Eleven Madison Park’s Milestone Anniversary
Eleven Madison Park recently celebrated 25 years in business with a limited-edition 10-course anniversary menu available through October 2023. The catch for those who have dined at the restaurant prior to 2021, of course, is that it now only features an all-vegan menu. Neither the price nor the three-Michelin-star distinction, which has remained since 2011, has changed. With a heightened sensitivity to our evolving world, and the unsustainable food systems we rely on and perpetuate, the restaurant’s owner and chef, Daniel Humm, directed a change.
For the anniversary lineup, that evolution was reflected in dishes that highlighted the wonder of vegetables sourced from the restaurant’s upstate farm—including carrot tartare, bread with sunflower butter, white truffle tortellini, and tonburi with avocado and cucumber. As an homage to New York City, it also included innovative twists on Big Apple classics, from the black and white cookie to the Manhattan cocktail. The creations were captured in print, released in Humm’s latest Steidl-published book, Eat More Plants: A Chef’s Journal, featuring his drawings and handwritten thoughts on these meatless recipes and others.
Humm shared with Whitewall how he ended up in a kitchen rid of meat, and how art, change, and the future of gastronomy continue to inspire him.
Daniel Humm: From Sports to Food
WHITEWALL: Many people don’t know that you transitioned into gastronomy from sports. How did that happen?
DANIEL HUMM: It was by accident. Literally! I left school when I was 14 to pursue a career as a professional cyclist. I did it for many years, but when I was 22, I had a bad accident that made me rethink everything. My parents supported me leaving school early, so I left home, but my dad was like, “If you do this, you’re on your own.” Of course, I needed to make money, and the only place I could get a job at that age was in the kitchen. So, over all these years of cycling, I had these consistent side jobs with a few chefs mentoring me. In the beginning, I just wanted a paycheck, but over time, I had a love for it. To my parents’ credit, they were also sort of hippies, and we only ate organic food and mostly plant-based. We maybe had meat once a week. There was an understanding around food and a respect toward food.
When this accident happened, I was in the hospital thinking about how competitive and dangerous cycling was. I was good, but I wasn’t the best. It didn’t seem like I would make a lot of money. I thought I’d put my efforts toward cooking. I took an athlete’s mentality to the profession and wanted to work with the best. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to win awards, just like an athlete. I started climbing this mountain. In 2017, when Eleven Madison Park became the best restaurant in the world, we reached the mountaintop of that journey. That sounds amazing, but it was quite challenging and disorienting. Everyone asks you, “What’s next? What’s next?” You’re trying to give answers, but the truth is, I didn’t know.
WW: You’ve since had to navigate the personal change of becoming a celebrity chef, with brands and partnerships constantly approaching you. How do you stay grounded?
DH: There are also a few people who ground me—friends that I’ve had for a long time, mostly artist friends. You know, artists go through that, too. They have to be grounded because their practice is often in solitude. And sport. I run and practice yoga regularly. I also get a lot of inspiration from seeing art, too. I visit a lot of galleries and museums around the world—and locally to places like the Met, the Guggenheim, and Dia Beacon. I draw a lot. I write in journals. I paint.
Daniel Humm’s Inspiration in Art
WW: We see your love of art in the restaurant, with works by artists like Rita Ackermann and Rashid Johnson, among others, on the walls. Where did your interest in art start?
DH: When I was 12, my parents took me to see Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris. I started crying, and I didn’t know if I was happy or sad. That was my first exposure to the influence of art. It continues to this day.
WW: What artists fill your home?
DH: Lucio Fontana, Rita Ackermann, Daniel Turner, Rashid Johnson, Franz West, and more.
WW: Who are you interested in now?
DH: Francesco Clemente.
WW: You co-founded an organization named Rethink Food that re-uses food to make meals for people in need. And during the pandemic, you turned the restaurant into a community kitchen to prepare those meals. How did that impact your thoughts about food?
DH: I connected with food in a whole new way. Food is such a powerful, magical language that can do a lot more than win awards. It changes people’s lives daily. Suddenly, I felt a real responsibility. I had created this platform that Eleven Madison Park is. I have a voice in this industry. So I felt a responsibility to use it to make a change. When we set out to do this, I was aware that no awards may ever follow, but it’s not about that anymore. This was about something bigger, and probably less about my ego as it was before. This is about making a difference in the world, having a purpose.
