The Secrets Behind Edible Irony

Armed with an industrial-sized blow torch and a 10-liter canister of liquid nitrogen, Alex Stupak was ready to roast ice cream.

As a meringue-like base whirred in a standing mixer, the tattoo-covered 30-year-old poured in the liquid nitrogen, raising gales of puffy white vapor that, within minutes, created a glistening, white, frozen mousse. Carefully scooping a portion into a torpedo shape, Mr. Stupak aimed his blow torch at the quenelle and browned it. The result was delicious and witty, a bite of edible irony.

“That’ll work,” said Mr. Stupak.

Considered one of the nation’s most inventive pastry chefs, Mr. Stupak has spent his career at cutting-edge restaurants, including Boston’s Clio, Chicago’s Alinea and Manhattan’s WD-50, his current employer. Several of his innovations, including pliable chocolate ganache ribbons and flavored ice capsules containing a creamy liquid center, are often imitated by adventurous high-end restaurants.

Alex Stupak

His desserts are known for their surprising flavors and novel textures. A dessert on the current menu features four flavors—lemongrass, jackfruit, whole wheat and brown sugar—in textures including mousse, foam, ice, crunchy crust, solid fruit and puree.

Such combinations often occur to him through a kind of mental flavor association. He loves lemongrass, which he paired with jackfruit, another Southeast Asian ingredient. Lemongrass steeped in milk “tastes like the milk left over in a bowl of Fruit Loops,” so he made whole wheat ice cream to conjure the taste of cereal. That made him think of cream of wheat, topped with brown sugar. “It only needs to make sense to me,” Mr. Stupak said. “Then it has to taste good.”

On a recent Tuesday, Mr. Stupak’s day off, he met with his assistant, 24-year-old Malcolm Livingston, in WD-50’s empty kitchen to work on some new techniques. The pastry team’s regular schedule—from 1 p.m. to about 1 a.m.—is filled with preparing the foams, emulsions, jellies, puffs and ice creams that are then assembled into approximately 200 desserts each night.

Today Mr. Stupak will test a handful of theories that have been percolating in his mind. Sometimes, he makes a breakthrough, then tries to figure out how to do the opposite. For example, having discovered how to make frozen capsules, his next “holy grail” was figuring out how to make a paper-thin gel filled with hot liquid. (He and Mr. Livingston are still tinkering with a pumpkin-filled version.) Other times, he’ll ponder a riff on a classic dessert.

The goal was to make olive oil solid by blending it at high speed with isomalt sugar. The oil and sugar base failed to emulsify. Mr. Stupak poured the sweet, slippery oil onto a tray.

“I thought the sugar would microparticulate and become suspended in the oil, and it would become a sliceable gel,” Mr. Stupak said. Mr. Livingston tried a few other methods, none of which worked. Failures like this are so common that Mr. Stupak is sanguine, vowing to return to the idea later.

A dessert made from soft chocolate, beets, long pepper and ricotta ice cream

“New flavor combinations are not creativity. We’re talking about technique,” Mr. Stupak said. Once he’s perfected a technique, he then applies different flavors to it. After developing a method for coating a calcium-based mousse with a solid pectin-fortified glaze, he’s used it for chocolate mousse dipped in cherry sauce and sweet potato pie coated with brown sugar glaze.

Though he appears preternaturally contained and controlled, his best ideas occur to him gradually over the course of a few busy nights of work, he said, the result of a career in hectic kitchens.

The constant pressure to outdo both himself and other modernist chefs has undercut Mr. Stupak’s enjoyment of his work. The thrill of shocking peers and diners has worn off, and instead of striving for bizarre, never-before-seen dishes, he bases more desserts on known entities, like rainbow sherbet or meringue, so that customers won’t feel as intimidated.

“The first 10 times a tightrope walker gets across, he’s excited,” Mr. Stupak said. “After that, it’s his job.” (“He is excited, I could see it,” Mr. Livingston whispered, after the roasted ice cream worked out, while Mr. Stupak’s back was turned.)

Over time, Mr. Stupak said he has also observed chefs copying each other and stealing ideas, giving him a depressing sense that what he once saw as high art is actually a big ego contest. He has decided to leave the pastry world next year and to open a Mexican restaurant—albeit one where he said he will continue to innovate.

On a recent night, stuffed into his corner in the hot kitchen, Mr. Stupak hunched over 20 dishes of beer ice cream, molasses jelly and caramel sauce, piping ribbons of malted yogurt over the contours of long, thin caraway tuilles. This drill continued off and on for hours because the dish goes out, for free, to about 80 people a night as a palate-cleanser. Wouldn’t it be easier to design a low-labor dish?

“What we do is make things hard on ourselves,” Mr. Stupak said. “Creativity is work.”

Small Bites

• Asked why so many pastry chefs sport elaborate tattoos—his own include images of an octopus and a fallen angel with his wings torn off—Alex Stupak said, “When you spend your day around gum drops and ice cream and cupcakes, you just need to assert your masculine side somehow.”

• Mr. Stupak will take a liquid base, divide it into parts and freeze some, dehydrate some and “aerate” some by pumping air into it, looking for the most interesting texture. “It’s just manipulation of water in all its permutations,” he said.

• He reads industrial manuals like “Food Polymers in Water Soluble Applications.” Though stultifying, he said these are the best source of ideas for new ingredients and techniques.

• Substances like hydrocolloids and liquid nitrogen allow Mr. Stupak to avoid the lengthy delays typical in a pastry kitchen and to conduct many experiments in a short period of time.

• Most of his desserts are cold by design. Hot elements are “dynamic” and “food is harder to manipulate in a dynamic state.”

• Mr. Stupak got his first job, as a restaurant dishwasher, when he was 12 (he told the owner he was 14). He gorged on books by top chefs, translating Spanish pastry chef Albert Adrià’s book word-by-word with a dictionary.

Katy McLaughlin, Wall Street Journal


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