Daniel Humm on the Plant-Based Future of Fine Dining
Throughout his life, Daniel Humm has constantly pushed himself to the edge. So when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, he understood the importance of a quick pivot. Forced to temporarily close Eleven Madison Park, his three-Michelin-star Manhattan restaurant—a perennial fine-dining favorite, named the No. 1 restaurant in the world in 2017—he had to lay off all of his staff. Facing bankruptcy, Humm reflected on the many food-related issues that the pandemic was heightening, including meat-production carbon emissions, food insecurity, broken supply chains, and the problems attendant with certain traditional “luxury” dishes, such as caviar and foie gras, both previously signatures of his establishment. The extremity and precariousness of the situation gave him the courage to boldly transition Eleven Madison Park to an entirely plant-based menu when the restaurant reopened earlier this year, in June. It’s one of the many ways that Humm is using food to shift perspectives, in the hopes that his approach will ripple out to others in the industry and beyond, and effect meaningful change. In his three-decade-long career, Humm says he’s never felt more satisfaction in the kitchen than right now—and that his best work is yet to come.
Dogged determination, a willingness to endure discomfort, and an inescapable internal call to follow his instincts are chief components to Humm’s success. His resilience was already apparent in his 20s, when Humm, a competitive cyclist, survived a crash in his native Switzerland; recovering in the hospital, he decided to channel his passion for bike racing into cooking. In his first executive chef position, at age 24, he earned a Michelin star for Gasthaus zum Gupf, an inn near St. Gallen in the Swiss Alps. He went on to helm the kitchen at Campton Place in San Francisco, where he relocated to in 2003 and proceeded to hone his minimalist, pared-down cooking style. Three years later, at the invitation of restaurateur Danny Meyer, Humm moved to New York to become the executive chef of Eleven Madison Park, which he now owns. He also operates Davies and Brook, an upscale restaurant inside London’s Claridge’s Hotel. (Earlier this month, Humm announced that he will be parting ways with the restaurant at the end of the year, because his plant-based mission is not a direction that Davies and Brook wants to follow at this time.) Throughout, he has worked to perfect his artful and intentional food, made with an emphasis on pure, seasonal ingredients.
Recently, Humm has modified his cooking for a higher purpose. Sixteen days after Eleven Madison Park shut down, he hired back part of its staff and reopened its kitchen as a commissary in partnership with Rethink Food—a nonprofit started in 2017 by Eleven Madison Park alum Matt Jozwiak, who asked Humm to join as co-founder in 2020, that’s dedicated to creating more equitable food systems—to prepare and deliver meals to food-insecure New Yorkers. Earlier this year, Humm launched Eleven Madison Truck, a vehicle that serves meals to Rethink Food’s community partners, including those in areas of the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens.
With Eleven Madison Park’s meatless dining-room tasting menu (which retains its upscale $335 price tag), Humm has created a circular ecosystem in which the purchase of each dinner funds the production and distribution of meals for food-insecure New Yorkers, delivered by the food truck. The restaurant’s vegetable-focused strategy has precedents, of course, but the tactic has been echoed by those of other high-profile restaurants, including London’s Gauthier Soho brasserie, the Michelin-three-star SingleThread in California, and Sapid, Alain Ducasse’s new restaurant in Paris. Far from a publicity stunt, it’s a move that Humm believes could transform the role of food beyond the plate and lead to environmental and health impacts far outside of the restaurant world.
On this episode, Humm speaks with Spencer about cooking and hospitality as performance, why time is his most luxurious ingredient, and what he would say to New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who recently wrote a cantankerous review of Eleven Madison Park’s updated menu.
Humm speaks about his decision to eliminate meat from Eleven Madison Park, his experience working with Buddhist monks on R&D for the menu, and the role that time plays in vegetable-focused cooking.
Humm explains the performative elements of cooking, and how he creates an alchemy with umami in his dishes. He also details how the pandemic gave him the courage to bring Eleven Madison Park’s plant-based menu to life.
Humm talks about his lifelong passion for art, and how several artworks he commissioned for Eleven Madison Park embody what happens in its kitchen.
Humm recalls his childhood in Switzerland; his eventual move to the United States, where he served as executive chef at San Francisco’s Campton Place; and his path to Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park. He also reflects on how he deals with criticism, including a recent prickly review by New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells.
Humm discusses how he’s addressing food scarcity and food insecurity in New York, and why using his cooking to help local communities means more to him than any encounter he has had in the dining room.
SPENCER BAILEY: Today in the studio is the chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park. Welcome, Daniel.
DANIEL HUMM: Good to see you, Spencer.
SB: Let’s begin with your shift to a meatless, plant-based menu. You’ve spoken a bit recently [on How I Built This with Guy Raz] about how time is almost a new ingredient. So I was hoping you could go more in depth into your thinking around time in relationship to cooking and food, and how this new shift at Eleven Madison Park plays into that.
DH: Well, I think I need to start even going back a little bit further. It’s really the moment of the pandemic.
DH: When the pandemic hit, restaurants shut down pretty much immediately. And I think the world was shocked [at] how fragile the restaurant industry truly is. It was, at first, really challenging, because our restaurant and our people—that’s our family. We spend hours and hours, days, and days, and years and years with them. Many of our team come from all kinds of places around the world. So when the pandemic hit, pretty much overnight, that team broke apart. Even now, a year and a half later, that team has never come back together fully the way it was. In the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was just heartbreaking to let people go, see people leave, move away, and not know what the future was for restaurants.
I’m a co-founder of an organization called Rethink Food, and we prepare meals for food-insecure New Yorkers. I made the decision, right in the beginning of the pandemic, to turn Eleven Madison Park into a community kitchen, and started producing meals in a professional kitchen. Which was really eye-opening. It was a weird time. It was a weird time to think about luxury. It was weird to think about how much we used to obsess over food, and now [we were] seeing a whole different side of New York, of people having no food. As you know, food insecurity doubled in New York City in the beginning of the pandemic. It went from one million to two million food-insecure people, out of eight million. That’s a massive percentage of New York City.
