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: Mezcal-cured ocean trout with cream cheese, orange, and sal de gusanos
In Mexico, in places where they make the liquor mezcal, they’ll serve it with oranges and sal de gusano – salt with chiles and pulverized, roasted maguey worms. You’re supposed to sprinkle the salt on the oranges and have them in between sips. So we took the mezcal and that salt and cured ocean trout with it, and served it back with those components to let guests enjoy the flavor in several forms.
But we’re also a restaurant on First Avenue, in the East Village of New York. I believe restaurants should have a sense of place, and because ocean trout is so similar to salmon, we also serve it with cream cheese, so this dish is very New York.
Cream cheese mixed with lime juice
I hold the squeeze bottle the same way that I hold a pen, and so these strokes are just like my handwriting. I don’t have my cooks try to copy it; I ask them to do it in a way that is comfortable for them and looks great. It’s inconsistent as hell, and I like it.
This is signature Alex Stupak pastry sauce work. I’d like to believe I’d be the guy in Lynyrd Skynyrd that says, “F*** it, let’s not play Free Bird.” But obviously I’m not, because I can show you photos all the way back in the Alinea cookbook where I did this. So maybe I’m not over it! Maybe I miss it.
Mezcal-cured ocean trout
Looking at the sauce, I saw that I have these curving lines. If you imagine the plate is a clock, the lines curve roughly in the direction of 1:00 to 7:00, 2:00 to 8:00, so I bisected those with a curved line of fish in the other direction.
Sal de gusanos
This is a traditional mix of salt, chiles, and powdered maguey worms, which give it a meaty flavor. On the menu, we try to translate everything into English, because it’s friendlier that way. But in some cases, when the translation isn’t romantic—I mean, it’s called “salt of worms”— we use the Spanish term.
But we still want to let people notice it and, if they want, to know what it is. There are certain techniques you can do to make someone ask, “What’s this?” The chef Michel Bras has a term, “niac,” for something that he puts on the plate to raise your interest. So we place little patches of the salt on the plate, highlight it, so you can taste it on its own and maybe ask us about it.
We’re just following the line of the fish and continuing it with the orange pieces. At the bottom, I noticed the slice of fish looked pretty triangular, so I also echoed that with a few oranges. But I also put one in the bottom left of the plate, one piece out there to say that we don’t really have to follow that line.
In my experience watching people to eat, people tend to dip one tine of a fork into each component. I want to you eat every component together, but also give you opportunities to dip your toe in the pool a bit, before you come back to the middle. In all my food, everything touches something else, but I like when you can get at things by themselves, too.
This is a very flat plate—most everything is placed laterally—but the fish gives us a chance to build a little on it, and these short, thick sticks of jicama cross together to give a little sense of height.
By crisscrossing the jicama, we can also lean the onion a little on it to build more height.
Radish was logical for flavor—along with onion and cilantro, it’s one of the fresh raw garnishes you see most often in Mexican food—but we wanted to keep with the white / orange color scheme, so we choose white radish instead of red.
Again, I kept with the line of the fish, looking for the nooks I created before in the dish. You look for little places where the salsa can go: a nook between two lines of sauce, or a “cup” where the onion and jicama criss-cross and form a little pool.
I don’t have rules on where to place it on the plate—it’s like playing chess against yourself. I really encourage my cooks to think your way through a dish every single time they plate it. Cooking by nature is redundant—doing the same thing over and over. The dishes will taste the same every time, but it could look a little different every time, and I think that’s OK. I want the cooks to be stimulated.
Mexican is not a minimalist cuisine. You need salsa, raw vegetable, all these contrasts together to balance—we embrace the idea that the condiments and garnishes are just as important as everything else on the dish.
I always put my herbs upside-down. My first job out of culinary school, I used to work this meat station between these two really angry dudes. I was 19, they were 34, and they would pummel me: “Put the leaves facing up! Show it what it shows the world!” Ever since I left that restaurant, I’ve done it upside down.
Yesterday: A “tostada” like you’ve never seen