Push Project 2013: Four Top Chefs Join Forces

By Zagat Staff  |  November 11, 2013

“God, it feels good to sit down.” It was 5 PM this past Friday evening, and chef Alex Stupak was tired, even though the night hadn’t even begun. His kitchen at Empellón Cocina was buzzing with preparations for the second collaborative Push Project dinner with chef Grant Achatz, the mastermind behind Chicago’s Alinea, Next and The Aviary. The night before, the two chefs, along with three of Achatz’s teammates - Andrew Brochu (executive chef at The Aviary), Eric Rivera (Achatz’s research-and-development chef) and Dave Beran (executive chef at Next) - had created a modernist Thanksgiving dinner with the reimagined classics of turkey, roasted seasonal vegetables and pie. “The first person here was in the building at eight in the morning, and the last person was here until 2:30.” In the morning? “In the morning.”

Stupak wouldn't get a break that night, though, since he and Achatz decided to do a Friday dinner - this time with a totally revamped menu. “Doing the second dinner was Grant’s idea,” Stupak said. “I think his mentality was, ‘Well, when was the last time I was in New York? When was the last time we cooked together? It’s been eight years and what’s a way to take advantage of the moment, to do something unexpected and creative?’ We had spent a decent amount of time, a few weeks, planning for Thanksgiving, and he said, ‘What if you just take away the plan?’”

This time around, each chef took care of one course and they enlisted a little bit of help from two of Stupak’s former bosses, Wylie Dufresne and Ken Oringer (Achatz is also a former boss of Stupak's). The twist? None of them discussed their dishes with anyone else. “It’s anarchy-inspired,” Stupak said. With a menu that skewed heavily on the seafood, there was a bit of everything: Stupak created a dessert of lemon curd with meringue and brown butter, Dufresne had a corned beef cheek with banana-horseradish, Oringer made a suquet (a traditional Catalan fish stew) with uni and lobster, and Achatz went with a bowl filled with the unlikely combination of banana, celery and truffles (with a cherry on top, no less).

Safe to say, this installment of Stupak’s Push Project fulfilled its purpose: to push the chefs to expand their creative boundaries and think outside the box. For those interested in dining at his next dinner in the series, you’ll have to wait until next year, when the first of the next four installments will kick off around February.

-Kirsten Stamn is a regular contributor to Zagat and also freelances at Food & Wine Magazine.

Meanwhile, we were in the house to sample the handiwork of these four top-notch chefs - after all, this was a once-in-a-lifetime meeting of the minds that we did not want to miss. The dinner itself was served just like any other, and felt just like a regular, busy night at Empellón. There was no real sense of occasion because of this, despite the fact that it was one of the most interesting meals we would eat this year. Thomas Keller was just leaving as we sat down, and we also spotted Eleven Madison Park's Will Guidara, uncharacteristically dressed down (aka not in a suit). Check out impressions, dish by dish, in the slide show below.

-Slide show by Kelly Dobkin

  • The first course of the night was a bowl of salmon roe served atop a sort of "mushroom gravel" by Alinea chef Eric Rivera. If the menu theme was anarchy, this first bite certainly captured that spirit. Texture-wise, it wasn't exactly the most promising first note to a meal of mostly soft, warm dishes, but the quality of the caviar was excellent. 

  • This dish was an early show-stopper - Shigoku oysters (with a coffee cream sauce/mousse) were fresh and briny and seemed to have been spritzed with citrus just before serving. The oysters were tender and buttery and the coffee, oddly, made for an incredible flavor pairing that we've never had before. Empellón's own Ham El-Waylly and Tim Reynolds came up with this one.

  • On the printed menu, this dish appeared merely as "a pleasant savory taste" from chef Andrew Brochu of the Aviary. So naturally we were curious as to what we'd actually be eating. In a renegade take on "egg drop soup," this dish featured a circulator-cooked egg floating in a saline solution with mushrooms and greens, and once you broke the egg open, was warmly reminiscent of the flavor of the Chinese-American staple. Basically it was a salty, warm hug in a bowl.

  • Grant Achatz's only dish on the menu was this take on a parfait, composed of a truffled cream, pieces of banana, shaved white truffle, ribbons of celery and some kind of chewy fig/date disks (we think?) at the bottom, with a pickled cherry on top. Each bite of this dish was absolutely different from the one before it. If there's a culinary equivalent to an acid trip, this is it. 

  • Empellón chef Michael Cote crafted this uniquely presented plate - a razor clam garnished with sea buckthorn greens and slivers of the clam meat, which you would then slide into your bowl full of turkey broth. We weren't as keen on the sea buckthorn here (it's extremely tart), as its sourness seemed a little bit much for the delicate savory broth and subtle flavors of the clam.

  • Perhaps the most traditional and comforting flavors of the night came from Toro chef Ken Oringer, with his suquet of espardeneyes, uni and lobster, which was served inside an uni shell. His take on the Catalonian stew was warm, creamy and pleasant, a nice contrast from the extreme flavors in the dish before it.

  • WD-50's Wylie Dufresne's sole dish of the night was a corned beef cheek with banana-horseradish, garnished with a crispy tuile of sorts that resembled the texture of a Thai shrimp chip. The flavors here all melded together better than we thought they would, though they weren't as memorable as some of the others of the night.

  • Next chef Dave Beran presented this roast squab with red carrots and Japanese maple, which was served with talons intact (and the head on the plate), and the body of the bird presented in the middle of the table with a bunch of roasted thyme. The squab breast itself was beautifully cooked (if you've never had it, it's like a cross between duck and quail, taste-wise) but as far as eating the body was concerned, we found it to be mostly inedible.

  • For the first of two desserts, Empellón pastry chefs Lauren Resler and Isabel Coss created this persimmon tart with goat cheese, honey sorbet, chestnut and ginger. The tart itself was flaky and puff pastrylike, and all the flavors largely worked really well together, though we found the goat cheese to be a bit overpowering.

  • For the final course of the night, chef Alex Stupak took the reins to close out the meal, presenting lemon curd with meringue and brown butter. It was pleasing and rich, and the lemon curd provided just the right amount of tartness to counterbalance all the fatty flavors. A great capper to the complex "kamikaze-style" menu.