By Cait Rohan | November 13, 2015 | Food & Drink
We chat with chef Alex Stupak in advance of his James Beard Foundation dinner next week to find out where he eats in New York, what type of food he’d like to see more of in the city, and how to make an ancient Mexican recipe.
Chef Alex Stupak.
With three successful NYC restos—Empellón Cocina (105 First Ave., 212-780-0999), Empellón Taqueria (230 W. Fourth St., 212-367-0999), and Empellón Al Pastor (132 St. Marks Pl., 646-833-7039)—focusing on eclectic Mexican cuisine, chef Alex Stupak is no stranger to the city’s dining scene. His flavor-filled Inspired Mexican dinner at the James Beard House next week (Wednesday, November 18, 7 p.m.; tickets are $130 members, $170 nonmembers on jamesbeard.org) features starters like deviled egg tacos with sikil pak and conchas with American cheese, while main dishes comprise guacamole with sea urchin and corn with huitlacoche and epazote flan.
We caught up with the Food & Wine Best New Chef to find out more about his NYC dining habits, and discover his recipe for an old Mexican dish.
What is your favorite place to eat in New York and what do you order there?
ALEX STUPAK: Grand Central Oyster Bar (89 E. 42nd St., 212-490-6650). My wife Lauren and I are serious oyster eaters. Other than the clam chowder and the pan roast, all we ever get there is fried clams and 60-80 oysters.
In your opinion, who is a rising-star chef to watch in New York?
AS: Matt Conroy at Little Prince (199 Prince St., 212-335-0566). You'll be hearing lots about him soon and rightfully so.
If you could have dinner with any New York chef, dead or alive, who would it be?
AS: Eric Ripert. I really admire what he’s done and how he’s gone about it. He is also such a spiritual person. I’d love to hear more from his perspective.
What New York City neighborhood do you think has the best food scene?
AS: The East Village. There are so many ambitious restaurants opening up with unusual menus. It’s one of the last hoods left with reasonable rents, which I think is part of that.
What are you most looking forward to about the James Beard Foundation event?
AS: As always, it’s about interacting with the guests before, during, and after the dinner. It’s always a great collection of people.
What kind of food does New York need more of?
AS: Mexican and Indian. There’s a lot, but we still need a bit more diversity stylistically in my opinion.
Mexican cuisine is a rich example of indigenous fusion: Spanish, Moorish, even Lebanese influences are deeply interwoven with the country’s native pantry. So to understand the pre-Hispanic flavors of Mexico, you have to look back to an ancient recipe like sikil pak. The secrets of this addictive Yucatecan dip are hidden in its Mayan name: Sikil (pumpkin seeds) and p’ak (tomatoes) are roasted and ground together, along with the region’s most prevalent chile, the habanero. This stuff is like alpha-hummus, packed with protein and engineered for compulsive snacking. I use half a habanero to get the spice just right, but you can add more or less of the chile depending on your heat preference.
1 plum tomato
One 2-inch stick of canela (Mexican cinnamon)
2 cups raw, hulled, unsalted pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
1 habanero chile
3 garlic cloves, skins on
1/2 medium white onion, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 sour orange (substitute a lime if you can’t find this fruit)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
60 cilantro leaves (from about 15 sprigs)
Preheat the broiler. Roast the tomato on a baking sheet under the broiler until blackened in spots, about 7 minutes. Turn it over and continue to blacken, another 7 minutes. Remove from the broiler and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once it is cool enough to handle, peel the tomato and discard the skin.
Set a 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the canela and toast, shaking the pan, until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Remove from the heat, transfer to a spice grinder, and grind to a fine powder.
Reheat the skillet over medium heat. Toast the pepitas until they puff up and turn brown, shaking the pan constantly to prevent them from burning. Remove from the heat and transfer to the bowl of a food processor. Grind the pepitas until a powder forms and begins to stick to the sides of the bowl.
Reheat the skillet, then roast the habanero, garlic cloves, and onion slices, turning them from time to time, until softened slightly and blackened in spots, about 6 minutes. Turn off the heat, remove the vegetables from the skillet, and set aside to cool at room temperature. Once they are cool enough to handle, peel the garlic cloves and discard the skins.
Add the roasted tomato, garlic, onion, and half of the habanero to the bowl of the food processor with the ground pepitas. Cut the sour orange in half and squeeze over a medium-mesh strainer directly into the bowl. Add the ground canela and the salt and cilantro leaves, along with 3⁄4 cup water; pulse to a coarse puree. Transfer to a container and refrigerate until ready to use. The sikil pak will keep for up to 3 days.