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Chef Daniel Humm's no meat philosophy

In honour of Eleven Madison Park's 25th anniversary, the chef and his team have crafted a retrospective menu that is part victory lap, part impassioned argument for the future

Daniel Humm sees himself as a craftsman and is too modest to call what he does art. But he started in the business at 14, won his first Michelin star in his 20s, and counts Picasso among his inspirations. (Eleven Madison Park)(HT_PRINT)

By Bloomberg

LAST PUBLISHED 28.09.2023  |  02:00 PM IST

Around six months ago, when Eleven Madison Park Executive Chef and owner Daniel Humm and his team began planning the menu that would serve as a journey through the restaurant’s 25 years of existence, they had to face a question.

“Are we going to do meat?" the group asked among themselves, according to Humm.

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In 2021, Humm and his team sent shockwaves through the world of fine dining by pivoting to an all-vegan menu, forgoing even butter in its $730 ( 60,734 approx.) prix fixe tasting menu for two (wine not included). At the time, Humm explained the choice through the lens of sustainability. There were critics: The New York Times and Eater each issued scathing, highly publicized reviews.

Two years later, the furor has died down. Humm, speaking to us over a cappuccino inside his airy dining room, with its views across Madison Square Park, is eager to move forward—in part by looking back, in part by making a statement about the future. “What we really wanted to show was that this didn’t happen overnight," he says. “Our plant-based journey was happening all along. We’ve been pushing in this direction with vegetables, seeing how far we can go." 

There will be no meat on the anniversary menu, which will be offered from October 3-31 for $375 ( 31,200) per person. (The bar tasting, which is an abbreviated version of the 25th anniversary menu, will cost $205 ( 17,056) before drinks.)  

Notwithstanding perpetual rumors to the contrary, Humm adds, Eleven Madison Park will never again serve meat or butter. “No, no, no," he says. “Not here."

Dressed in an immaculate white chef’s uniform, he takes us into his kitchen for an exclusive preview of his retrospective menu. His culinary team, including Chef de Cuisine Dominique Roy, Chief Culinary Officer Mike Pyers and Creative Culinary Director Josh Harnden, project a relaxed professionalism as they lead Humm through six of the 11 greatest hit courses the restaurant plans to serve. (The six sampled by Bloomberg constitute the working template for the bar menu.)

The group serves the dishes with a friendly but clinical air, like scientists who’ve been working together in a lab for years—which, in a way, they are. A shockingly beautiful carrot is politely ground into tartare by General Manager Andrew Kuhl, who is wearing a double-breasted suit, and we are invited to mix it with bowls of pre-measured ingredients, like mustard and grated horseradish, ourselves. It’s crunchy and creamy at the same time, with a gentle tanginess and depth that feels both rich and nourishing. Swirls of laminated bread appear alongside the sunflower butter that’s famous on Instagram, and truffled half-moon raviolis filled with decadent “cheese" melt away gloriously on the tongue. Dessert, an apple doughnut bedecked with a cabochon jewel of cinnamon ice cream, is more custard than dough. 

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In the background, glass-doored refrigerators that once were lined with ducks showcase radishes, sunflowers and garlic. On shelves, there are boxes designed by the artist Rashid Johnson, a friend of Humm’s, that are used for table side food presentation. Chefs freeze-dry vegetables and fill vast trays of incredible-looking heirloom tomatoes, using measuring tools to ensure precise thickness.

Despite having tasted many of the dishes “like 300 times," Humm still has tweaks. Biting into a savory black-and-white cookie, served in a pastry box reminiscent of William Greenberg bakery, Humm’s face initially remains blank as he chews through the cookie’s cashew base, made with a toasted yeast that gives the cookie a distinctly cheese-like flavor. “It’s super delicate, and it’s beautiful," he says, thinking out loud to Laura Cronin, the executive pastry chef. Brock Middleton, the fermentation sous chef who helped create many of the restaurant’s plant-based staples, such as the cashew cheese, stands nearby.

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“But I think there needs to be a flavor where I can be like, ‘This is what I’m tasting.’" That flavor, he suggests, could be sesame. “I want every ingredient to taste like what the ingredient is, but I also want every dish to be about the one thing I’m tasting," he says.

