Ex-Chicagoan conquers Mexican food

In other words, Stupak is using Mexican cooking as a jumping-off point for his creativity. Although he makes a traditional Oaxacan black mole, he untraditionally combines it with squid ink to turn it even blacker and then serves it with squid. He presents a mole poblano, normally a chicken accompaniment, with carrots, yogurt and watercress. Also on the menu: lamb tartare and a black bean vermicelli.

His approach differs from that of Rick Bayless, who gives you the feeling of bringing Mexico to Chicago at his acclaimed restaurants here: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco.

"Rick's a pioneer," Stupak said. "If I'm complaining about people's level of education in Mexican food, it must've been worse for him by a factor of 20. He actually had to do a lot of the educating. I don't think I could be doing what I was doing if there wasn't a Rick Bayless out there."

But Stupak has his own way of dealing with elements such as masa, the traditional Mexican corn dough.

"Technically I'm a pastry chef at heart, so when I began working with masa, I decided rather than making things that people have a reference point for, meaning like a huarache or sope or things like this, I was much more interested in manipulating it in my own way because it's a dough, and it has starch in it, which is a hydrocolloid, and those are things that I understand deeply," he said. "Hence you could have masa waves or masa wires or masa crisps or masa tempura or all these other things."

The masa wire harks back to a chocolate wire he made at wd-50, and that technique served as the inspiration for a quinoa thread currently on Next's Vegan menu, which acknowledges Stupak in print. Next executive chef Dave Beran, whose Alinea tenure overlapped with Stupak's for a few months, said although the quinoa thread ultimately was made a bit differently, his former colleague made suggestions as Beran sent him work-in-progress photos.

"He said if you add a little more glucose to it, it will make it a little more elastic," Beran recalled. "He's definitely very brilliant."

Achatz, who oversees Next as well as Alinea, said he has eaten at each of Stupak's restaurants twice and had "phenomenal meals" each time.

"Hands down I think Alex Stupak was and probably still is the best pastry chef in America, and he decided to cook savory food, which I think is a (daring) and risk-taking move on his part that is paying off exponentially," Achatz said. "He's killing it."

Stupak said he is looking into opening a third Empellon in New York, perhaps focusing on more traditional Mexican dishes, and he'd also like to export the Taqueria concept to other cities and to get out a cookbook. Beyond that, he's leaving his options open to his creativity.

"There's always a newer, bigger, more bad-ass restaurant with a chef with a bigger name than yours opening up," he said. "That's always going to happen. So what do you do? You have to constantly reinvent everything."


Twitter @MarkCaro