In this interview with Daniel Humm, world-renowned chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, learn why it takes ten months of experience to pour water properly and why the best decision Daniel has ever made was dropping out of school.
You are one of the best chefs in the world, is there something people wouldn’t expect to eat?
That’s a difficult question. At the airport, I treat myself to M&Ms from time to time. Whether or not this answers your question can only be decided by the reader. (laughs)
What’s your favorite dish?
I like to eat a lot of things. For me, eating is a pleasure but also about health. I like to eat chicken out of the oven. I prefer to eat it from my mother or prepare it myself. I also love spaghetti with tomato sauce. Over the years, I’ve perfected my own recipe. For me, this means above all the right ingredients, i.e. the right olive oil, the right mixture of fresh tomatoes and canned tomatoes, the right pasta, etc. Privately and professionally I always try to bring the familiar, the simple, to a new level. Apart from that, I also like to eat fresh vegetables from the market, which I simply prepare in the steamer without a lot of spices. It tastes very good and is healthy. It also reminds you of how something tastes in its natural state. This gives me a basic understanding of the ingredients I use to cook.
You have repeatedly said that service is the most important thing for you. You claim it takes 10 months of experience to pour water properly and have a 97-page booklet for your waiters. You are also known for going the extra mile for your guests. What do you mean by that and what was the craziest thing you have ever done for a guest?
At Eleven Madison Park we always try to offer our guests an unforgettable service. For us, this means being attentive and listening to them. If there is a hint as to how we can offer this experience, we will of course be happy to do so. Our “dreamweaver“ team, employees who are attentive and let such experiences become reality, help us with this. I don’t know what the craziest thing we’ve ever done for a guest was.
Once our employees overheard someone say they had never eaten a hot dog from one of the many hot dog carts in New York. We then tried to make this experience possible for him and sent one of our employees out to buy one. We then included the hot dog in his menu, whereupon our guest enjoyed his first street food hot dog from New York at Eleven Madison Park.
Another time, on a snowy winter evening, we had a family from southern Spain as guests who had never seen snow before. We organized sledges and a chauffeur that evening to take the family to a place in Central Park where you can sledge. There are many such examples.
For a guest with relations to Switzerland, we decorated one of our private rooms like a chalet and served a fondue as one of the main courses.
When we became number one on the list of the best restaurants in the world in 2017, a friend wrote me a card with the note: “1st New York, 2nd The World, 3rd The Moon?”. The next time he was our guest, we redesigned the lift in our restaurant as if it were a space shuttle. When we arrived on the upper floor with our space suit and helmet, we led him to the private room where we prepared a futuristic dessert with smoke and nitrogen.
Of course we can’t do that for every guest, but we love such surprises and when we have the chance, we try to make it possible. We don’t save lives with our restaurant. But we can make sure that someone remembers their evening in Eleven Madison Park for the rest of their lives.
With your expansion plans you work continuously on the expansion of your restaurants. Was there a moment in your professional life when you personally moved away from “How does this taste best?” to “How do I sell this best?
I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think so. Basically, you don’t cook for yourself. If you don’t have a reputation yet or are not yet successful, the most important thing is that the restaurant is full. That’s why you have to make sure that you offer dishes that the guest likes to eat and for which, above all, he or she comes back. If you later have the appropriate platform, you might be able to devote yourself to the more creative dishes. In this respect, my philosophy has remained the same over the years: The guest must always be welcomed with a meal that he knows. That’s how you build trust. Later you can take him on a journey and show him something new. The guest must feel comfortable for this. In every culture there are dishes that bring people together. We in Switzerland have fondue and raclette, in the USA it is the Barbecue, in China there is the Hotpot, in Japan the Shabu Shabu. It’s an experience. For us, this also includes, for example, placing the bread in the middle of the table and letting the guests break it themselves. You don’t say “It’s hard to remain enemies if you‘ve broken bread together” for nothing. Certain courses are served individually, while others are served in such a way that the guests have to reach into the middle of the table. This way, we create an environment where guests can talk to each other and spend three to four hours together, something that is somewhat lost in today’s world. The guest will never remember every dish he ate with us. But he’ll always remember how it made him feel.
The quality of a dish depends on many factors – employees, ingredients, equipment – what do you think is the most important “capital” to prepare outstanding food?
