James Beard Awards: NYC’s 2013 rookie class

Get to know the culinary talent—chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders—repping NYC at the James Beard Awards for the first time this year.

Alex Stupak

Alex Stupak

Alex Stupak, Empellón Cocina
Nominee: Best New Restaurant

Where were you when you found out about your James Beard Foundation nomination? How did you react when you heard the news?
I was at home. I didn’t even know I was nominated until I got a congratulatory e-mail from Grant Achatz (Alinea). It also coincided with a Best New Chef nom from Food & Wine. I feel great about everything, definitely excited, but it feels like I’m not ready for this stuff. I mean, we’re so new—my oldest restaurant is only two years old.

Out of 29 nominees, you’re the only NYC restaurant to get a nod. Is there a lot of pressure in being the one representative for the NYC vanguard? 
I honestly have no expectation of winning, but now I do want to win just to rep New York. I was surprised by the lack of New York noms—not to see the NoMad on the list, no Mission Chinese, it was very surprising. There are so many great new restaurants in this city, and I feel so honored to be the only New York restaurant on the list. It’s crazy.

You left a pastry career to open a Mexican cocina and taqueria. Does your pastry background ever affect or inform the savory menu?
Absolutely, it does. That was a big part of me taking the main courses off the menu at Cocina. I’m just not passionate about them. Meat cookery and fish cookery are extremely important to me, but I will never be as passionate about them as pastry making or even food styling—the colors coming together on a plate, the actual physical composition of a meal. You can’t style things in the same way when the focus is a six-ounce hunk of protein smack in the middle of the plate.

When Empellón Cocina opened, the menu was taco-free. Once you did away with entrées, you introduced tacos to the menu. What changed?
When we first opened Cocina, I was steadfast that we were never going to serve tacos there, steadfast that there were not going to be apps and main courses, everything was meant to be shared. But after a while, I made the decision that I didn’t want to give people instructions on how to order. It’s flawed and futile. You cannot tell New York City how to eat—they’ll resist it.

In recent years, a bunch of new Mexican restaurants have opened in the city. Do you think that New Yorkers’ attitudes are changing toward Mexican food?
I haven’t felt that yet, I feel there’s a lot more work to be done. All we do at Empellón is try to do a better version of what Americans expect as a Mexican meal—dinner begins with chips, guac and a margarita, and it ends with some tacos. We play around with authenticity—we make squid with black mole, which you’d never find anywhere in Oaxaca—but at the end of the day, some people come in and just want a margarita and tacos, which is fine. I’m very proud of that and of what we do there. I can say I’d very much love to do a Mexican restaurant that doesn’t have to serve margaritas or tacos, but that’s like opening an Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve pasta—you’re taking away something that people love most about it. If a super high-end, innovative Mexican restaurant opened in New York City and New Yorkers embraced the hell out of it, I’d be very jealous of the guy who did it.

If you win the James Beard, how will you celebrate?
The awards are on a Monday—the restaurant is closed on Mondays, so I’m just going to bring whoever wants to come to Cocina and drink for free. Miller High Life and mescal all night long.