Daniel Humm, the chef who creates art
Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park on why dropping out of school was his best decision ever, and how art has inspired the minimalism in his food
I dropped out of school when I was 14. It was the best decision I ever made," says Daniel Humm, 41. “My father, an architect, was against my decision but I stuck to it. I learnt so much more outside school than in school."
What he learnt after leaving school was cooking, and, today, Humm, who was in India recently as part of The World Series by American Express, is a three-Michelin-star chef and the co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, the No.1 restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
India, says Humm, was a dream destination owing to its rich culture and food scene. “I always dreamt of seeing it with my own eyes and tasting it," he says.
Over the two weeks that he travelled in India, Humm visited Jaipur, Jodhpur, Chandigarh, Mumbai and Delhi, and insists he only ate Indian food.
“I tried to discover this place in as many ways as possible, food being the biggest motivator," he says. “I had really good meals wherever I went. In Delhi, I had a meal at Bukhara and Karim and yesterday, I had dinner at Indian Accent. So the food in Delhi has been really great."
His favourites, he says, were the different kinds of breads, especially the lachha paratha. “I had amazing samosas in the streets of Jodhpur. I loved the pani puri too," he says.
What impressed Humm most on his maiden India trip were the different cooking techniques. “The way they make the different breads, especially the stuffed breads, in the tandoor, it is incredible," he says. Humm plans to take the technique to New York City along with amchur, the dried mango powder that he tasted in India for the first time—he was blown away by its flavour.
The Swiss chef describes his food as “elemental". After spending time understanding the ingredients and techniques and adding to the plate of food, Humm says he has finally, in the last five years or so, learnt to take things away from the plate. To draw a comparison, he talks about Pablo Picasso and his work The Bull.
In The Bull, which has become a case study in modern abstract art, Picasso, through a series of 11 lithographs created around 1945, tries to get to the elemental spirit of the animal. By the time he reached the last sketch, there were “like six lines left that are the most powerful".
Humm’s food is similar. The Halibut Poached with Variations of Turnips is just that—halibut, turnip and just enough jus on a white plate. The Portobello Mushroom cooked “En Croute" with Black Truffle features on a white plate a piece of mushroom, a medallion of truffle and jus.
Humm also talks about the works of Lucio Fontana. In his Spatial Concept series, Fontana “took a knife and cut the canvas so there is this slide in the canvas. That’s one of the most important artworks of the last century and it’s so simple".
“When you can do something very powerful with very little, for me, that’s kind of magic," says Humm.
But in creating food so elemental, there is no margin for error. “Because you know you have nothing to hide behind," says Humm. “When you have just two things on the plate, that’s shockingly simple and you have to convince the diner that this is the best plate of food, it better be that bloody good."
Almost as important is the interaction of the ingredients on the plate. Humm says his first memory of “interactive" food is of eating lettuce with different sauces.
“I remember when I was probably 7 or 8, we once went to a restaurant, which rarely happened, there were lettuce leaves in a plate and next to it were two different kinds of sauces. We could actually dip the lettuce in the sauce and eat. For me, it was the first time I saw that food can be playful," recalls Humm. “It intrigued me."
And it stayed on in his memory. Food as a career, however, cooked only in his subconscious till he was 21.
At 6ft, 4 inches, Humm is tall and athletically built. When we met, he was dressed casually in a white, crew neck T-shirt and jeans and white Adidas sneakers, with uncombed hair and a receding hairline.
When he dropped out of school, Humm wanted to become a professional cyclist. He also had a side job in a local kitchen. “I had to make some money and the only job I could find was in the kitchen," he says. Over time in that kitchen, he fell in love with food. When he was 21, Humm suffered a bad crash that ended his cycling career, and that is when he started pursuing cooking seriously.
He went and learnt from the best people in Switzerland, and within the next five years, moved to the US. It was a bold move for someone who couldn’t speak English.
“I was young and curious. I had nothing to lose," he says. “In the beginning, I didn’t want to go.... But when I saw the food scene in the US, I was blown away and I decided to stick around. The rest, as they say, is history. It happened really fast."
Humm’s success and people’s expectations from his food have resulted in a certain kind of pressure which he enjoys, rather thrives under.
“Of course there’s pressure. Our team has worked for a decade to reach where we are. But the positive thing is that the possibilities today are endless. We also have a restaurant that’s full so we have some money to spend on research and development," says Humm.
“But I feel, in so many ways, that I’m just at the beginning of my food journey and this trip to India shows that. When I travel here and when I talk to the chefs about their food and their techniques, I feel like a little kid who knows nothing."