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Monday Morning Agitator

The Strange Case of Alex Stupak

At first I thought it was me. But after talking to a bunch of people who have also been to his new restaurant, Empellon, I found out that I am not the only person who is asking the following question: What on earth happened to Alex Stupak? For those who might not know what I am talking about, let me hip you to the details. Alex Stupak is, or maybe I should say was given what I am about to write, arguably America’s greatest pastry chef. He first came to the attention of the food cognescenti at Clio in 2003, before moving onto Alinea in 2005. Then after spending the past 4 years at WD-50, for some reason that is unbeknownst to anyone but himself, he decided to give up making cutting edge desserts in order to cook tacos. No, not exploding tacos or liquid nitrogen margueritas, I am talking about straight ahead Mexican food. You know like Rick Bayless with a bit of a stronger focus on market ingredients.

Mind you I have nothing against tacos. I eat them all of the time. I have been frequenting the same taco cart since 1994, first at its original location on Eighth Avenue and 38th street and then after it moved to its current location at Second Avenue and 97th Street. And I often stop at Taco Mix on 116th Street and 3rd Avenue for a trio of tacos suederos. I have also capped off many a night after seeing the Mets play in Flushing with one of the splendid taco de carnitas from the stand at the corner of Roosevelt and Gleane Avenues in Jackson Heights. But let’s be honest about it: While the food at these places can be delicious, none of the people who are cooking at them are talented enough to make a better buñuelo.

As Mrs. P and I were eating dinner at Empellon, we speculated on how someone with such immense talent could just walk away from his craft. Mrs. P., who knows me since I was 15 years old, reminded me that when I decided that spending my life being a musician was not going to be for me, I stopped playing my instrument completely. She added, :"In that light I should understand Alex’s decision." But after thinking about her comment I responded and said: “But it wasn’t as if I was considered one of the pre-eminent musicians in the country and I walked away from it. Alex is still cooking, and what he has done is the equivalent of Picasso deciding he was going to paint by numbers instead of creating major works."

After we finished our dinner, I went back to the kitchen and looked at Alex and said: “One day you are going to have to tell me why you did this?" He looked at me and said, “You think that cooking Mexican food is lower than what I was doing." Being the brutally honest type that I am, I told him that is exactly what I thought, and I responded by offering him my Picasso/painting by numbers line. He started to argue with me and I cut him off and said, “No you don’t understand, you are the Picasso of your field and you walked away from your craft." With that he got angry with me and he turned away and went back to cooking. I guess his anger has held since because since that night I tried to friend him on Facebook and he has yet to confirm me as a friend.

Now before anyone here starts yelling at me about dissing Mexican food, let me be clear about the nature of my objection. I’m not complaining about Alex’s choice of cuisines—he can make tacos until the cows come home as far as I’m concerned. What I am complaining about is his decision not to utilize his talent to his fullest extent when making that food. As the saying goes, many are called but few are chosen, and there are very few chefs, especially American chefs, who are in a position to influence what we eat in the future. Alex happens to be one of them. He has this immense talent and I am certain I speak on behalf of the fine dining community when I say it is being wasted on making fresh tortillas in a manner that is more in common with a good Mexican home cook than what one of the world’s most talented chefs can turn out.

The other thing that bothers me is that he turned the issue into an either/or basis. I mean couldn’t he make delicious tortillas along with exploding tacos? It’s terrific when someone makes a great version of queso fundido (the classic Mexican melted cheese and chorizo dish that you scoop up with fresh tortillas,) but it doesn’t have to be to the exclusion of someone creating a dish called Queso Fun-Ditto, where the roles are reversed and you dip a tortilla made out of cheese into a gummy mixture made out of corn. In fact, there is room for them both on the same menu, rather than to the exclusion of the other.

It is rare when I don’t know how a blog post should end. But I unfortunately find myself in that unusual position at this moment. It all comes down to the following: When Alex Stupak made a decision to walk away from pushing the envelope of cuisine for the purpose of making guacamole instead, it was a great loss to those of us who are passionate about the contemporary dining experience. All that’s left to say is that I hope he reads this post and reconsiders his decision.