Humm, a former professional cyclist, is decisive and driven about his food—and views challenges like endurance races. Having begun his first executive chef position at the cult favorite Gasthaus zum Gupf in St. Gallen, in his native Switzerland (where at the age of 24 he won his first Michelin star), he went to San Francisco’s Campton Place, which was promptly awarded four stars by the San Francisco Chronicle. 

Humm says he’s focused on choosing a classic food—once a chicken or a duck, now a mushroom or a carrot — and reinventing it. “I actually love the challenge of taking something everyone knows and elevating it to a place where it’s like, ‘Oh my God,’" he says. “It’s like in design: Every designer has done a chair. It’s kind of like that."

Around that time, when Humm was 28, Danny Meyer, the founder and executive chairman of Union Square Hospitality Group and then owner of Eleven Madison Park, reached out to Humm to transform the menu, which featured French brasserie staples like steak frites and gougeres. “It was doing well," Meyer says in an interview. “But I wanted to strive for more. That’s when I scoured the entire country to find where this chef would be who could take it further."

The only problem? Humm didn’t know who Meyer was. “I asked around. I was like, ‘Who is this guy … Dan?’ And people were, like, ‘Take the call,’" Humm recalls drily. He moved to New York at the end of 2005 and walked into the restaurant with Meyer. “We looked at each other and we said: ‘Let’s make this into one of the great restaurants in the world.’"

By 2012, the restaurant had been awarded three Michelin stars, and Humm had accrued a reputation for excellence and inventiveness. (In 2011, Meyer sold the restaurant to Humm and his then-business partner, Will Guidara.)

But what skyrocketed Humm and his restaurant to global fame was the No. 1 ranking on the World’s Best Restaurant list in 2017. “I knew intellectually that these awards on their own are not that meaningful," he says. “But it’s very powerful, because it’s measurable. And it’s powerful to tell your team, ‘Hey, this is what we’re reaching for, this is what we’re trying to do." 

Opportunities, he says, came pouring in: TV shows, books, restaurants around the world, Eleven Madison’s name on products.

But within three years, the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown brought Humm’s restaurant to its knees. It turned out that Eleven Madison Park, the crown jewel of New York’s culinary establishment, was no better off than a neighborhood salad bar: Within weeks of shutting down, the restaurant was out of money.

Humm says that a week into the pandemic, he got a call from his chief financial officer, Marcia Regen. “She’s saying: ‘I don’t know how to pay our bills,’" he recalls. “‘Our rent here is expensive, and if we don’t have income, I don’t know how to pay it.’" It got to the point, he continues, that they began the process of filing for bankruptcy. “We went down the line with lawyers to figure out going bankrupt," he says. “It’s a process I don’t wish on anyone."

The only thing that saved the business, Humm says, was that its landlord, SL Green Realty, allowed the restaurant to exist rent-free until it reopened. Humm also found a purpose for his vast, empty restaurant, transforming it into a commissary kitchen that produced almost 3,000 meals a day to feed hungry New Yorkers. 

That was when Humm decided to go vegan. “People come here with an expectation that I choose the best ingredients," he explains, saying he could “no longer put meat on the table and say that I stand behind it." That said, he continues, an all-vegan fine dining menu would never have been possible before he met the pandemic. “You had to kind of get to a place of almost losing everything to be like: ‘Okay,’" he says.

Then the reviews came in, with Pete Wells of the New York Times writing that the restaurant’s signature beet dish “tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint." After that review, Humm says, bookings plummeted. “It’s hard to be criticized," Humm says.

Still, he professes no regrets. “We took a big stand. We’ve lost a lot of business," he says. “Can you find places to criticize us? I’m sure we’re not perfect, but we’re definitely very committed."

The criticism ratcheted even higher when it was revealed by Wells that EMP was still serving meat and dairy in its private dining room—or, in the words of the website Eater, maintaining “a secret meat Room for the Rich." At the time, Humm and company remained silent and let the controversy run its course. Now, he wants to set the record straight with Bloomberg.

“We all try to make changes. We're not perfect. A regular person doesn’t suddenly become a vegan in a day. It’s the same here," he says. “We’re also responsible for 200 people who work here. And no matter how amazing our idea is, if this isn't succeeding business-wise, then our whole mission is irrelevant. Then we will have made no progress."