And back even further, our restaurant was named the number one in the world in 2017. That was a lifetime goal. But when it happened, it also kind of felt empty a bit. Even at my age—young, forty-five years old—I wasn’t exactly sure how the next twenty-five years of my career were going to look like, since I felt like I’d almost achieved everything. So I was kind of looking for a new meaning.
During the pandemic, I even thought about, Oh, maybe the chapter of fine dining is closed. That was a wonderful chapter. We brought it to the top, and maybe now, my involvement with food becomes different. I realized the power of food as a language. I also thought about other issues on the planet—that food is part of it. It’s not just food insecurity, but it’s the way we farm, and the way we raise cattle, and obviously that leads a big part to global warming, and obviously waste, sustainability in general. Food has a lot of power, in that sense.
I also realized that Eleven Madison Park, as a platform, had a lot of power. And me, as a chef, had a lot of power. So I committed that if we reopened Eleven Madison Park, that we [would] go forward with a fully plant-based menu. And this is not to say we’re anti-meat, but it is to say we’re pro-planet. And if this is where we’re going, and where we need to go, I think creativity should go towards that. And then the next step was sort of like, Okay, what is luxury? Because Eleven Madison Park is a luxurious restaurant. It’s expensive to dine in. I started thinking about the luxury ingredients that we used to use. One obvious one is caviar.
DH: For me, as an expert in food, I actually have the responsibility to think about it. There is nothing luxurious about caviar at all. It’s not rare. It comes from far [away]. It’s not even delicious, when you compare it to what it once was. It’s a broken idea. It’s an old idea.
To your question about time, for me, something truly luxurious is something that I can’t get anywhere [else], something that’s truly unique that only happens in this place. And this is the time of producing a dish, the time of thinking about a recipe, the time it grows, to make something, to ferment something. So we started working with these San Buddhist monks who practice shojin [ryori] cuisine. When we worked through the whole year of the pandemic on the R and D for this menu, I always thought about time as a new ingredient, and as the most luxurious ingredient.
SB: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about these Buddhist monks. It’s pretty interesting, the history of their cuisine, but also how they think about time in the process, in the making, in the grinding.
DH: As you can imagine, it’s a sort of a Buddhistic approach, and it’s the act of cooking, of preparing the meal that’s very much part of it. It’s sort of ceremonial. Interestingly, the Buddhist monks that have been practicing for the longest are the ones actually cooking. So it’s in high regard, cuisine. And obviously in these temples, they also grow their own food very carefully.
One thing that happens every single day is grinding the sesame [seeds]. There are two types of ways that this is done. One is where the sesame gets soaked in water overnight. And then that gets ground for an hour, sitting on your knees and grinding the sesame by hand. That creates the most incredible, luscious sesame milk to make all kinds of things—sesame tofu, for example. The same thing happens with toasted sesame seeds. It gets ground into this most incredible paste, sort of like the most incredible tahini you’ve ever had. They always said, “Well, when you reopen the restaurant, you should have the guests grind the sesame for an hour before they start eating.”
DH: Clearly, we didn’t do that. I don’t think our guests would be very happy about it. But just by sitting for an hour on your knees—and by the way, it’s painful to sit on your knees for an hour, and your legs fall asleep, and it hurts, and you’re grinding. Even just moving your arms for an hour is exhausting. But it puts you into a very different mindset. This happens every day in the morning, before you even go to the kitchen. But after that process, your mind is in a different place. And in the kitchen itself, there are no machines, nothing electric. It’s all just done by hand with knives on fire. That’s how it has been cooked.
SB: The traditional process, the on-your-knees process, it makes me think a little bit of this passion you describe. There’s actually a word in German for it, leidenschaft, which is like almost hurting for your passion. You’re so passionate for this thing that you’re willing to endure discomfort and great pain, and go to great lengths to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.
DH: I think that’s very accurate.
SB: So I kind of love that you now have these Buddhist approaches, paired with a more Swiss-German approach, the leidenschaft approach.
DH: I mean, that’s just what it is, right? If you want to really achieve something great, it’s much more than a hobby. It requires you to be all in with your entire being, and that’s what makes the result so wonderful and so satisfying—if you actually had to endure some suffering along the way. That’s just how it is.
SB: I was wondering, [as far as] this shift to plant-based cooking and running a plant-based kitchen, has time become of greater concern to you without meat and fish in the picture? How does plant-based cooking shift what happens in the kitchen, and the time it takes to prepare, and make, cook…? I think it’s worth pointing out that you’re now, out of the one hundred and thirty-five Michelin three-star restaurants on earth, not a single one is vegan. So you’re the only plant-based Michelin-star restaurant at that level.
DH: In a way, it was just a regular way of creating. When we had this idea about going plant-based, it was just sort of my normal approach. When I created in the past, [it was] always sort of like the experience you’ve had, plus the moment you’re in, leads you to create a certain way. And I think the pandemic made us pause. I thought about being in the kitchen, and seeing ingredients arrive in our back door, and in thirty years, what these ingredients were, and in some cases, and how these ingredients changed, was shocking. Like, certain products are not available anymore. Certain fish used to be wild and like—
DH: Twenty kilos big. Now they’re like two pounds, and they’re farm-raised. And the way the taste has changed some of these things. I’m no expert in the global food system, but I am an expert in the kitchen that I am in every day, and I see how what we’re getting has changed. So, with that experience, [and] the pause of the pandemic, I felt very strongly that I wanted to cook with plants. When we made this announcement, I was humbled and shocked, quite frankly, by the global response. I’m not sure if there’s been a food story as big, in my lifetime, where literally every paper in the world put it on the cover, that we were going plant-based. I wasn’t even knowing that I would step on this huge stage, and now represent this whole movement. I have to say that, in a lot of ways, it’s overwhelming, because this was just a creative approach to continue the story of Eleven Madison Park. But now it’s obviously become a lot more, and I’m excited about it. But I also know there is so much I don’t know. We’ve been focused on creativity and cooking, and now we have to focus on so much more. We need to look at our team and bring people on board who actually know a lot about these issues. We’re just taking it all in, and trying to dig really deep. We’re definitely going even deeper on this plant-based movement. We’re really enjoying it. I’ve never felt so liberated cooking as I do right now.
