Push Project 2013: Four Top Chefs Join Forces
“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