When the restaurant reopened after the lockdowns, the private dining room continued to serve meat for a while. “Our decision was: ‘This is an insane risk to turn this restaurant into a plant-based restaurant. Is anyone going to come?’ We didn’t know," Humm explains. “But we have upstairs, we had bookings from prior to the pandemic. They already paid deposits. We don’t need to rock that boat. Let’s give them what they had booked two years before and offer a plant-based option. If they insist on meat, that’s not a big deal."

The harsh coverage, he admits, “was so hurtful." They powered on. It was an endurance race, after all.

It is with that same commitment—to innovation, to sustainability, to (near) perfection—that Humm and his team have approached the 25th anniversary menu.

Guests will be treated to the carrot tartare we have tasted. When the dish was first introduced in 2012, it was served with a quail egg that’s now been dropped — but with the multitude of accompanying garnishes, including crispy millet, chives, sunflower seeds, smoked dried carrot and pickled mustard seeds, it’s unlikely to be missed.

Wine pairings for the menu include a syrah from the Rhône producer Jean-Pierre Monier, which mingles with the complex aromas of the kitchen, and a riesling, the Weingut Jäger, which is dry but notably floral.

The most exciting of the dishes we sample—one that was introduced last year—is a rectangle of spectacularly flavorful black maitake, king oyster and portobello mushrooms that have been confited and then skewered with housemade, fried seitan. It is then grilled over Japanese charcoal with a maple tare glaze. It is more mushroom-y than any mushroom we’ve ever tasted—and in this regard, utterly unique. Adding to its singularity: The skewer is smoked in a service piece made by Johnson, the artist, and served tableside by taking it out of the artwork and  garnishing with juniper, coriander, sancho kosho and pine powder. 

“It’s very poetic to cook with vegetables," Humm says. “Before, we thought we might be limited, leaving all these things behind. But in fact, when we look back, we feel like we were limited before."

Alongside is a curated cocktail list. “For our 25th anniversary, we’re going to be highlighting all the past head bartenders here," says Rich Millwater, the restaurant’s current bearer of that title. His contribution to the lineup is the Shiso, a subtle, citrusy drink that includes pisco, olive oil-washed vodka, Velvet Falernum, lemon and pear brandy, served on the rocks. 

The menu, Humm explains, isn’t so much a victory lap as a meditation on the restaurant’s evolution. “Before, it was about the awards; it was a lot about ego," he says. “The team today? We’re climbing a whole different mountain that’s much bigger." Eleven Madison Park, Humm concludes, “is much more about progress than it is about perfection."

Meyer, for his part, mostly agrees. “You can’t write about Daniel Humm without talking about evolution," he says. “He’s constantly growing and learning and curious." Regarding the vegan menu, Meyer continues: “I know he feels passionately about it, and I don’t think he’s doing it as a gimmick." For that very reason, he says, “I wouldn’t take a lifetime lease on this menu. But I wouldn’t say it’s going to change tomorrow."

Here’s the full 25th anniversary menu, along with the dates the original dishes debuted:

Savory Black and White (2012)
Hors D’oeuvres Tower (2016 ):  Mushroom Arancini with Parsley Aioli​; Parsnip Tart with Black Truffle and Thyme’; Apple with Caramel and Amaranth’ Waldorf Salad with Grape, Walnut and 'Blue Cheese'​
Carrot Tartare with Apple, Pickled Mustard Seeds, and Horseradish (2012 )
Bread and Sunflower Butter (2021 )
Tonburi with Avocado and Cucumber (2023)
White Truffle Tortellini with Chestnut and “Ricotta" (2009)
Cauliflower with Golden Raisin and Vadouvan Curry (2014)
Celery Root with Black Truffle (2015)
Grilled Maitake Mushroom Skewer with Juniper and Pine (2022)
Apple Doughnut with Cinnamon Ice Cream (2017)
Name that Milk (2012): A riff on a past dessert in partnership with Mast Brothers chocolate; guests received four chocolates and had to guess what it was made with. The dessert’s anniversary twist will now feature four plant-based milks.

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