An Interview with Daniel Humm, Eleven Madison Park | Anne E. McBride

from Gastronomica 12:2

Anne E. McBride: How would you describe the culture of Eleven Madison Park?

Daniel Humm: When we first started here [in 2006], Moira Hodgson at the New York Observer gave us three and a half stars out of four. At that time, that was way too good. But one of the last lines was, “I wish this place would have a little bit more Miles Davis.” We always want to learn from reviews and articles what we can do better, what we can improve. That line really resonated with us, and we started to research Miles Davis and try to figure out what Moira Hodgson meant by that. We learned how amazing Miles was, and his music, and we came up with a list of eleven words that were most often used to describe him and his style, such as “forward-moving,” “endless reinvention,” “collaborative.” Five years ago these eleven words became our guiding light, and the list has been hanging in our kitchen ever since. If you want to create something unique, I think it’s important that you take inspiration from something outside of your own world. Because otherwise, you’re just going to become like any other restaurant.

AEM: How do you define Eleven Madison Park’s point of view?

DH: I think one thing is important to us: We want to almost invite people to our home. And although the execution of every step needs to be intentional and perfect, we also want there to be a human quality to it, a really friendly quality, and a fun quality so that people have a good time and enjoy being here—both the employees and the guests. We’re really trying to blend coming home and going out. When you walk into this room, the high ceilings, the china we’re using, the silverware, the glassware: everything feels like “going out.” But the human interaction should feel like coming home. That’s why there’s always somebody at the door to open it for you. That’s why you’re not walking to a podium to get to your table. The cooks come to the table and explain the food. They might not be as perfect as a waiter is, but we believe that a cook has a certain passion because he created or prepared the food.

AEM: How important is a cook’s comfort with guests in terms of your hiring?

DH: It’s part of it. The dining room has to start in the kitchen. It’s good for the culture; the cooks also find out what it’s like to have a difficult table, and they know how to react in the kitchen. It’s really important to us not to have any separation between the cooks and the waitstaff. We used to call it the back of the house and the front of the house. We stopped doing that. It’s now the kitchen and the dining room. It’s these little things that culturally are really important, I think.

Daniel Humm in his kitchen. Photograph by Francesco Tonelli © 2010

AEM: What are you looking for in your employees?

DH: In our restaurant, people have to be passionate. That’s really the key ingredient for an employee. The rest, we can teach. Also they have to be good people, and not just because we tell them to be. If somebody walks on the street, drops a scarf on the ground and doesn’t see it, the person who is going to get it, pick it up, and give it back is the employee we want. Then we know they will pay that kind of attention here. If something is dirty, they clean it, and not because it’s their job.

AEM: Let’s talk about your food. How do you choose whether to use local ingredients or imported ones?

DH: We use an imported ingredient only if it’s something very special or something better than what we could get here. We constantly think about that. This year, for us, the focus is New York. We’ve been studying a lot of New York food history, dishes that were invented in the city. And we’re working on a second cookbook called I Love New York. We’re meeting lots of local people doing interesting things. For instance, we serve Cognac now, but we’re working on our own version of Applejack, which we want to serve in hand-blown bottles made by a glassblower in Brooklyn. Will [Guidara, the general manager] and I have formed a new restaurant group, called Made Nice. We’re working on a project in the NoMad Hotel, just four blocks away in a beautiful historic landmark building. The cooking will be just as involved as at Eleven Madison Park, but the plating will take fewer steps. We want to continue the same philosophy with seasonality, with New York farms, but the food will be healthy and light, with a lot of options.

AEM: Is your aesthetic, your way of approaching food, more American or European? How do you situate yourself?

DH: I don’t know if you can categorize it in those terms. I think my approach is more me than ever. When you start out as a chef, it’s hard, because you have to come up with new dishes every season. The cooks, the guests, everyone expects that. But suddenly the process became very natural, very organic. The team also learned how it works. Something they’ve seen somewhere else and want to make here is not going to feel right. Over the last two years we have really found where we want to be—who we are.

AEM: Did getting a four-star review from the New York Times in 2009 have anything to do with that?

DH: Getting four stars gives you confidence. That review came at a very crucial point for the restaurant. The economy had tanked. Eight months earlier we had been operating as a four-star restaurant, even though we didn’t have four stars, because that’s what it takes to get them. We were not full, and that was hard. For a while there, Will and Danny and I would look at each other and say, “This is not going to change soon. We have to change course.” Our food costs and labor costs were too high, and not enough money was coming in, but everyone believed in the restaurant. We kept pushing and pushing, and then [then–New York Times critic Frank] Bruni starting coming. He came five or six times. It was intense. In the end, yes, we got four stars. Since that day we’ve been fully booked.

AEM: You also went from one to three stars in the 2012 Michelin Guide New York City. Did you expect that?

DH: We were hoping that we would get a better rating, but going up by two stars was unexpected. We were really happy, of course. You can feel the excitement of the people coming in—it’s the place to be, even for people who already had reservations. Our team is really proud; everyone is standing up a little straighter, pushing a little harder. For me, as a European chef, three stars is everything. You work for it your whole life; it’s a dream.

AEM: You do a lot of sports—you even run marathons—and you’re always aiming for the next big thing. You’re quite competitive! Have you always been?

DH: Yes. As a teenager I was on the Swiss National Team for mountain biking. For a long time it looked like I would be a professional cyclist. When I was fifteen, everyone in my family would have said that’s what was going to happen. Then I started competing at the European level; I was always in the top ten but never in the top three. The guys who were beating me were on another level. I felt that I could never beat them, and to be number ten in the world in cycling is not very good. So I stopped cycling and started cooking.