SB: Time and the seasons is another subject I wanted to mention. We were talking about Buddhist monks, but in Japan, of course, they have many more seasons than just four. You’ve talked about how you’ve come to appreciate how New York State itself has these really distinct seasons—although that’s changing with the climate crisis around us—but how important this cycle of time is and these seasons. And now that your cooking is plant-based, I imagine that that impacts how you’re thinking about time and the seasons all the more. Could you speak to that?
DH: We started a farm upstate, which has been just so incredible. Being able to [anticipate] recipes even before the ingredient comes to your door is amazing. Like we’re thinking about now, eight months in advance, what we’re going to serve next fall or next summer, because some of these things need to go in the ground, and we need to know what kind of seeds we want to use, and all that stuff. That’s been really exciting. So, you’re absolutely right. Now, since the vegetable is the main focus of a dish, we want to really get them at their most perfect peak. And you have to therefore understand the seasons much more. It could be that a certain type of zucchini is amazing in May, but then another type of zucchini is amazing in June or July. So even within one ingredient, it actually changes. Even with tomatoes, in the early season, we actually used certain types of tomatoes. And then we started using other types of tomatoes. Climate change has changed the seasons—when they are, but there are still these—like you say, in Japan, like the fifty-two of seasons, or like, every week is kind of a different season. We’re definitely seeing that. Being in talks with a farmer on a daily basis makes you really understand, and also appreciate, that a lot more.
SB: I wanted to mention this I Love New York book you did [with Will Guidara] in 2013, where you spent weeks, or months, traveling around to all these different farmers, local farmers in the region. What did you learn through doing that? I mean, that book you go through, it’s like an ABC’s of vegetables, apples, asparagus, beans, beef, beer, beets…. [Laughs] And you’re visiting these incredible farms, like Satur Farms in the North Fork or Barber’s Farm near Stanford, New York. Tell me about that.
DH: That was a really beautiful process. A year before I was in Paris, it was springtime, and every restaurant was celebrating certain asparagus, and they were [telling] you exactly what town they were grown in. Strawberries, asparagus, artichokes. People were just so hyper-aware of where they were from. They were celebrated in such a way. Even not-chefs knew about some of these things.
And that point, I’ve lived in New York for maybe six or seven years. And I was really blown away by the bounty of the Northeast that we’re in: around the Atlantic Ocean, one of the greatest waters for seafood. People think of Manhattan as this concrete jungle but, twenty minutes out, you’re pretty much hitting farmland, and then as far as Canada, pretty much in any direction. So I was like, Why do we not celebrate these amazing Tristar strawberries the way they celebrate them in France? I felt the need to uplift the farmers, and to bring more attention to what they are doing, because yes, we are much younger than in Europe. In a way, we’re behind, but in a way, that’s also really incredibly exciting.
Just from the time we wrote this book to now, when you go to a green market, it’s just unbelievable. You feel like you’re in a market in Provence. The variety of plums, tomatoes, and zucchinis and cucumbers…. I mean, it’s mind-blowing. It’s wonderful. So, yeah, I wrote this book, I Love New York, and maybe it took sort of a European lens to kind of say…. I think Americans often have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder when they talk about Europe and food.
DH: And for a European to be here and say, “Hey, we don’t need to have a chip on [our] shoulders. What we have here is equally amazing, and in some ways, more amazing.” So that was sort of, really paying attention to this incredible place, New York City.
SB: Yeah. And this is, coming out of the late aughts, when the notion of “local” became talked about much more, parodied—there’s that classic Portlandia episode of like, “Do you know the name of the chicken?”
“Oh, we’re going to have to go to the farm and see that. We’ll come back to our table after.”
DH: Yes. [Laughs]
SB: When I think about your practice, I of course think about art, and we’re going to touch on that. But one thing that I think has become more central to your cooking over time is maybe, to a certain extent, the sort of wabi-sabi, Leonard Koren idea, and connected to that, the use and flavor of umami, and how you create an alchemy with umami in your cooking. Could you speak to that?
DH: Umami is this flavor sensation that took me a long time to fully understand. And I’m not saying that I’m one hundred percent understanding it now, but I’m understanding it much more. What’s amazing about umami is that, while different to your other tastes, like sour, or sweet, or salty…. For example, acidity. When you have acidity in a dish, you usually want it to come from one source. You don’t really want to have vinegar and lemon. You don’t really want to mix them. One will overpower the other, and that is true for other things, too, with sweetnesses; it’s usually one that’s going to win.
But with umami, it’s different. You want to layer umami on top of umami, because it’s really making it come to life. One of the easiest examples that probably everyone will understand is a spaghetti with tomato sauce. So, cooked-down tomato has that taste of umami. If you add a little bit of anchovies into that sauce when you’re sweating the onions, before you add the tomatoes, then that tomato sauce has a whole other layer to it. And then, of course, wheat spaghetti, tomato sauce with a little bit of Parmesan cheese—that also has a lot of umami, so now it’s elevated even more.
Umami, in a lot of ways, touches you in a way sort of like comfort food does. When you actually look at a lot of the comfort food dishes, it’s really the umami that’s touching you like this. And so, when you have precious food like you can have at Eleven Madison Park, where everything is placed with perfect precision, I think it’s really nice that when you’re eating it, that you get sort of this comfort-food feeling, because that actually makes it approachable. Of course, when you take away meat and fish, then I think it becomes even more crucial, so you’re not just eating these precious vegetables without any sort of backbone.
SB: Well, it’s interesting, too, because when I think of umami, I think…. Even if it’s not literally texture, it’s a layer. It’s like painting, it’s…. I mean, I’m obviously thinking of—and you’ve talked about him quite a bit—Robert Ryman, and there’s this really funny line I was reading [in the book Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter] that the artist Paul McCarthy once said: “Daniel, I feel like I’m eating Robert Ryman.” [Laughs] How do you think about Ryman and umami in that?
