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Best and Beyond: Eleven Madison Park’s Daniel Humm

“Only in the last two years have I found myself as a chef”

The world’s No.1 restaurant recently reopened showcasing a freshly refined menu. In the final instalment of our Best and Beyond series, presented by Miele, we discover what drives its Swiss-born chef and co-owner Daniel Humm relentlessly forward.

In Daniel Humm’s insightful new book, Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter, he uses the German word ‘leidenschaft’ to help explain his approach to the profession. Broadly meaning passion, leidenschaft more literally translates as ‘suffering’. “If you are truly passionate about something, you must ask yourself if you are willing to suffer for it,” he says.

“If you are truly passionate about something, you must ask yourself if you are willing to suffer for it”

In common with others that reach the very pinnacle of their art, Swiss-born Humm is dedicated to the point of suffering. He is supremely passionate not only about the craft of cooking, but also the responsibility of creating memorable, as-near-as-perfect experiences for his guests.

Meanwhile, in the foreword to the same book, Humm’s business partner and Eleven Madison Park co-owner Will Guidara writes of Humm: “Yes, he is focused and uncompromising. But he is also kind, gentle, warm, caring and openly emotional.”

The assessment is doubly revealing. First, it acknowledges Humm’s human side: he is not only driven but also empathetic and creative – simultaneously an artist and an artisan. Furthermore, such eulogising is reflective of the duo’s deep personal bond. In the restaurant world, it is very rare to find an establishment run jointly by the chef and restaurateur, with their respective domains given the same weight and prominence in status and decision-making.

Eleven Madison Park is famously one of those places, and has gained its status as The World’s Best Restaurant 2017 by building everything on such duality. “Our best work comes when we really challenge each other,” acknowledges the 41-year-old Humm.

The newly refurbished dining room at Eleven Madison Park

Destination New York

In his teenage years, Humm was an aspiring professional cyclist – a sport that demands physical and mental endurance like few others – before a combination of injury and a tough break-up led him towards conquering the kitchen instead.

After an apprenticeship in some of Switzerland’s most accomplished kitchens, Humm gained his first Michelin star aged 24. Just a couple of years later, he was lured over the Atlantic to Campton Place in San Francisco, where he rapidly developed a reputation as the hottest new talent in town.

New York restaurateur Danny Meyer brought Humm over to the East Coast to be chef de cuisine at Eleven Madison Park in 2006 and soon after the partnership with Guidara was born. In 2011, the pair bought Eleven Madison Park from Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, granting them full freedom to shape their own future narrative.

Over the last 11 years of Eleven Madison Park’s history, Humm’s food has followed an intriguing path of evolution. By the time he arrived in New York, he had carved out a distinctive style of neoclassicism, with dishes such as his roast duck with honey and lavender beginning to become a signature.

Reservations at the grandly proportioned Art Deco dining room within Manhattan’s Met Life building became increasingly sought after. In 2009, New York Times critic Frank Bruni elevated Eleven Madison Park to its fabled ‘four-star’ status for the first time. In 2010, Eleven Madison Park made its debut on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

Around the same time, the pair decided to tighten the restaurant’s focus around its New York location. Witness the introduction of dishes such as black and white cookies, Long Island clam bake, and the NY picnic basket. At one point, the Big Apple story was delivered with local history lessons and various tableside theatrics but, of late, the service style has been reined in for a less scripted, more intuitive approach.

Humm is not a chef, or a person, prone to dramatic innovation in the mould of Ferran Adrià: he prefers endless evolution and the pursuit of perfection. But his understated food philosophy does not diminish this giant of a man’s status as a bright star in the food firmament.

Duck with Rhubarb

Developing a culinary language

Despite having worked in professional kitchens for a quarter of a century, Daniel Humm believes he is only now coming of age. “I feel like only in the last two years have I found myself as a chef,” he says in his earnest, softly spoken Swiss-American drawl. He cites one particular dish – celery root with black truffles – as representing a turning point, in part because it is a dish of just two ingredients. Cooked in a pig’s bladder, the technique is complex and nuanced, but the final plating verges on the austere.

“I always wanted to cook in this sort of ‘reduced’ way, but I was never able to do it. I never felt my dishes were complete. I needed to add another garnish, another ingredient or another sauce for the dish to stand out. When I created this dish, I knew it was truly what I had been searching for,” he says.

He now insists that all new creations at the restaurant are built on four fundamentals: deliciousness, beauty, creativity and intention. While that quartet might not sound like the most radical criteria, finding the correct balance of all four in every dish is reshaping Humm’s entire approach, with outstanding results.

Humm’s plating is meticulous, as you might expect from an intense perfectionist, but also now distinctively minimalist. “A few years ago I wanted the food to look like it took 20 chefs to put together, but that’s not where I’m at any more.” The creative element means that every dish must have an element of surprise, a combination that is unusual – “something that really adds to the dialogue of moving food forward.”

When he says that each dish must have ‘intention’, Humm means it has to have a purpose or a story beyond the immediate. “The story could be as simple as two ingredients grown on the same farm, it could be a childhood memory, but somehow you need to explain why this dish exists,” he says.

Ultimately, if the food does not delight the taste buds, the chef is as dismissive as most diners would surely be. “I want my food to be beautiful, for it to be creative, for it to be intentional, but it can never be any of those if it affects how delicious the dish is.”

Savory Black & White

New dishes, new era

Just weeks after being named the No.1 in The World’s 50 Restaurants, Eleven Madison Park closed for the summer of 2017 to undergo an extensive refit. Guidara now has a reshaped and refurbished restaurant in which his team can create the extra-special moments it desires for its guests. In turn, Humm oversees a bespoke domain out of which his brigade serves a pared back 8-10 course menu.

New dishes include a stunning smoked sturgeon cheesecake with caviar; a whole-roasted kabocha squash served with a bacon and seaweed broth; and a cheese course – cheddar with pretzel and beer – that invokes Alpine fondues, French toast and emblematic US snacks all at the same time. These newcomers sit alongside updated variations of some of Humm’s megahits including the roast duck and aforementioned celery root dish.

The menu feels like the ultimate expression of Humm as a chef and Eleven Madison Park as one of the outstanding restaurants of its era. Having been named the best in the world, this new manifestation seeks to push Eleven Madison Park beyond any previous limitations. With Humm and Guidara at the helm, who knows what higher gastronomic planes it can reach?

Read the full version of this interview on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants website.

--Images: ©Gary He & ©Eleven Madison Park