Interview with Chef Alex Stupak of Alinea - Chicago

December, 2005

Colleen Richardson: How did you get started in pastry?
Alex Stupak: It was out of necessity. I was working as a sous chef at The Federalist in Boston when the pastry chef quit. I became the permanent sous chef there.

CR: What is your philosophy on pastry?
AS: Creativity through technique. I’m a slave to format. It’s important to master format. Creativity comes from inventing a technique. It gives you a wider arsenal, a whole other set of possibilities.

CR: You have worked in pastry at Clio in Boston and as a line cook at Tru here in Chicago. How did these work experiences contribute to your current success at Alinea?
AS: At Tru I learned speed. As a line cook you serve 100 people a night. At Clio, it was my second pastry chef job, and I was working under Ken [Oringer]. There was more refinement and creativity. The sensibility there pushed me to ensure that dishes are delicious and make sense.

CR: Have you won any awards?
AS: Boston Magazine named me Best Pastry Chef in 2003.

CR: What pastry or kitchen tools can’t you live without?
AS: The freezer – it has the widest range of application. Also a laboratory-grade homogenizer – it’s like a hand blender on steroids.

CR: What are your favorite ingredients?
AS: Water is the most versatile. Also the summer, for fresh herbs. Agar-agar and gums. I’ve got a high-tech spice rack.

CR: What are your top three tips for dessert success?
AS: 1) Whatever you make, it needs to be delicious. 2) Be aware of trends and other people. 3) Be in the kitchen constantly.

CR: Who are your mentors and pastry heroes?
AS: I’m self-taught. I never really worked under anyone. In terms of heroes, Albert Adrià at El Bulli, Pierre Hermé. He’s a technical master, though he stuck to the classics throughout.

CR: What are your favorite desserts?
AS: I like comforting desserts. My challenge is to make them technically interesting.

CR: What trends do you see emerging in pastry arts?
AS: There’s a focus on mixtures. Food additive companies are looking at new effects – it’s a discovery race. There’s also a move away from the typical format in desserts and words like “tart” or “cake.”

CR: Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?
AS: With a business of my own. My background is savory. I’d like to be recognized and be more well known in 10 years. Right now Alinea is under a microscope, and you feel the pressure from the public. What are they expecting here? A great meal or are they looking for something unusual?