it and how did you learn about it?
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. I didn’t grow up eating any particular sort of ethnic cuisine. If there’s anything the opposite of Mexican, it’s me. But I’ve always loved cooking and I’ve been cooking my whole life. I was actually a pastry chef for about 10 years. In my spare time, I got exposed to this cuisine. It got to the point where it was all that I was eating. And the more I began eating it and researching it and learning about it beyond the deliciousness of it, a lot of the counterintuitive methodology really grabbed a hold of me. Everything I was learning was very, very new. It’s interesting because Mexican cuisine is a cuisine that is very present in American society, yet we almost never get it right or pay it the respect that it’s due.
How much hell do you catch for being a guy from Massachusetts who has taken on cooking an ethnic cuisine?
A lot. I have no illusions of my career and how I’ve handicapped myself, but that’s OK. People don’t just judge the picture, they also judge the frame. If the picture is the product, then the frame is me, the person making it. To that point I probably made things difficult forever for myself. If I think about my personal heroes or the people who I look up to, whether they be in art or music or anything, they’ve never been people who’ve won fucking popularity contests. My favorite punk rock band is never going to be onstage accepting some freaking award. That’s always just been the way it is. So if the road to the top is playing it safe and being agreeable, then my attitude is I’m not interested in the road to the top.
How does being an outsider work its way into your menus?
Nearly nothing that I do is an exact replication or a carbon copy of what I find or discover in Mexico. I simply take inspiration from that place, but I always try to preserve my stance as an outsider. And that’s really out of respect. To come along and say here’s something authentic or traditional, when I… You have to be careful. Some people have been making that said dish since birth, and then for me to come along, this cosmopolitan chef, and try to claim that I’m elevating or modernizing it…that just rubs me the wrong way. So I always simply try to be inspired by the cuisine and then produce something that I think is great.
Where do you like to eat in Mexico City?
Quintonil. The chef is Jorge Vallejo. He’s doing a really bang-up job of very modernized Mexican cuisine, yet he’s not stripping it of its soul. I think that’s really important.
What kind of music do you listen to when you cook?
I don’t allow music in my kitchens. Whether cooking and working in a restaurant is a blue-collar profession or a white-collar profession is up to us. It’s up to us how seriously we take our own profession. I think that having music in a kitchen is like having music in a doctor’s office. You don’t hear music in a law firm. If someone shows up to my restaurant who isn’t shaved, or has a dirty apron or is wearing sneakers, they’re sent home. If the mentality is, oh no one sees them, they’re just the cooks in the kitchen, that’s bull shit. I’ve been doing this since I was 12 years old and I take it very seriously. When I’m cooking at home though, I’m a staunch fan of Norwegian black metal.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep