Without much fanfare last July, Alex Stupak replaced Sam Mason as pastry chef at Wylie Dufresne's Clinton Street avant-garde institution WD~50. Prior to arriving in New York, Stupak, who will turn 27 later this month, had already accrued a blockbuster resume- most notably he was the pastry chef at Alinea in Chicago, named the #1 restaurant in the United States by Gourmet magazine in 2006. Last week, Stupak talked with Gothamist while plating one his desserts at WD~50.
How often does the menu at WD~50 change?
It changes based on ideas and concepts. Obviously when seasons change, ingredients change, but we actually consider a new dish new when we’ve created a new technique, or new method. Some dishes have been on since the restaurant opened, and other ones last for just a month.
What have you been developing, concept-wise, with your desserts?
Technically speaking, the frozen capsules and pliable ganache that we’re putting forward- I’m really proud of those techniques. And there’s some new stuff that we’re working on. It’s 2-3 months away, but all really exciting.
What’s your take on the recent New York Times review of the restaurant Varietal, given your friendship with [Varietal’s ex-pastry chef] Jordan Kahn?
I was anticipating that review. I was pretty sure it was going to come out the way it did, and I think Jordan was, too. There’s a disconnect there: You had someone cooking very rustic, borderline bistro style food, and then you had someone creating extremely esoteric, highly conceptual desserts; some with 15 or 20 components. They both can be great, but trying to combine them in one restaurant creates a kind of disconnect.
You graduated from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in 2000. Do you ever run into any of your old classmates?
It’s actually weird. I ate at Jean Georges two nights ago, and like a third of my class works in the front of the house there. They all switched.
If you were given a budget to reinvent or introduce some new street food to NYC, what would you come up with?
As far as reinvent, I’m not sure. One thing I think that would be really cool would just to see more, different types of ethnic street food that you don’t see here. Like when I traveled to Thailand, the best Pad Thai I ever had was from the equivalent of what a hot dog vendor is here.
As far as conceptual food- say molecular gastronomy or constructivism- goes, it seems that New York isn’t very receptive to it, compared to Chicago, for instance.
Being very close to it- having worked at Alinea in Chicago, which is considered one of the most creative restaurants ever, it’s amazing how much to see how much media perception skews things. It takes one person to write an article about “the creative explosion in Chicago,” and then 100 other publications will basically write the same article. At the end of the day, there are basically two creative restaurants in Chicago, Moto and Alinea, and it’s a big city.
In my opinion I think there are more great restaurants here in New York, putting creativity aside. Because there’s such a restaurant culture here, and people eat out here probably more than anywhere, customers tend to be harsher, and critics tend to be harsher. But all this means is that you have to be better. Wylie had a big challenge in trying to open a creative restaurant, because people aren’t going to like it so much here.
New York is kind a of a schizophrenic restaurant city, too, with all its big, multimillion dollar places doing boring things and then the tiny little places putting out great food.
At the end of the day, chefs know how to make food that’s going to be a sure thing; that they know people are going to love. But to actually put forward a dish that’s going to challenge someone and make them think- it’s my opinion that most people don’t really want to think, which is why it’s more difficult to sustain a creative restaurant.
That said, WD~50 is doing pretty well.
It’s doing great.
Do you have a favorite New York restaurant?
It’s tough for me to say, just because I’ve been on an eating spree for the seven months I’ve been here, but I haven’t even been to an eighth of the places I want to go to.
What about off-hours eating?
Everybody here goes to Ssäm Bar occasionally. I like going to Lil’ Frankie’s for a Foccacino, late night, because they’re open until 4 in the morning. I like all the restaurants around here, whether it’s Paladar, Falai- all of them.
Is it true that pastry chefs travel through lower New York in gangs?
Well, I did go out with Sam Mason last night. He’s really good to be around. He was down here for four years and knows all the bars.
Do you a non-culinary source of inspiration, like architecture or something?
No, not really. It’s hard to equivocate any other kind of art to food, because you have to put food in your mouth, and it becomes a highly personal thing. I guess I get inspired by a lot of musicians and artists, anyone who’s put forward something and been successful doing it, but it’s something that no one else has done, someone who just kind of stays in their own head.
What do you cook at home?
A lot of Mexican, and a lot of Italian. When I come home I don’t touch pastry anymore.
Is your home kitchen stocked with any unusual equipment?
I’ve still got a little Xanthan Gum at home. It’s a thickener. I sneak it into things, but I don’t tell anyone I’m using it.
The finished product: The WD~50 menu lists this dessert as “Creamsicle, rooibos, squash, orange blossom.” Stupak assembles torn pieces of squash cake, rooibos air, micro anise leaves, and dehydrated orange blossom. A translucent ribbon of pliable ganache is at the venter of the plate; Stupak’s frozen creamsicle capsule, with a frozen orange exterior and molten, cream-Cointreau center is the cylinder on the right-hand side of the plate.