New York is a city that constantly reinvents itself in its own footprint. There are heartbreaking illustrations of this—like the loss of the original Penn Station, a Beaux Art beauty demolished in the 1960s to build the blight that stands there today. But there are also inspiring examples—moments when artifacts of Gotham’s past present themselves, and there’s nothing to do but tip one’s hat to their memory. When chef Alex Stupak began chipping away at the yellow-painted exterior of his East Village Mexican restaurant Empellón Al Pastor, he stumbled across one such relic: layers and layers of decades-old graffiti, a time capsule of the kind of improvisational street art that gave the neighborhood its soul for generations.
It took four men nearly a month to scrape away the paint without damaging the work, and when it was done, Stupak invited two contemporary graffiti artists to leave their own mark on the brick wall. “We didn’t try to preserve the past; we just wanted to reveal it, honor it and add a piece of ourselves to the narrative,” he says. “That’s the nature of the art form and, in some ways, the story of New York.”
Stupak wasn’t raised in New York, but his approach to the graffiti is an allegory for the way he regards the city as muse, reconciling its traditions and renegade spirit with his own modern, impressionistic sensibilities in the kitchen. A native son of New England, Stupak cut his teeth at Ken Oringer’s Clio in Boston, and later as pastry chef at Grant Achatz’s modernist jewel, Alinea in Chicago. But it was when he arrived in New York City that Stupak really began to refine what mattered to him as a cook. In 2006 he took over the pastry kitchen at Wylie Dufresne’s experimental restaurant wd~50 on the Lower East Side. There he learned to distinguish between what he calls “picture and frame”—how much presentation and context can alter the perception of a dish. At wd~50 he took that notion to its most ambitious, molecular extreme. “You can cook something that looks familiar but tastes surprising and exotic, or you can present something that appears unusual but offers a comforting and recognizable flavor,” he says, of dishes like “cherry-covered chocolate,” which inverted the proportions of the dipped-fruit classic, enrobing spheres of chocolate mousse in glossy cherry gelée.