Drinking Burgundy (And Eating More Plants) With Chef Daniel Humm

As Executive Chef and Owner of Eleven Madison Park Chef Daniel Humm has received every accolade possible in the culinary world, from three Michelin stars to being named ‘Best Restaurant in the World.’ But when it came time to reopen after the pandemic he had a much different vision for the kind of cooking he wanted to do. I spoke with Chef Humm about the vision behind his switch to an all plant-based menu, his new book ‘Eat More Plants’ and why you better have a few Wimbledon titles under your belt before you barge into his kitchen.

What was your first drink?

I grew up in Europe so wine was always on the table. It was part of the culture. But the first drink-drink — was Campari orange. We were teenagers and thought it was a good idea to drink the whole bottle. (Laughs) I can never drink that again.

Do you enjoy any spirits now?

I’ve never been into spirits that much. That’s why we created our own non-alcoholic vermouth. More and more people are asking for non-alcoholic drinks and it’s nice to start the meal off with something.

What are your favorite wines?

Burgundies are definitely my favorite, white and red. For me wine is very much part of cooking. When we create dishes I think about the wine. I love the winemakers and the traditions and the winemaking process.

How does it feel to celebrate Eleven Madison Park’s 25th anniversary?

It’s been more emotional than I ever thought. I’ve been there 19 years — the restaurant’s been there 25 years — but it’s been my life. There’s been ups and downs but I have more excitement for the restaurant now than I’ve ever had. And that is quite magical. I never thought that moving to New York I would only have one job.

How did you envision your career early on?

I was a professional cyclist and had a bad accident when I was 22 and couldn’t continue. The only other love I had was for cooking. So since I couldn’t be the best cyclist I wanted to become one of the best chefs. And winning was very important. I wanted to win every award there was. We have two Michelin stars, we want to get three stars! We’re number twenty five, we want to be number one!

It made the restaurant better and better and the team got stronger and stronger. Then in 2017 we became the ‘Best Restaurant in the World.’ There was not a single award that we didn’t have. And honestly it was disorienting. We spoke every day for twenty years about how to become the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ — we never spent five minutes talking about what would happen if we get there.

How did that change your vision for the restaurant?

I knew that there had to be something bigger. I co-founded an organization called Rethink Food, taking food from restaurants and preparing meals for people in need. That was inching into the right direction but I still didn’t know where to take Eleven Madison Park next. And then the pandemic hit.

It was devastating. Our whole team was together in the dining room — we had worked together for ten-plus years. “Let’s clean up and we’re gonna see each other again in two weeks.” That team has never been together ever since. Real estate people talk about location, location, location. In restaurants it’s people, people, people. Our restaurant is beautiful but without the amazing talent it’s just an empty shell.

Then you found another use for your kitchen.

Because I was so involved with Rethink Food I knew what was going on with food insecurity. New York City had a million people who were food insecure before the pandemic and then that number doubled. And I had an empty kitchen. I had access to farmers. I had cooks without jobs. So I turned Eleven Madison Park into a community kitchen and we brought a small team back. We started cooking about 8,000 meals every day in the pandemic.

We also brought them into the neighborhoods. And so that made me go to Brownsville, East New York, Queens, Harlem and Chinatown. I’ve been in New York so long but I’ve only lived in this little sliver. For the first time in my life I felt really connected to cooking. I felt like it made a difference. I didn’t even know if I ever wanted to open Eleven Madison Park again. Then I thought maybe the world is sending me a message hey, there’s a new mountain to climb. And maybe it’s using food to give back.

And that’s when you had the vision of a plant based menu?

I had no interest in opening the same restaurant as before. The world didn’t need another preparation of dry-aged ribeye, or duck or poached lobster. I knew the creativity needs to go towards plant-based eating because our food system is collapsing. Climate change can’t be ignored any longer.

Even in the last 20 years the ingredients that I’ve worked with have changed. They used to be wild and now they’re farmed. The way things taste are different. The fish have diseases we have never seen. Caviar is not a luxurious ingredient anymore. It’s farmed raised. It doesn’t taste good.

Was changing the menu just expanding the vegetable dishes and techniques you already knew or did you set out to learn more?

One hundred percent there was a lot more we needed to learn. We were a restaurant that was famous for duck and so you gotta bring something else. There’s a lot of fear that comes with that but then also it got exciting quickly. We started working with Zen Buddhist monks. We started our own farm in upstate New York.

There are the environmental reasons for a plant-based menu but was part of it also your competitive side needing a new challenge?

I think like a great musician, if a song becomes really big, it’s because they capture the Zeitgeist — something that no one else was quite able to capture in that way. The same is true in painting. And to me I think the same an be true in cooking. It’s my personal response to what’s going on in the world and my creativity responds to that. And to me there was only one way to push food forward and it’s in the plant-based realm.

I also thought about that in a fine dining restaurant no one has actually made that step to be a fully plant-based Michelin Star restaurant. I’m interested in the transitions of an artist, where they push into new directions. Like Miles Davis when he started using electronic instruments. Those things are interesting. So we actually have a huge opportunity here. We can push into something that others have not pushed into.

Your new book is ‘Eat More Plants.’ If people change their balance of what they eat, without giving up meat entirely, can that still be effective?

We really need drastic change and we need to change quickly. But I believe that it’s about progress and not perfection. We need to start somewhere. Even if we eat plants one day a week that is going to make a difference. I just want to celebrate this because eating plants is beautiful and it’s magical and it’s delicious.

In people’s minds a piece of meat is more valuable than a vegetable and that’s just not accurate. We’ve been plant-based for two and a half years and I know we’ve created a lot of beautiful moments for people. So we can play a role into making vegetables more valuable. If a luxurious restaurant in New York serves you carrot and that’s your main course then I think we can help make that change.

A lot of famous people come to Eleven Madison Park. Is there anyone special you were a big fan of?

Roger Federer — who is from Switzerland obviously — came by one night and he just walked into the kitchen and said “I heard there is a Swiss guy cooking here. Where is he?” (Laughs) And we’ve been good friends ever since.

And to clarify for our readers — other than Roger Federer no one should just barge into your kitchen looking for you?

(Laughs) Yeah. Maybe not.

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