DH: Yeah, I mean, for sure, I think there is a lot of truth to that. For me, what’s always been so inspiring about minimal art was always, How can you say so much by doing so little? For me, the greatest example was always [Lucio] Fontana, where he slices into this white canvas. That is true for all great minimal artists: Their gesture is just really strong. It has to be really strong to be meaningful. It was always a dream of mine to cook in this way, to say a lot by doing little. But it takes years of practice, and your craft has to be elevated to such a level that very few people can actually achieve it.
SB: Mm-hmm. Resonant cooking, if we can call it that, reminds me of resonant art, resonant architecture—what you feel when you walk into the Pantheon in Rome.
DH: I never thought about this, but I think you’re making a really good point.
SB: There is, of course, a huge time commitment to fine dining and to what you’re doing. With fine dining, you sit down for what effectively is a performance. The thing about the performative element, of course, is that there’s a sort of magic that’s created. I saw David Byrne on Broadway last night, and it’s like the feeling you get as the performance unfolds.
DH: I felt myself in a very unique position when I started thinking about this idea of going plant-based, and of course, people [were] saying like, “Wow, are people going to pay this kind of money for a plant-based meal?” For me, it was always like, Well, we’ve never sold food. We’ve always sold a performance, an experience, sort of like a Broadway show. That’s why I felt confident that people would actually pay [for] this, because people will understand that they’re not paying for food on a plate; they’re paying for a performance, or an experience. In that way, there aren’t that many restaurants in the world [that] actually are in this position.
My hope is that people will appreciate vegetables a lot more, and will be willing to pay more for it. Because right now, it’s really difficult. Even if a chef really believes that this is the way forward, if you have to pay your staff, and your rent, especially in a place like New York City, it’s very hard to have a plant-based restaurant, because there’s only so much you can charge for a main course of carrots, right? So if we can actually change what luxury means, what “high quality” means, what people are going to be willing to pay for, I think then that could make a big difference. Sometimes I get criticized about, “Well, does it really matter what Eleven Madison Park does? It’s so rarefied, most people can never even go there or eat there, or experience it.” I think it does matter, because I think the world is watching, and hopefully, some of the work we’re doing can trickle down. It’s a little bit like in the car industry. The Toyota Prius, when it first came out, was just so genius and so groundbreaking.
SB: But not sexy.
DH: But not sexy. And then Tesla came and sort of made it sexy, made it luxurious. Not many people can afford a Tesla, but now it has really trickled down. When I looked at that, I thought, Oh, maybe this kind of groundbreaking change needs to happen on the luxury level—that it will trickle down.
DH: That’s my hope.
SB: I think it goes back to the whole concept and conversation around audience: Who are you making it for? And the next generation, or the generations coming up, I don’t think they’re going to be so interested in the traditional white-tablecloth restaurant. I don’t think they’re going to be that interested in foie gras. Or… duck. I think they’re going to be a lot more interested in what it means to experience a meal that’s thoughtfully produced from A to B, and concerned with the planet.
DH: It’s been really interesting [to see] the way our audience has shifted. Our guests are a lot younger, our guests are a lot more diverse. And it’s just wonderful. I feel like we’re releasing the generation that’s going to change this planet, eating in our restaurant.
I am very proud of what we did before. I grew up in Switzerland; I moved through the classic French cuisine. I wish the world wasn’t changing, and I wish we could cook with these ingredients that I love to cook with forever. But it’s just not the reality. And so, if we have creativity, we know so much about food. We’re just excited to apply it to where the world is heading, and make that more magical and more delicious.
SB: I just had a thought come into my head. In many ways, you’re cooking for the one percent, and within the one percent, there are very powerful people. People who move culture, who can put their money toward initiatives, toward bettering the planet. What role can food play in that? How do you think your plant-based cooking might actually shift people’s perspectives beyond just the food on their plate?
DH: I mean, I know it’s happening. People who have come through the restaurant, I know it has changed how they think about eating. Maybe they don’t need to eat meat every single day. But then also, it has actually changed [what] people are putting their money towards. I mean, it’s even before us, but it’s exploding, the whole plant-based ice creams, and yogurts, and milks, and meat substitutions. I mean, it’s just exploding.
Since our announcement of this, other big chefs have announced that they’re going to dabble into some more plant-based [dishes]. I mean, Alain Ducasse announced he’s opening a vegetarian restaurant. This is one of the most traditional French chefs. The Met Ball [menu] was plant-based. We’re in this moment where change is truly happening, and everyone who is putting their energy towards that enables others to go in as well. It’s a massive moment right now, and things are changing.
SB: It makes me think of how different creative practitioners are speaking to each other on this level. Our friend Gabriela Hearst, who actually was a guest on this podcast, has an approach to fashion that I think is actually quite analogous, in many ways, to what you’re doing at Eleven Madison Park.
DH: When we talk about art, and performance, and paintings, and all kinds of stuff…. In some ways, what fashion designers do is probably almost the closest to what chefs do. Because it’s like, four collections a year; we have four seasons a year. Artists can kind of paint—There’s no deadline. But we actually have deadlines of like, it has to be ready by the beginning of spring or the beginning of summer.
There are conversations about, obviously, What are the biggest contributors to global warming? It depends what your source is, but the meat industry is very high up on that list. But what’s unique about what we eat is, our car industry will change, but it will probably take thirty or forty more years, right? We’re building windmills to create different energy sources, [but that] takes years. But we can change how we eat tomorrow, and that’s why it’s so powerful. It doesn’t even matter if it’s the biggest contributor to global warming, or the second, or the third, but it’s the one that can be changed the fastest.
SB: Mm-hmm. It’s interesting to hear you talking about it in the context of energy, because I think we often forget food is energy, too.
DH: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s true.
SB: There’s this whole thing around what you do that has to do a lot with storytelling, and I think, on a certain level, myth-making, and we’ll get there. But I did want to bring up these pivotal moments in your life and work when, at 22, you were in a bicycle race and crashed, and then later, at 25, you were in a car accident. You kind of push yourself to these extreme levels of success, and I think what you’ve done in sports, you’ve also done in life. How do you contend with when you’re going maybe too far, and do you view what you’re doing right now, the shift you just made is…. On some level, you’re really pushing yourself to this edge. Do you think about it in those terms?