Two things, on the one hand quite clearly – and this will not be a big surprise – the ingredients are enormously important. They are the products of the soil and all the pride of the farmer who produced them. At Eleven Madison Park, we put a lot of effort into getting exactly these products. We’ve hired three people only to take care of this, we send back products every day, we meet with the farmers and discuss the production process, etc. We also take a lot of pride in the way we’re working. We will do everything to get the best products. On the other hand, as a cook my craftsmanship is my capital. I have to master my craftsmanship so well that I can prepare an unforgettable dish from very simple ingredients such as carrots or onions. This is the magic of cooking and, in my opinion, my greatest asset. It fascinates me.
Speaking of carrots, you are famous for the best carrot in town. Can you imagine to cook without meat in your restaurant and to offer only vegetarian food?
I’ve been thinking about that, I can’t rule it out. Meat production in many places is extremely questionable and unsustainable. Because not enough good meat can be produced, mankind inevitably has to eat more vegetables. There’s no way out of that, I guess. At Eleven Madison Park, we are now in a luxurious position to receive a lot of attention and perhaps even set a trend. People pay a lot of money to eat at our place and talk about what we offer. We are aware of this and this is certainly also part of the reason why we serve so little meat. But a less successful restaurant is in a different position. Those who only serve vegetables are more limited in pricing than those who serve meat. I’m not against meat at all. I am for better conditions in meat production. The guests must understand, however, that this has its price. Only very few are willing to pay CHF 150 for a main course just because the meat is sustainably produced. This requires society to rethink the status quo and people need to be educated. Through the great attention that is given to us, we understand ourselves a little in this role. But again, it also depends enormously on the restaurant. In Nomad, where we also serve breakfast, people want to see eggs and bacon on the menu. But you can’t charge 40 CHF for eggs with bacon, nobody would want to pay that. There we are rather limited in our pricing power whereas in Eleven Madison Park, I believe the price sensitivity of our guests is lower.
You said several times that your kind of creativity wasn’t encouraged at school. In eighth grade, you even dropped out of school. Today you are among the best chefs in the world and are extremely successful. Do you think our education system is too one-sided or even too little inclusive? What would it have taken you to better develop in school?
That’s a complex question that I probably can’t answer conclusively. Moreover, this seems to be very individual. Our school system didn’t work at all for me. The school didn’t succeed at supporting me the way it should have, and it didn’t encourage my creativity the way I needed it back then. I find that problematic, because there are many unique people who feel similar to me back then. I had a lot of luck in my career and have made it somehow in the meantime. But there are many people who had less luck and didn’t make it. For these people, the same system doesn’t work as for everyone else, and yet the school is basically the same for everyone. However, I can’t offer a solution. For me it was the best decision to leave school after 8 years.
In 2017, after Eleven Madison Park was named the best restaurant in the world, they had to close their restaurant for several months due to renovations. In the list of the 50 best restaurants in the world, EMP was awarded 4th place in 2018. In your opinion, what made this difference and how will EMP develop in the future?
I’m an ambitious man. As a child, I was a cyclist in numerous competitions and I always wanted to win. If there was a ranking, I wanted to be at the top of the list rather than at the bottom. The list of the best restaurants in the world was of course no different. This list has not only helped us motivate our employees but on top of that also provided us with a goal on the often–stony path. That was a big advantage. When we made it in 2017 and were named the best restaurant in the world, we were of course extremely proud of our performance. Nevertheless, it has to be said that this title is very difficult to measure and for me it rather distinguishes the “restaurant of the hour” as the “best restaurant in the world”. There are so many different restaurants and philosophies that are very good. In 2018 we were nonetheless surprised to make it onto the list, as our restaurant was closed for more than half a year. All the happier we were, of course, with the 4th place. I think it’s good if there are always changes at the top. In this respect, there is one important change to the list anyway. Once you have been No. 1, you will be accepted into a kind of Hall of Fame and no longer take part in the ranking. This creates space for less well-known restaurants, which I think is a good development. We still strive to be one of the best restaurants in the world with Eleven Madison Park. We have not yet reached where we want to go and we still have many plans that we have started with the renovation in 2017. Winning the list of the 50 best restaurants was an interim goal, just as the three Michelin stars or the four New York Times stars once were. All this has given us is an enormous amount of self-confidence and it has shown us that we are on the right track. However, we do not rest on our laurels, but continue to take a lot of risk and work hard on our vision. We’re constantly learning and improving.