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Talking Tacos with Jordana Rothman and Alex Stupak

Rebecca Mayotte

December 01, 2015

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Earlier this month, we welcomed chef and restaurateur Alex Stupak along with his longtime friend and business partner Jordana Rothman to the Beard House as a part of our Beard on Books series to discuss their new cookbook, Tacos: Recipes and Provocations. Once an acclaimed pastry chef, Stupak exchanged his piping bags for tortilla presses when he left a career in fine-dining establishments like Alinea and WD-50 to open his own Mexican-focused restaurant, Empellón Cocina, in 2011. Stupak’s budding empire now encompasses three establishments, with plans for a fourth, and he continues to create some of the city’s most popular Mexican cuisine. Rothman, the former food & drink editor at Time Out New York, teamed up with Stupak to write the cookbook, motivated by a desire to unpack the larger narrative behind Mexican cooking, a story many Americans have never heard. 

The conversation between Rothman and Stupak was jovial, filled with loaded questions about the future of New York restaurants, Mexican cuisine, and their own experiences working together as close friends and business partners. Rothman asked about Stupak’s fascination with Mexican food, and his infamous career path change, prompting both to laugh. Stupak proclaimed that he is a fan of the “culinary counter-culture” movement, explaining that what had drawn him to restaurants like Alinea and WD-50 was the fact they were so drastically different than what others were doing. 

Stupak wanted to change the fine-dining scene that he saw as being overrun by Italian, French, and Japanese cuisines for too long. After spending time in Mexico, his love affair with its food and its people was cemented. It didn't take long for him to return to New York with a plan to elevate the status of the country's food in the city, with the hopes that one day there would be successful Mexican fine-dining establishments in Manhattan. 

When asked about the cookbook itself, Stupak was eager to point out the multitude of stories amongst the beautifully shot photography and meticulously planned recipes, prompting Rothman to quip that the book is really like a “time capsule.” Stupak is hopeful that people find a way to make the book their own by playing with the recipes in their own kitchens: “recipes lock you in, [but] ideas set you free.” He’s tired of chefs putting out “coffee table books” with recipes that are meant to be admired instead of attempted by the home cook.  

Stupak and Rothman’s goal with this book was to challenge the American perception that Mexican food is all about heavy burritos stuffed with greasy meats and cheese. In the cookbook, Stupak deliberately gives vegetables a prominent role, noting that Mexico had a “borderline vegan cuisine before the Old World came over.” He also highlights the local principle that the tortilla is the most important part of the taco, and urges home cooks to abandon their fears of making them from scratch, providing step-by-step instructions in the first chapter.  

When Rothman urged Stupak to explain why his book focuses strictly on tacos, Stupak eagerly answered that he “thinks of tacos as a portal into the American mindset,” since they are so familiar, yet still so misunderstood. Rothman agreed and admitted that she had never thought about tacos in this way before teaming up with Stupak, explaining that she became fascinated with this deep-rooted American misunderstanding of Mexican food through working with him. As she put it: “I am haunted by Alex Stupak—I am always asking myself why and how this got on my plate.”

Learn more about the James Beard Foundation’s Beard on Books program.