Pastry chef Alex Stupak spent six years at Chicago’s Alinea and New York’s WD-50 devising some of the country’s most inventive desserts. When he decided to strike out on his own, though, instead of opening a sweet shop or bakery, he made the leap over to the savory side. “I had always wanted to open my own restaurant,” he says. “By the age of 28, my biological clock had begun ticking on that.”
Stupak’s two Empellóns (Taqueria and Cocina), the first launched in 2010 before his 30th birthday, specialize in creative spins on traditional Mexican fare. They’ve earned him far more exposure than all his dessert work combined. “As a pastry chef,” he says, “there’s only so far you can rise.”
Dessert stars like Stupak, eager to burst through that sugar-coated glass ceiling, have been increasingly taking over entire kitchens, creating some of the most ambitious food on the planet.
Elizabeth Falkner, formerly of San Francisco’s Citizen Cake, now cooks pizza and pasta at New York’s Corvo Blanco. Jordan Kahn, who once made desserts alongside Stupak at Alinea, is reinventing Vietnamese street food at his hot Los Angeles restaurant Red Medicine. And at newcomer Luksus in Brooklyn, Daniel Burns, who once ran the pastry department at Noma, now serves his own foraged take on New Nordic cuisine.
The segregation between sweet and savory, though, was once absolute. Pastry chefs worked alone at off-hours, lost in weights and measures, tackling the exacting work most chefs disdain. “I’m a separatist at heart,” says Stupak. “Part of the reason I became a pastry chef was to have total control over my own space.”
Over the years, there have been occasional renegades who have managed to straddle both worlds at once. Michel Richard, of Washington’s now-shuttered Citronelle and New York’s Palace Hotel, started his career running pastry shops. And though L.A.-based Nancy Silverton made a name for herself as a baker first at La Brea Bakery, it wasn’t until she launched Pizzeria Mozza, in 2007, that dining critics sat up, took notice and raved.
But more and more, at many cutting edge restaurants like Noma and Britain’s Fat Duck, the lines are intentionally blurry. “In the modern approach to cooking,” says Burns, “the two sides of the kitchen shouldn’t be separate. There should be a natural progression from savory to sweet.” As part of the tasting menu at Luksus he serves a dessert featuring rhubarb mousse, pea sorbet and pickled beets. Kahn at Red Medicine, meanwhile, serves meringues, cakes, streusels, mousses and frozen granités throughout the meal. “Pastry techniques are literally all over my menu,” he says. “They’re simply built into the way I think.”