DH: I wish sometimes I was different, because it’s really hard to be on this path to constantly [be] pushing the envelope. In some ways, I’ve succeeded a long time ago, with the restaurant, and maybe we could’ve just kept doing the same thing over and over again. We’ve had three stars for like twelve years or something like that, and then we decided now the menu needs to be all about New York. Before, it was more traditional, and we succeeded with that, and then we said now it needs to be all about New York, and we sort of succeeded with that, and now we’re on this new path, and we’re climbing a different mountain.
I don’t know. I think it’s sort of mixed. In one way, I would love to have a little bit more of an easy path, but inside of me, there is just this fire that’s burning, and when I feel instincts, I cannot not follow them. It doesn’t always make sense when you think about it, but I just always have to stay true to what I feel in my heart, and this is no different. I mean, this was a crazy idea. There’s not anyone in my life who told me that this would be a good idea. Coming out of the pandemic, having not had any income for a year and a half, creating a restaurant [that’s] fully plant-based, something no one has ever done before, no one really said, “Oh yeah, that’s a brilliant idea. You should do it.” [Laughs]
SB: Well, it definitely goes back to this, maybe this leidenschaft, an appreciation for hurt, and I think sometimes we forget that. Of course, we can all hurt too much, and need to pull back. But I think you’ve really found a lot of success in your journey through this understanding of leidenschaft, and I think that there’s a sort of myth-making that builds around that, and I’m curious how you view that personally. What’s the Daniel Humm myth-making perspective?
DH: I think today, I just got to accept that that’s who I am. In the beginning, I wasn’t so aware of it, that I was constantly creating things and then breaking them down, and creating new things. But eventually, I’m like, Okay. I have to accept it in some ways.
There is a great quote by Helen Keller that I love, and that is with me every day, and it goes, “Life is [either] a [daring] adventure, or nothing at all.” So if I think about life, sort of the currency of life, [as] the more adventure you have, the richer you are, then I feel very much I’m on the right path. Because I don’t like to be in the status quo, where everything just remains the same, and every day is the same, and we’re not really challenging our ideas. I respect people who do that, and there’s nothing wrong [with it], but that’s just not my personality. We’re here on this planet for a very short time. We might as well make it interesting and make it an adventure. I mean, I faced bankruptcy a year ago after being named one of the best chefs in the world. I never saw that coming, but I sort of just accepted it. I’m like, Wow, I get to experience that. That’s kind of cool.
SB: I mean, you met with bankruptcy lawyers. This was—
DH: Yeah, I was sitting in my apartment and I looked at some of my paintings and some of the stuff. I always said I’m not a materialistic person, and I don’t feel like I am, but that moment, when I was sitting in the apartment and I looked at everything and I’m like, Wow, this might all go away. And some of it did. And having that experience put it into a whole new perspective. It wasn’t comfortable to be in that position, but it was beyond liberating. And today, I’m so grateful to have had that experience, because I got to the place where I had no choice [but] to say, “I’m not a materialistic person,” because maybe there were no materialistic things in my life left. That, I think, also liberated me to make this decision. I don’t think today, now that the restaurant is back in action, and I see how much we need the income and the guests, I don’t think I would have the courage to go plant-based at this stage. I’m so happy I did it, but it took this—
SB: Window of time.
DH: Window of time.
SB: So if the pandemic had never happened, you don’t think…?
DH: I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to do it.
SB: I think what the pandemic also revealed…. It revealed many cracks and chasms in our cultures and societies, but one big key thing it revealed was how much the planet is in pain, how much the planet is hurting. It strikes me that you’ve been in touch with your own personal, physical hurt, and translated that into your creative practice. For you, was the pandemic also a moment to really contemplate and think about the planet’s hurt?
DH: A hundred percent. When you start digging into it—and you don’t need to dig that hard; it’s pretty obvious. Now there are so many documentaries on the food system. When you start to go a little bit down that rabbit hole, you realize that things are pretty bad, and we do need to change our ways. People talk about sustainability a lot. It’s too fucking late to be sustainable. We’ve got to take some much more drastic actions. I grew up in Switzerland, and forty years ago, we would recycle glass with different colors. In a yogurt, we would take the lid, that was aluminum—that goes in one place, and then the cardboard that goes around it, that goes in another place, and then the plastic cup, that goes in the third place. We did that forty years ago. Being here in New York, America, we’re not doing any of that. That is sustainability. We missed that. We didn’t do it. And I don’t think sustainability is necessarily going to fix our issues. It has to be much more radical ideas. It has to be much more disruptive to see real change. I felt that I was in a position, that I had the responsibility to put my work towards making a better planet.
SB: I want to go back to your childhood and start with art, because—we’ll get into food—your father was an architect, and your mother was a painter and a spiritual, creative person. When did art come into the picture for you? I know that there was a very formative experience at age nine, visiting the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, where you experienced Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
DH: That’s exactly right. When my parents took me to Paris to see the “Water Lilies” and the l’Orangerie—it’s this incredible museum that was actually built for the paintings, and Monet was actually part of it, making sure that the light was a certain way. It’s only natural light, and these paintings are on these curved walls. Even now, this is a very visceral experience, but as a kid, being much smaller and these paintings being massive, you’re completely—
DH: Enveloped with these water lilies. It was the first time art made such a big impression on me. I remember I was standing in front of these water lilies and I just started being emotional, and started having tears. It was the first time I had tears and I didn’t know if I was happy or if I was sad. I was just emotional. From that moment on, I knew that art really spoke to me. I knew it was important. I knew I was sensitive to these kinds of works. From then on, even more than [with] food, I went through the world always looking for the museum, or the artist’s show, or the public sculpture or…. Art really is the most important part of my life.
SB: And sketching eventually became a part of your practice.
DH: That’s right. I sketch today. All my notebooks are filled with drawings. It’s the first part of the creative process. When you work with oil sticks or…. It is like food, in a way. It has these colors and emotions, and it’s very tactile in that way, just like food is.
SB: Mm-hmm. I’m struck that you chose Brad Cloepfil to design your space at Eleven Madison Park because he, similarly, in his practice, before he goes and actually creates architectural drawings for a building, he will sketch.
