FOOD & WINE Best New Chef Alex Stupak of Empellón Taqueria, Cocina and Al Pastor makes a case for his favorite New York City food artisans and producers.
These days Alex makes his own masa for the corn tortillas served at his three restaurants—using a high-voltage, 1200-pound beast of a grinder, fitted with massive volcanic stones. But for the first few years, all of Empellón’s masa came from Tortilleria Nixtamal, a factory and taqueria out in Corona, Queens. “Nixtamal taught us so much about the process of making masa,” says Alex. “It’s very difficult to grind your own masa at home without specialized equipment, so their product makes it possible for home cooks to experiment with homemade tortillas.” You can buy domestic or heirloom Mexican masa at Nixtamal, the latter available in white, blue, red and yellow corn varieties. Tortilleria Nixtamal: 104-05 47th Ave, Corona, NY; 718-699-2434; tortillerianixtamal.com
Brooklyn Butcher Blocks
There’s a vibrant artisan community in Brooklyn, with producers creating everything from small-batch bitters to world-class knives. Woodworker Nils Wesson got his start in New York apprenticing for the latter, carving knife handles and sheaths for the blade maker Cut Brooklyn. Nils eventually started his own business, Brooklyn Butcher Blocks, where in addition to the namesake surface, he makes gorgeous end-grain cutting boards and counter tops, designed to evoke the brick facades of the borough’s charming brownstones. Alex purchased a few cutting boards from Wesson and was impressed with the craftsmanship; he later commissioned the artist to build tables for all of the Empellón restaurants. “You can tell there’s an actual human being attached to this work,” says Alex. “The boards are polished like mirrors. They feel personal and artisanal.” brooklynbutcherblocks.com
Alex replaced opening chef Sam Mason when he took over the pastry kitchen at wd~50 in 2006, and the two have remained friends. In the years since, Sam has split his time between a number of projects: a pair of old-world ice cream parlors Oddfellows; a popular Williamsburg bar, Lady Jay’s; and his company Empire Mayonnaise. Glossier than standard-issue Hellmann’s, Empire uses cage-free, pasture-raised eggs and non-GMO oils to make its namesake condiment, then mixes in thoughtful flavors like vadouvan curry or everything bagel seasoning. “Sam has that modernist background that teaches you to consider how far you can push an ingredient, and I can really see that training in the mayo—how saturated the egg yolks are with oil,” says Alex. “Sam also has this way of creating counterintuitive flavors that it doesn’t seem like the world really needs. But then you taste it and you change your mind.” Empire Mayonnaise: 564 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn, NY; 718-636-2069; empiremayo.com
Blini may be the classic accompaniment for caviar service, but Alex does things a bit differently. He likes to pair his roe with sheets of Streit's matzo—a Thanksgiving and New Year’s tradition for his family. The Streit’s company did business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for 90 years, not far from where two of Alex’s restaurants sit today. They bake the unleavened bread in pre-World War II ovens, and proudly claim that it’s the New York City water that so distinguishes their crackerlike product. In 2015, Streit’s—one of the last reminders of the Jewish immigrant culture that defined the area for a century—finally moved its operations to a factory upstate. But Alex still sees the matzo as a born-and-bred New York City product, and a must for his holiday tables. “To my mind, caviar is one of those ingredients that is defiant of local culture—we tend to enjoy it the same way wherever it is served,” says Alex. “Eating it with a regional product like Streit’s matzo feels like a way to personalize it for New York…to make it feel of the place.” streitsmatzos.com