Interview: Pastry chef Alex Stupak opens Empellon

The pastry chef known for his molecular derring-do has left wd~50 to open Mexican restaurant Empellon this spring. We chatted with Stupak about his culinary switch.

Photograph: Gregor Halenda

You're known for your innovative pastry work at wd~50 and Alinea in Chicago. Why aren't you opening a molecular dessert shop?
It sounds really backward, but by my logic, opening the restaurant that I was pedigreed to do would have been the most uncreative thing I could think of. If you want to do something different, you better cut off your right arm and force yourself to use your left.

Why did you decide to do Mexican food for your first solo venture?
The really simple answer is that it's what I love eating most when I'm hungry. I was introduced to Mexican cuisine by my wife probably, like, seven years ago. "My mom needs to cook for you," she said. That turned into all these trips throughout East L.A., and I realized that a lot of what I was eating was not Mexican food, it's Californian-Mexican food, which is delicious, nonetheless, but it's completely different.

Different how?
The first time I took a trip to Oaxaca I realized that what many people love about Mexican cooking in the United States is a misconception. [I started] seeing vegetables and herbs and flavor combinations that I was just unaware of, and it was all really fresh and exciting again. I found myself experiencing things that I hadn't felt since I was 18 [and I first] walked into that high-end kitchen [at Clio in Boston]. You're scared to death and you're seeing ingredients that you've never seen before.

Are there any Mexican ingredients that you're particularly excited about?
I'm currently obsessed with avocado leaf. Avocado is actually in the laurel family, [and the] trees produce an aromatic leaf, similar to a bay leaf—very anisey and licoricey. It's fairly unique to Oaxaca. They use it there to flavor a lot of different dishes, particularly black beans. I have 15 kilos of [them] sitting in my apartment.

Do you think Mexican food will ever get old for you?
I will never burn out on Mexico. I will never find out everything about Mexico. If I had four lifetimes, I wouldn't be able to achieve that. The day I decide I want to stop learning about it or stop caring about it, that's when I'll get burnt out, but I don't see that happening.

Empellon, 230 W 4th St at W 10th Sts (212-367-0999). Opens in March.