DH: Brad is just an incredible architect. I think he has incredible sensibility. He was really a guest of the restaurant, and he always said, “Hey, if you ever change the restaurant, I would love to get the opportunity to show you what I could do.” When it was time to do so, and we got him involved, and he made his first proposal, it was very clear that we had to not look any further.
He talks about elemental architecture a lot, and I think, when we talk about minimal art versus elemental art, also versus what our food is, I would actually put our food more into the elemental category. It’s sort of like minimal—you take away as much as possible. Elemental is more like, there isn’t anything that’s not needed, and [there’s] a difference. I actually prefer to be in a space that is elemental than in a space that is minimal. We are so fortunate to be in one of the most beautiful rooms. Just the bones of the rooms, the windows, the height of the ceiling—
SB: The way that Rita Ackermann [painting] sings when you walk in.
DH: Yeah. But we didn’t want to have anyone come in and add their designs. We wanted it to really be architectural versus being designed. And Brad is just a master of stripping down the room to its core, and really letting that shine. I’m very, very happy with how the restaurant looks and feels.
SB: And the space of course is filled with artworks. Sol LeWitt, in the private dining room; you have a Rashid Johnson [mosaic] in the space. Could you talk about how the art embodies what it is you’re doing in the kitchen?
DH: When we first talked about the renovation, in a way, I almost felt like … it was so much pressure to figure out what to do with art because of my connections and my contacts, and a few very close friends were talking to me about it. I felt overwhelmed, but I knew that we could have had access to probably…. We could have had a Picasso hanging on the wall. I’m sure someone would have given it to us, and maybe used [the restaurant] as almost like a gallery, but I [wasn’t] really interested in that. Most of my friends are artists, and I really wanted to create something that was of the moment, site-specific, something that was very personal and something that actually would not exist otherwise. So I knew it had to be done in a more cohesive way.
The main room has three artworks. It’s the same gesture within all of them, but approached in a different way. We started with Daniel Turner, who’s a very close friend of mine, and he did this incredible piece at the König Galerie in Berlin that I saw. The König Galerie is this super Brutalist, concrete building. And he took steel; ground the steel into a steel wool, and into a powder; then he dissolved the powder into a liquid, and he sprayed that rust-water of sorts onto this concrete floor. So it was this really beautiful rust stain that was his sculpture, and that was the only work he did. So when you went to go see the show, there was nothing on the walls, and only the stain on the floor that you would actually walk on. For me, it was really powerful to have a sculpture dissolved into the floor.
DH: Embedded into the floor, with so much history and tragedy—you could feel this energy. When I thought of Eleven Madison Park, and I thought of the kitchen that was there before, and how many years, like fifteen years, I’ve spent time cooking on that stove. I was excited to get a new stove, but it was bittersweet, because that first stove was where I came to be me as a chef.
We talked about using, sort of melting the stove, and we came up with the idea of making a sculpture. When Daniel presented the sculpture, it just was this really minimal, beautiful block that reminded me of a step. And me, knowing the space, it actually needs steps. That’s how the space is. We decided that we would use the sculpture as the step into the restaurant. So it was like stepping over the past to be in the present. That became the theme.
Then Rita Ackermann, who is another very close friend as well, and just an incredible painter, she did work on chalkboards. For me, a chalkboard is about innovating, about teaching, about learning, but also very much about erasing, and new beginnings. There was a painting there before that was a landscape painting of Madison Square Park. She redrew that painting on a chalkboard and erased it, sort of like erasing what was there for a new beginning.
Then the third artist was Olympia Scarry, who did this incredible glasswork where she used existing glass from the old restaurant that was facing east to west, and she placed it above the front door so it was facing south to north. She was taking this old material, creating the sculpture. It was about changing directions.
Then other people in the art [world], like Sofia LeWitt, the daughter of Sol LeWitt, she was like, “Oh my God, my dad would’ve loved to be part of this.” What’s amazing about the Sol LeWitt wall drawings are how they continue to have a life. Because it’s actually…. You buy the recipe for installing the artwork—that’s what has the value. Then as the owner, you can install it anywhere you want. What I love about this is, well, number one, how it continues to live on, but then also number two is how the actual object isn’t that precious. We painted one of the walls with one of those gorgeous wall drawings, and then just recently Rashid Johnson, who’s a very close friend—[we]spent a lot of time together during the pandemic—
SB: He’s been a guest on this podcast, too.
DH: Amazing. We just felt like we wanted to create this space, our bar, where he [does] not just a painting on the wall, but where he really takes over the bar with multiple paintings. He painted on the ceiling, and he branded the rocks, and has planters in the space…. Just creating this space, one that we would love to hang out in.
SB: When did food come into the picture for you? I know your mother was a great home cook and you were, at a young age, already working on a cherry tree farm.
DH: Yeah. [Laughs] I was very lucky that I grew up in this really small town [called Strengelbach] in Switzerland. I didn’t even realize it, growing up, how lucky I was that we had all our ingredients from farms, and our milks from the farmer, every day.
I didn’t really have an interest in food, growing up, but it was just very much part of the environment that I was in. I mean, my mom cooked every day. She baked all the bread, and all the cakes, and all the sweets. We never really went to a grocery store. We actually also didn’t eat meat that often. We did eat meat on the weekends. On Sundays, she always made a very special meal. But there was this real appreciation for food.
When I got my first job, it was a logical thing to work on a farm, because they were all around us. I pursued a career as a cyclist, and that’s what I did, but food was always around, and I always appreciated great food. I did have to help in the kitchen, but it was more of a chore than a treat back then. I washed greens, or even, like, walnuts or hazelnuts in the fall—to make anything that she did, we had to open them. It was an amazing experience.
SB: So you rise up through some kitchens in Switzerland, and eventually find yourself invited to become a chef in California, barely, from what I understand, even knowing how to speak much English. You know, all of a sudden arriving in California and seeing the bounty that is Napa Valley, and Chez Panisse, and that whole culture. What was that like for you, that—from an outsider’s perspective—almost rapid rise? I mean, you were doing all this in your twenties after a run as a competitive cyclist, as you mentioned.
