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: Shrimp with crispy masa, sea urchin mousse and lettuces
The food in this restaurant is much more “rustic” than anything I did as a pastry chef, and it’s forced me to feel OK with that. I want the food to be pretty, but I also want this to be a restaurant where you feel like you can just walk in, have a drink and an appetizer, and have it be approachable but remarkable. So the idea of this dish is that it’s basically a tostada, with crispy masa waves for the tortilla and shrimp in tomatillo-chipotle salsa.
But the presentation is 110 percent inspired by Michel Bras. He does a dessert of waves of candied potato, layered with buttercream and toffee. I thought it would be cool to take a famous French chef’s technique and apply it to a totally different style of cooking, even if it’s mainly a presentation technique.
Because presentation is important. I hear it all the time: “Flavor is the only thing that matters,” but I think that’s the biggest copout. I mean, if you were making a birthday cake for a little girl and you go, “I just pureed it and you’re going to drink it,” you’re going to find out how wrong that is.
That said, another interesting thing with this dish is all the work that goes into it kind of gets obscured in the end. I think that’s OK. If there are elements of beauty that get discovered as you eat it, that’s great. Or if they don’t, and they’re just for the cook, that’s valuable too.
Crispy masa waves
We truly began this dish by wanting to make a tostada. But that’s what I want to eat in a market in Mexico, standing up, for lunch. So the question was: How do we make it in a way that makes sense in a restaurant? What am I going to do with it that will set it apart?
One of the most common sources of creativity is adaptation. We adapted a structure from Michel Bras. There was truly nothing like his dish: Potatoes in a dessert, manipulating them into these crisp waves, making them visually exciting.
These are the most exciting types of components to me. I won’t call it “pastry,” but with masa [the dough that gives us tortillas, sopes, chalupas, etc. – Ed.], there’s a similarity in that it lets us say, “Let’s make a structure. Let’s make a something.” Maybe it’s a pastry chef thing, but I get so much more excited doing something like this than cooking fish or meat. It feels like really making something as opposed to manipulating something that occurs in nature.
Sea urchin mousse
We fill two crisps with a sea urchin mousse. Something crispy giving away to something very soft is always very gratifying to eat. We tried to build it in a way that you crack it vertically.
Shrimp in tomatillo chipotle salsa
As the plate progressed, it became less about the beauty of the wave. Rather, the wave gave us a structure to inform how we plate everything else. These waves just create a playground for the shrimp. Seeing the way a shrimp is curved, I thought, why not tuck it in the wave? Or hang one off of the standing crisp?
Any time you can avoid things laying flat and dead, you win in presentation. It shouldn’t be redundant— not every dish should have an architectural element—but it’s a great way of being visually provocative.
Tomatillo chipotle salsa
We put the salsa in a few places, where we find nooks for it. At the top of the dish, for example, we put a shrimp down next to the masa crisp, and the bend created a “cup,” so I filled the cup with salsa.
I also look at the plate to see where the visual weight is. See how the top looks heavy and lightens at the bottom? So I’m looking for nooks for salsa, but I’m also looking to put some salsa towards the bottom to balance
the weight of the shrimp at the top.
So now the plate really starts to get messy, but I think that’s OK. I put it kind of all over, but I also made sure to use it to hide where the mousse was squeezing out a little bit up at the top. Hm…it’s probably not a good idea to tell everyone what a hack I am, that all my plating is about covering up mistakes!
You go to these tostada stalls in Mexico, and they have crisp tortillas; you choose what you want to go on them. There are always a lot of fresh, raw elements on top: onion, cilantro, radish, chile.
There’s a lot of pressure to buy things now from a forager, use whatever interesting raw wild thing you can get your hands on, so it may seem boring or redundant to keep using those garnishes, but that’s the cuisine. You can add another component to make yourself feel better as a chef, but I keep the stance that this food should be Mexican at its core.
Placing the onion, I tried to use the shape to cut across the wave, but you could also have some sticking straight out of the mousse or hugging the sauce.
We used the larger hearts, the center of the bunch. And we kept some of the stem, because there was going to be lettuce to follow, and we didn’t want little cilantro leaves to get lost in the greens.
I like how the white plays with the white of the queso freso, and the red plays with the beige, pink, and tan in the dish. Again, I tried to have them standing as much as possible, looking for nooks for them.
By this point, you’re really just looking for a balance across the plate. I also want the chile to look like it’s just sprinkled on, because that’s what it would look like if you were having a tostada.
When I eat a tostada, I want lettuce, so that had to go on the dish. And I’m not a fan of micro lettuces. So this is counter intuitive because the lettuce hides everything. I like to have beautiful things be surprising, something you have to discover. But I also like it when people just break into the masa wave to devour it, even if the plate will be destroyed before they even get to see it.
So why put effort on how you put things on the plate? It has other meanings. It’s OK if the only person who sees a beautiful plate is the cook, it’s a little something special for them. And, to be honest, it’s a management tool— we ask ourselves to take care in everything we do. Do you only do a good job if the boss is looking? There’s something gratifying about creating something beautiful for the sake of destroying it.
Yesterday: Carrots roasted in mole