It’s funny where life takes you.
8 months ago, I was in Oaxaca, Mexico being served an amazing meal as part of the El Sabor del Sabor festival. I’d chosen this particular event because it was being hosted by the wonderful Chef Rodolfo Castellanos of Origen restaurant. The other reason though, was that Chef Alex Stupak from NYC was also a part of that event as the only international chef at the festival. I’d seen Chef Stupak’s name all over the NY Eater feed in the past few years, so I was familiar with the name, and once I’d done a bit of research on Chef Stupak (Alinea and WD-50 alum), I knew it would be the event to attend during the festival.
My evening at Origen for Festival Sabor del Sabor featuring Chef Stupak was stupendous. I knew as I ate both of Stupak’s dishes at the event, that I needed to make it a priority to go back to NYC to eat at his restaurant Empellon Cocina. And if you know me, when I make something a priority, it always happens.
Chef Stupak has 3 restaurants in NYC under the Empellon umbrella. Empellon Cocina, his “higher” end, Taqueria in the mid and the newest taco joint Al Pastor, which opened late last year. While I’ve read most about Al Pastor, I was most curious about his creations from Cocina. As luck would have it, Cocina recently revamped the dining experience at Cocina to include a 4 seat Kitchen table dining experience and my timing as I started researching the restaurant was perfect to get a reservation.
Reservations are obtained through Open Table, but it took a bit of finessing with the restaurant to actually confirm a date for dining. I really wanted to dine at Eleven Madison Park on my actual birthday, but Kitchen Table was the more difficult reservation to obtain. When I was able to secure EMP for July 3rd, I locked myself into Empellon Cocina’s Kitchen Table for my birthday.
I wondered in advance if Chef Stupak would be in the kitchen for the meal. I’d hoped he would be, but played my expectation down as I didn’t want to be disappointed. I focused more on who the other 2 diners would be that I’d have to share this experience with. I hoped whoever it was would be “all in” like I was. I could only imagine how horrible an intimate dining experience could be when you have to share it with complainers or people who didn’t want to “get it”. It’s funny how I stress out about the small things, because my life in food, usually turns out to be Forest Gump-ish in that I find myself in extraordinary situations so much of the time.
My evening started with a (too strong) cocktail at Amor y Amargo, a fantastic tiny Bitters Tasting room a few blocks away from the restaurant.
When I arrived at Empellon Cocina a few minutes before my 7:30 reservation, I was told that the kitchen was not ready for me yet. As I waited outside, I glanced towards the back and saw Chef Stupak setting up in the area where I’d be seated. I immediately settled knowing I was going to have a great meal put in front of me by this talented chef. I continued to wait a few more minutes and saw a man go to the host to check in for the Kitchen Table as well. When he turned around, I immediately recognized him as Francis Lam, judge on Top Chef and columnist with the New York Times. Hmmmm, are you freeking kidding me? I was going to be dining with Francis Lam? My expectations of the evening shot up a bajilllion notches.
Francis’ dining companion was late, and the restaurant wanted to seat us all together, so I settled in at the bar for another cocktail.
It wasn’t 3 minutes after having my margarita put in front of me before the party was completed and we were all led the back where 4 seats were set up facing into the kitchen. I’m not really one to choose the wine pairing at a multi-course meal, but for this meal, the pairing was an interesting mix of wines, beers, cocktails and mezcals, so I was curious and the fact they allowed for the pairing to be shared had me sold. I guess I was all-in for my birthday!
Chef Stupak was quick to introduce himself and then start into the first course. I noticed that Chef Stupak was familiar with both Francis and his dining companion. Through some casual questioning, I learned that Francis’ dining companion was Helen Rosner, contributing editor to my favourite website Eater NY. I knew then, that this meal would certainly be an all out extravaganza.
As all 4 diners savoured the Clamato popscicle, Francis Lam started pumping his fists in the air in delight. I realized that this meal would allow for exuberant displays of affection for the food, which was fine by me. Stupak though, remained focused as he forged forward serving the meal.
I learned at this point that Francis Lam was the editor of Chef Stupak’s soon to be released cookbook, and although he was familiar with the chef’s food, neither he nor Helen had partaken in this Kitchen Table experience. It felt good knowing their journey through this extravaganza would also be mine. There’s something to be said about food tasting better when you’re sharing it with people who want to enjoy their experience as much as you do.
I was in awe at this point and couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. There were so many “oooohs and aaaaahs” and genuine appreciation for the food that we tried to get Chef to relax a bit in the service. It may have been my imagination, but perhaps Chef dialed it back a notch, but he definitely stayed in the driver’s seat.
Then came the interactive salsa where we were able to choose which ingredients would be added to the salsa that would be prepared for the table.
Heading into the final stretch of the meal, all of the diners of the meal seemed relaxed in the knowledge of being part of a wonderful meal. I love feeling this way, like the food was so good, the desserts to follow are superfluous. But the thing about Chef Stupak is that he is comfortable and confident in the world of sweets and nothing about the sweet portion of the meal was an afterthought.
The recurring thought I had throughout all the sweet courses was, “mmmmm this is so good, I just wish I weren’t so full”, but at the same time full wasn’t going to stop me from the full experience of tasting. I loved being constantly surprised with flavours, textures and temperatures.
Right before the last course was hitting the table, Chef Stupak recounted a story of 4 guys who crushed 24 courses and then finished with a cheeseburger taco, both Francis and Helen took it as a challenge. My gut was bursting at this point, but I knew there’d be serious FOMO if they were served this taco and I was not.
Best birthday ever…