DH: I really came to America because of a heartbreak. I was going through a breakup when I was like twenty-five years old of my first big love—
SB: Who you fell in love with at 14?
DH: I did fall in love when I was 14. We ended up being together for like twelve years. It was this beautiful love and beautiful relationship. We have a daughter together and she’s wonderful. But we ended up breaking up when I was 25, and I was just heartbroken.
I’d never been to America before. I had no idea…. I knew nothing about it. But out of the blue, I got a phone call from someone who has a hotel in San Francisco. He said, “Hey, I’m looking for a chef. Would you be interested?” I was like, “Yeah. I’m very interested. I can’t wait to leave this place, where everything reminds me of my lost love.” So I took this opportunity to move to San Francisco, and it was just an incredible thing. One of the best things I’ve ever done. The bounty of food in California, and here, as well, was just refreshed in a way. It felt like the perfect place to be in.
SB: Did learning about what Alice Waters was up to have a big impact on you, and particularly [on] your thinking now and what you’re doing now?
DH: When I think of all the chefs around the world—obviously, a few chefs have impacted me deeply. A lot of them have impacted the way I cook, and the way I’ve been able to rise up in the traditional way. But today, for me, one of the most impactful, influential chefs is Alice Waters. She inspires me more than any other chef. And it’s because [Chez Panisse] much bigger than just a restaurant. She stayed true to having one restaurant. That restaurant is beyond magical. She championed, long before anyone else, local food, know[ing] where your food is coming from. But then, her mission became much larger with Edible Schoolyard and her contribution [to] what food can do as a language. During the pandemic, I thought a lot about her. I was lucky to travel with her; we were in Brazil together a few years back. She’s just one of the most incredibly inspiring humans out there. I was lucky, too, when I moved to San Francisco, to cross paths with her, and get to know her work and her. [Editor’s note: We recommend this FT Weekend Podcast conversation between Humm and Waters, on what it means to do good.]
SB: So you rise up there, too. It goes extremely well. You end up getting a Michelin star, eventually you’re courted [by] Danny Meyer, and you become friends with Daniel Boulud. Daniel’s another one of these chefs who’s had such a profound impact on you, particularly, I think, even more so as a restaurateur than just a chef. Could you talk about that impact and how he, in a way, paved your way to New York for you?
DH: Daniel Boulud was the first person I really got to know in New York City, before I even moved to New York City. I did a James Beard dinner when I still worked in San Francisco, and Daniel was just so generous, and offered me his kitchen, and his team, and whatever I needed to be here in New York. He became, I mean, he’s a mentor. He became a very close friend, and he was sort of my sounding board about making the decision to move here.
When I eventually decided to move, Daniel was the one who shared all his contacts. Who gave me access to his chefs and his knowledge. He also started sending influential people to the restaurant and said, “Hey, there’s this young kid who was doing something different.” He has just been so incredibly supportive, and I’m eternally grateful to him. His generosity is just boundless, and it’s towards me, but it’s towards our industry and it’s towards so many. He is a huge inspiration, still today.
SB: What he did, I think, in so many ways, was help show you the matrix, the framework, that is the food world. There are the awards, there are the critics, there are…. And you, early on, got such positive reviews when you were in California. I think in many ways, those reviews had a huge impact in propelling you to New York.
I wanted to get into criticism because also, [in] your childhood, your father was kind of the ultimate critic, from what I can understand.
SB: He was a very discerning Swiss architect who had very high—
DH: Standards and aspirations for me.
SB: Exacting views on what was good and what wasn’t. I know you did cook a meal for him on his fortieth birthday that was like a breakthrough, and that he loved. [Laughter] That became a bonding moment, but also sort of a—
DH: It was a breakthrough, but not always a lasting one. [Laughs] He went back to his old self after that.
SB: Well, I think in some ways, it’s interesting what your father probably taught you about criticism, which on the one hand is, there’s this constant desire—every son seeks father’s approval. But the food world and the restaurant world is so cutthroat, and critics can be so tough. You’ve written on criticism [in your 2019 book, Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter], “You have to take criticism and scrutiny and understand that it’s not personal; it’s for the good of the team. When you are told that you are wrong—very wrong—you must feel nothing but respect and admiration for the one telling you so. You need to be filled not with anger or contempt, but with one solitary feeling: I’m going to do better—whatever it takes.” I mean, I can’t help but think of your dad when I read that quote.
And of course, you move to New York, and become the chef at Eleven Madison Park, become partners with Will Guidara, build this incredible thing, basically on the hunt for more than a decade to become the number-one restaurant in the world. And getting four stars in The New York Times, getting rave reviews from Frank Bruni, Pete Wells. What was that ride like for you? Obviously, there’s a lot riding on getting good press.
DH: There are these key moments where the press is very, very important. It’s really important that it goes your way, being positive. I think that was true in San Francisco when I first started. And I definitely had some support there. I think, early on, it’s probably more important than later on.
SB: Mm-hmm. On that front, Moira Hodgson wrote this great review in The New York Observer, where she said that your restaurant needed to be more like Miles Davis. And in fact, that led to you deeply investigating the life and work of Miles, basically framing the life of your kitchen around Miles, which is sort of wild—that a critic can have such a profound impact internally at the kitchen.
DH: I think that’s a great example of taking a review and dissecting it [to] see if there’s something in there that could be helpful, that could be a seed for something big to grow. When she said [the restaurant] needs to be [more like] Miles Davis, we took it to heart, and really researched Miles. We realized what an incredible artist [he was]. We kind of knew, but we didn’t really know why he was so incredible. His approach to creating became the DNA of our restaurants, that endless reinvention. Like when he did the album Bitches Brew and he started adding electronic instruments to jazz, that was sort of a pivotal moment. In the beginning, the critics didn’t even know what to do with it and criticized it harshly, but Miles just kept turning his back to the audience, and played with his people, and just kept doing what he believed in.
Miles, also as a New York artist, it just…. Moira Hodgson, I don’t think, had an idea even how good of an example she made. But it was the perfect one for us. Miles is a huge inspiration and—
SB: Of course, paved the way toward hip-hop and so much of contemporary music.
