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: Halibut with cape gooseberry, chipotle, and masa “wire”
This is a new dish, based on a cape gooseberry salsa. It’s not traditionally Mexican, but cape gooseberries are in the same family as tomatillos—they have the same papery husks. When I’m using an ingredient people may not have seen before, I like to find a way to show it in its natural state and give people a chance to see it and taste it on its own. So I have whole gooseberries tossed in the salsa as the base of the plate.
But then along with that—maybe because I’m a pastry chef at heart—we have a very manipulated, very “manufactured” component: a cracker “wire” made out of masa.
Cape gooseberries in cape gooseberry-chipotle salsa
There’s a part of me that thinks this salsa is flawed, texturally. My old instinct, if I was making this a few years ago, would be to puree it, add xanthan gum so the water doesn’t weep out, make it a perfectly smooth, bright sauce. But I chose to cook Mexican food to force myself to change. And now, to me, if you don’t show me the seeds, the vegetable, the flecks of chile, it doesn’t feel like a Mexican salsa.
I like how this dish kind of shows both sides of that: these beautiful, shiny gooseberries muddied up by the salsa. I also think it’s good to give people a visual reference to an unusual ingredient in its natural state if they may not have seen it before.
The halibut is what would be considered the main component of the dish, but it kind of becomes the least important, visually. It blends into the background a little here, the white matches the plate, the seared sides with the golden-orange color of the gooseberries. Some people have a rule against using even numbers on plates, but I don’t mind breaking it.
The technique to make this actually came from a classic cake decorating skill: cornelli lace. That’s where you pipe icing onto a cake in one very long, continuous wavy line that never bisects itself. We piped masa (corn tortilla dough) in a cornelli lace pattern onto a sheet of acetate. We dehydrated it then fried it, and right when it comes out of the fryer, it has a second where it’s still pliable, so we pulled it up to make it three-dimensional.
For me, as a pastry chef, this is the kind of component I love working with most. It’s manufactured but looks kind of natural. It’s a structure we create, but it just does its own thing, so you just have to roll with it. It’s different every time. You can’t really control the way it curves. And that’s OK, because the fish doesn’t look the same every time, or the gooseberries.
Because they’re also white, these onions don’t make a huge visual impact, but slicing them into small rings kind of mirrors the round gooseberries.
Normally, crema turns very thin and runny on a warm plate. We heat-stabilized it so it won’t move, won’t shift, stays very smooth and in perfectly round dollops. I like that it balances against the rough-textured sauce.
I placed it, as I often do with sauces, by looking for natural nooks or cups for it, like up against a corner formed by where a gooseberry and a pool of salsa bump up against each other, or in the hole of a ring of onion.
When Michael Laiskonis did his plates, he touched on the idea of making herbs look like they just landed, falling from the sky. I’m 100 percent with him on that. I sometimes try to take it one step further and make them suspend in the air. If you have a little bit of residual water on the leaves, they stick ever so slightly to the masa.
I consider this very rustic looking – tons of asymmetry, the lines are not clean, all the components are very rough looking. But it’s a lot of work for me to make something look carefree.
The Dish: Steamed chanterelle mushrooms with epazote, achiote, and tamal colado
This is almost a traditional Yucatecan-style tamal; you strain the masa before steaming it so it's very smooth. In my insecurity, I fear someone could say, “You’re a hack, that’s not thoughtful, this dish isn’t new.” But what’s new? Is it something new to you? New to the person perceiving it? Yesterday, there was someone seeing alginate spheres for the very first time, and I couldn’t think of anything more done to death.
We’re a New York City restaurant; I’m not a Mexcian chef. We had no intention of being a traditional restaurant. But when we put the textbook Yucatecan version of this dish on the menu, people thought we were being creative, and that’s absurd. But right now, this feels more modern to me than anything else, only because I’ve never experienced it.
Tamal colado (Yucatan-style strained tamal), steamed in banana leaf, under steamed chanterelles
The banana leaf breaks a rule that you’re brought up with in culinary school—if you can’t eat it, don’t put it on the plate. But in this case, the leaf tells the story of the preparation method; you steam the tamal in the leaf. When we took it out, it didn’t feel right; that’s how the dish is made and supposed to be served.
To be honest, from my training, it’s a visual nightmare: The steamed chanterelles give up their water, the droplets of condensation, the torn leaf, the leaf hanging off the plate. It seems thoughtless. But I’m trying to break out of my comfort zone. I’m trying to do what’s right for the dish.
Dehydrated tomato slices
Because of where we’re starting from, it feels silly to give too much fluff to this dish. We could have peeled the tomatoes, removed the seeds, pureed them and made a tomato glass. But that would be pretentious. It would almost say, “We’re ashamed of this, so we’re going to hide it under all these modern things.” So instead, we just sliced them, dehydrated them to concentrate the flavor, and here they are.
The tamal is flavored with epazote, but some people may not have seen it before—it’s an important herb in Mexican cooking. So we wanted to show the leaves whole, echo a flavor built into the dish, and show them what might be new ingredient.
Typically the dish would have red onion streamed right into it, but we wanted to reflect the ingredient.
I think about nouvelle cuisine—at one point it was a revelation to take a piece of meat and not bury it in sauce; it was new thinking to not hide the main component. But here, what’s the main component? The main component is the whole thing: the whole tamal, with all the components. So we wanted to show that.