AEM: Are there ways that you feel being Swiss influences you?

DH: I’m really happy that I grew up in Switzerland. Certain qualities that I learned growing up there make me unique here in the u.s., I think. But I love, love, love New York. I’m still Swiss, but I like to think of myself as international. In Switzerland, people are a little closed-minded, and I don’t really fit with that. It’s easy to make friends here; in Switzerland, everything is kind of complicated and everyone is very critical. I try to be critical within my own kitchen, but I don’t like to be critical of people or other restaurants, because everyone should be able to express themselves the way they want.

AEM: You changed the format of the menu in 2010. Can you describe what it looks like now?

DH: We have sixteen words on the menu, which represent sixteen dishes: four meats, four vegetables, four fish, and four desserts. Each word is the key ingredient, and the dish is based around that ingredient. We also ask our guests if there’s something they like, don’t like, or really like. We want it to be a dialogue. We want to get a little bit of feedback from our diners, and based on that, we create the menu.

AEM: Does this mean that, as a diner, I should have a pretty clear idea of what I want?

DH: Not necessarily. We started this menu because 80 percent of our guests ordered the tasting menu. So we were thinking about going to a tasting menu only. But then, at the last minute, we thought we could do something more creative. I remember going to France on food trips, where one night after the other you eat squab because the tasting menus in all these restaurants have squab. I don’t care what the squab is prepared with, but after three times, I just don’t want any more squab. So wouldn’t it be cool if I could just say I wanted beef! I don’t care what it comes with. That’s kind of the idea: that the guests can choose their favorite things and then be surprised.

AEM: How have your guests reacted to having all these options?

DH: Actually, people have fewer special requests than before. It’s pretty amazing. Most people say, “We’re totally in your hands.” When you go to a restaurant somewhere in France, you’re really excited. You book the table way ahead. You get into the car, you drive for three hours, you can’t wait, you’re open and ready, and all you’re thinking about is the experience. In New York, it’s very different. Sometimes people are in a meeting until seven o’clock. They’re fifteen minutes late for their reservation. They come here rushed, they sit down, and they’re still thinking about the meeting; it’s challenging. What the menu has done is make people engage. All of a sudden they have to think about food. For a lot of people, that moment makes the stress of the day disappear.

AEM: Did you ever imagine when you did your apprenticeship that you would be where you are now?

DH: No, never. When I started cooking, I was learning a craft. I never knew that being a chef could be what it is today. I started cooking because I really loved being in the kitchen. I loved the atmosphere, loved the ingredients and the fact that I could create something with them. In the beginning it was not even so much about creation. It was more about following and mastering a simple recipe. When you do the same recipe fifty times and it turns out differently based on very small details, that’s what really fascinated me about cooking.

AEM: What about now? What keeps you passionate?

DH: It’s the food and the people, the same things that got me into the business. I’m most comfortable in the kitchen because of the people and because of the food. I feel free, in a way.

AEM: Today, though, there are so many other elements to a chef’s career. Are you comfortable with media attention?

DH: In the beginning you say, “Oh, maybe I need to do more publicity. Maybe I need to do TV.” I’m so glad I never did. Reviews really are the best press for the business. Beyond that, I just try to be selective. In a way it’s nice when people get to know you a little bit, because it is about relationships. I try to go to the dining room a lot to talk to the guests, but I’m not going to meet every person. So if people can read about me and about our philosophy, then maybe that can enhance their experience.

AEM: Do you see yourself being a chef for another twenty, thirty years?

DH: Absolutely. I don’t know anything else. But my happiest moments are when I’m riding my mountain bike or when I’m running. You’re running through the woods and you’re dirty and you’re up on a mountain looking down and it’s beautiful and all you have is a water bottle—that is the best moment ever. I don’t really need much to be happy. I need a lot, but not material things. Family is very important. The people I work with are very important.

AEM: What you describe sounds like moments with no pressure. Does life as a chef ever get overwhelming?

DH: Yes—that’s why I need to find a balance. New York, in general, can be overwhelming. The traffic, the weather, the people, the this, the that. Sometimes I just want to scream!

AEM: You’re here six days a week. Do you need to be?

DH: I don’t need to be here—I want to be here. The restaurant can run without me. It has to, at this point. But I love being here. Work has never really felt like work to me. I do take time in the afternoon, if my wife comes in the city with our daughters, for example.

AEM: What makes Eleven Madison Park a success?

DH: The success of this restaurant is really a team sport—quite different from cycling. Will and I, we’ve been working together now for six years. John Ragan, our wine director, has also been with us for a long time, as have other key members. Will and I are very, very close, and I think the restaurant has been such a success because we have each other. He makes me better and I make him better. And that’s really awesome.

AEM: Last October Danny Meyer sold Eleven Madison Park to you and Will Guidara. How did that sale come to be?

DH: We had been discussing it for a long time, and we came to the conclusion that this would be the right thing, the best thing, for the restaurant. Danny is very close to us, like family, so in a way it’s like he’s given the restaurant to the next generation. Will and I always worked like owners but had a sort of insurance with Danny. If we had gone in a totally wrong direction, he would have pulled us back. But it was time to make the change. Danny trusted us, and that gave us confidence.

We’ve been here six years, which is a long time for New York. The restaurant is better than it has ever been; what we decided we wanted to do together, we did, and now we can begin to grow. I’m a little nervous, but very excited.