We’re thrilled to bring you our series, The Art of Plating, where we take you into the imaginations of chefs as they design and present their dishes. We show you how they do it, in step-by-step photos, and let them explain their creative process in their own words—what’s going on in their heads as they put their food on the plate. This week: Alex Stupak, the white-hot chef of Empellon, and ex-pastry chef at wd-50 and Alinea. Check back in through the week for more dish design from Chef Stupak – Ed.
The Dish: Roasted carrots with mole poblano, yogurt, and watercress
(Please forgive us, but sometimes we have technical difficulties with our videos. If it's not working, you can check out the video here.)
In Mexico, mole is usually a big plate of sauce with maybe a single chicken thigh; the sauce is the dish, the nourishment. But here, we don’t really understand that, and this dish is kind of a response to that. It eases into the flavor—treating the mole as a condiment—but the carrot is there really to enrich the mole.
It’s considered cheating to balance the astringency of all the peppers in a mole with sugar; the “right” way to do it is to cook the peppers for a long time so they mellow out. So I do that, but I was also thinking of another way to add sweetness to the mole: carrots have a lot of natural sweetness, especially after we roast them in the mole itself.
At wd-50 or Alinea, all my sauces would be perfectly smooth purees or fluid gels, very “manufactured” looking. We could do that with Mexican sauces, but then they seem to lose their soul... When I first got into Mexican cooking, I thought I knew better: “Why wouldn’t you strain this? Why wouldn’t you do that?” Some of the cooking seems unrefined or like a mistake if your background is Eurocentric. But what you realize, though, is that there’s a lot of intelligence to it, a lot of experience in making things taste a certain way. You change the techniques and the food doesn’t taste the same. So here, I wanted to highlight the textures of the mole, to embrace—for lack of a better term—a “natural” aesthetic.
I’ve never been a big fan of using paint brushes, but we chose to use it here because we wanted the mole to keep its texture and integrity without making the plate look sloppy. We apply it to the inside of a bowl with deep walls, then take a towel and clean the rim. If you’re going to have a rustic, disorganized component, I like that it’s framed in by a pristine white structure.
Also, the bowl ensures the mole gets transferred to every component. You’re going to scoop out bites, and it’ll automatically apply the mole like a condiment.
Honestly, in terms of presentation, this is just an anchor for the later components to cover it up. If you could see it, I would have handled it differently—make it more circular, less of a blob.
Carrots roasted in mole
If this was at wd-50, I would have peeled these carrots, cooked them sous vide so they were bright orange but not too soft. But here, I wanted a “messy” aspect—the carrots aren’t peeled, you can see the little ends, and roasting them coated in mole gives them very crinkly skin.
When I look at this, I see the way the carrot is plunged in the yogurt, on the bottom right, but by mistake I ended up moving it a bit. Above it, you can see another carrot sliding a little down the bowl, wiping away some of the mole. It’s a flaw of mine. We train the cooks to be consistently inconsistent—to react differently to different looking carrots, different watercress leaves—but not sloppy.
I like sesame toasted dark for the flavor, but if you look at the color palette of this dish, it matches. I used some of these to “take care” of some mistakes, like the carrots that slide out of the yogurt. Flavor-wise, this dish could be done right here: mole, carrots, sesame. But there are no components to show you it’s actually a light dish.
Watercress adds a lightness in flavor, and visually, it adds a blast of color and a visual cue of lightness.
Typically you’re taught two things in plating. One is that an herb or leaf should always be facing up. “Show the guest what the plant shows the world,” my teachers used to say. I’ve never been a big fan of it. The other is that the rim of the plate should frame the food. The mole is very neatly framed, so I like that the carrot that goes over the rim, the two watercress stems. It’s important to me to show that I understand the rules but I also don’t care. But I don’t want to force that down your throat.
Mole poblano tuiles
These are thin crisps of mole poblano; they give me another opportunity to transmit a flavor. Until this point there’s been nothing “manufactured” on the plate—made, structured, manipulated. The dish feels almost too natural to me. You didn’t make those leaves, you didn’t make those carrots. I wanted some modernist interjection to the composition, something that looks obviously man-made, even if the technique of making these is kind of passé now.
From a flavor standpoint, these add a secondary source of acid, along with the yogurt. But visually they transmit what we think of as the “true” color of the carrot. These aren’t the prettiest dishes in the world, but I think they’re beautiful.