SB: How do you deal with bad press? And I want to ask this in the context of the elephant in the room, of the really, really just mean review that Pete Wells wrote a month ago, where he talks about how “none of the ingredients taste quite like themselves.” Fair. But that’s kind of the point.
If I were Pete Wells, what would you say to me right now? [Laughs]
DH: Uh…. [Laughs] What I believe is that, if you do something truly groundbreaking, it’s going to be met with resistance. I think this is the most disruptive thing that we’ve done to date. If it wouldn’t be met with resistance, then I would feel we wouldn’t be really pushing anything. So, we are very prepared for these kinds of obstacles that are going to come our way.
I didn’t think the review was very…. I love to get criticism, and I love to learn from it. I didn’t really learn much from that review, which I feel like I was a little bit disappointed in. And I also felt that he actually didn’t capture the full story, which I also was disappointed in.
SB: I did learn that Pete Wells knows what Lemon Pledge tastes like [the review claims that Eleven Madison Park’s beet dish “tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint”].
DH: Yeah, I actually still don’t know what that is.
SB: I think one of the things that’s amazing about the reinvention that you’re doing, and the work that you’re doing around food systems, and thinking about food scarcity and food insecurity, is that you’re really connecting the notion of a restaurant to the farm, to the community, and to the city. It’s not just about one room where people come eat; it’s about a collective. Could you talk about how you have ambitions outside of the restaurant walls, what you did with this food truck during the pandemic, what you’re working on with Rethink? Tell me about this work and how it all fits into a sort of ecosystem idea.
DH: Well, I’m grateful that the pandemic happened for that reason. Obviously, [it was] devastating for many others, but it gave me sort of a higher purpose. I was able to get to know New York in a whole new way by doing this work, going into these neighborhoods, and trying to figure out what the needs are. The most obvious thing is to cook meals for people in need. But I’m interested [in going] even deeper. As we’re cooking the meals for people, we’re realizing, Okay, there are these amazing humans who maybe eventually could work in our kitchens. Or maybe we can be helpful in getting more healthier foods into these neighborhoods. I mean, it is just shocking to see some of the neighborhoods, how they’re just completely underserved, and it is impossible to buy fresh vegetables.
SB: Yeah. A food desert is not just a phrase. It is literal.
DH: Now I made the commitment that…. It’s sort of like Eleven Madison Park is this circular ecosystem where every diner pays five meals forward for someone in need. So, we do one hundred guests a night, then we give away five hundred meals for free every single day. We used to go to the Bronx [and to Brooklyn], and we realized that we wanted to make a bigger impact in one place. Where our commissary kitchen is, it happens to be right next to the Queensbridge Housing Project. And so, we thought about, Why aren’t we just going there? First of all, we don’t need to travel very far and we just go there every day, so we can really make an impact. We’ve been there now for like six months. There’s five hundred people that line up every day, and we give out the meals, and we’re starting to get to know the community, and they’re starting to build trust. We listen to what kinds of foods they want, what kind of allergies they have, and it’s been just so incredible to do this work. What’s true is that we need to just listen. Because [when] we come into these neighborhoods, we think that we know what’s needed, and we really don’t.
Having the food truck there every day, it’s been really amazing because it’s sort of an antenna into the community. If we listen every day, we will eventually find out exactly what is the right thing to do. But we’re super committed.
Queensbridge is the largest housing project in America. It is unacceptable, the conditions. For example, if something breaks in your house, [or] your water doesn’t work, it takes one year for someone to come. Elevators don’t stop on every floor; they only stop on every other floor—that’s how they are designed. In some buildings, the elevators don’t even work at all. I mean, it’s just unacceptable what’s happening and it has to change. And we can change it.
SB: This is a fifteen-minute drive from Manhattan.
DH: You’re literally there in fifteen minutes. Yeah. And it’s overlooking the East River, and looking at the Upper East Side, one of the most expensive [and richest] areas in New York.
SB: I think it’s interesting to almost imagine, Eleven Madison Park might geographically be located next to Madison Square Park, but it’s kind of now a little bit over the East River or something, sort of bridging worlds and bridging communities.
DH: I think food is so magical, and it touches everyone. It can touch everyone. We all need it. We all eat food every day. And to use it as a performance, as an art form, which is also needed—the world does need beauty, and I’m proud of creating beauty and magical moments in that way. But then also, to use that platform to address other things, and make other people be able to appreciate it.
Sometimes someone comes up to me, when they line up on the food truck and they get a meal, and they say, “Hey, this was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.” That touches me more than if this happens in the restaurant, at the dining room. It touches me [in] both [instances], but in a way, to do both, is incredible.
As an organization, I’m really not interested in growing an empire, I really want to focus on New York City, on Eleven Madison Park, on the work in Queensbridge. And today, some of my days are, in the morning, I’m in the community, in Queensbridge, and we’re cooking these meals, we’re giving out these meals. And a few hours later, I get to go to Eleven Madison Park and perform these meals, this art form. For me, I feel more full than I have probably ever in my professional career.
SB: Do you think, when you were a young chef in Switzerland, you would have ever imagined what you could have achieved, where you are now? And particularly, the notion almost of you as a chef-activist? Which is a newer development, I would say.
DH: No, of course not. I mean, I never thought…. Even like three Michelin stars, that seemed like a dream too big to dream. Like you were scared to have that dream. It seemed impossible to achieve.
I’m just beyond blessed, and grateful, and humbled by the things that have come my way. This is a team sport. It takes an army to do what we do, and I’m blessed to work with some of the most creative and talented people around me. And now we’re on this journey to hopefully be able to change the world a little bit. That is actually, I think, our most meaningful work that is still yet to come. And how great is that, after being in this career for already thirty years?
SB: Daniel, thank you so much for coming in. It was great to have you here today.
DH: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Always so nice to see you and to talk to you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on October 22, 2021. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity by our executive editor, Tiffany Jow. The episode was produced by our assistant editor, Emily Jiang; managing director, Mike Lala; and sound engineer, Pat McCusker.