Daniel Humm’s Latest Book, Eat More Plants
WW: During the pandemic, you also kept a journal full of sketches, which you recently turned into your latest book. Why was it important for you to draw out recipes?
DH: I’ve sketched all my life, throughout my career, but during the pandemic, I sketched and wrote a lot of notes about what I was really thinking about—where to go next. This is my journal, so it’s a very personal thing to share, but there’s this amazing publisher in Germany, Gerhard Steidl. He had dinner at the restaurant and was moved by the experience. We sat down afterward, and he asked, “What’s your process like?” I told him it started with my drawings, sitting for weeks, adding colors, writing down thoughts, eventually forming an idea. Sure enough, the next morning, he came to my office and wanted to see all of them. He looked at me and he said, “I would love to publish these.” So I went to Germany a few times.
Steidl works like a chef or a designer. He’s at the office at 4:30 and has like 50 people working with him. Any artist that makes a book with him stays within the factory, in a little room upstairs. He calls at five in the morning asking you to come look at things. I spent two weeks there and the book started to take shape. Now, I’m really proud of it.
WW: The book also dives into your vision of being plant-based. How would you describe that vision, and how it fits into the future of gastronomy?
DH: The world is changing. The products that arrive in our kitchens are changing. There are mountains of plastic in the ocean. The fish are sick. It is scary. From a creative place, I wanted to speak how I could. Every great musician, every great artist, they’re very much tapped into the zeitgeist. With cooking, it came from a creative place. But then when we made the announcement, it became all kinds of things. It became about climate, it became about health, it became political. All of a sudden, I felt like an outsider in my own industry. People felt like I was turning my back on the industry. It was a strange experience, and I was not prepared for it. I’m no expert. I just think vegetables are beautiful and magical, and I feel that with our creativity, we could bring them to life in a way that people would feel it’s a luxury.
The last two years were like a roller coaster. I’ve learned a lot, and I think our cooking has evolved a lot. In the beginning, you don’t even know exactly what you’re cooking for because a palette of someone who’s just eating vegetables versus a palette who is eating meat is very different. A meat person is picking up different things on the meal than a plant-based person.
I want the vegetables and the cooking to be very pure. I want the vegetables to taste like what they are. With every season and every year that I get to meet them again, like the tomatoes in the summer and the mushrooms in the fall, I feel I get better at that. We want to get out of the way of the vegetables as much as possible. We wanted to highlight what they are.
Early on, we tried to think a bit deeper, like, “What was a meal before? What were the kinds of flavors? Maybe we need some smoked this and some chewy that.” But today, we feel very free. We didn’t do this, but a lot of people go to things like beet pastrami, trying to find a bridge to get people from one place to the other. That’s why meat alternatives have a place. But when you’re going through such a change, it’s about progress, not perfection. Progress is more important than getting everything right all the time.
Eleven Madison Park’s Plant-Based Movement
WW: Was going plant-based something you had in mind to do before, or was it solely the pandemic’s impact?
DH: It didn’t happen overnight. There was an urge much before. For example, there’s a dish from 2010 that was the face of our restaurant. I’m a student of the French cuisine, and in the early days, it was mostly traditional food; refined European cooking. You’d see the same ingredients on every other menu. With that, we reached three Michelin stars in 2011. But this food could have been served in Paris or Tokyo or anywhere. It didn’t have a sense of place. I started thinking about being in the great city of New York, and I wanted the meal here to have a sense of place. So, I started I wrote a book called I Love New York and went to visit all these farmers, learning about the history—all the immigrants who have come here and have brought their food traditions and how they’ve evolved. I learned about black and white cookie and egg creams, Russ & Daughters and delis. All this stuff! That was really cool. So, at that time, we served a black and white cookie. We did egg creams at the table. We started an iconic New York restaurant, like the Four Seasons, the 21 Club, or Delmonico’s. We wanted to be an iconic restaurant, so we asked what they all had in common, and it was that they all had a steak tartare on the menu. So I said, “We need a steak tartare.”
We worked on it endlessly for about a year, trying aged beef and venison and all kinds of things. Nothing felt right. It felt like something from a different time. We could not put a spin on it that made it feel contemporary, in my opinion, but one thing we knew for sure was that we wanted to grind it at the table. We were almost about to give up on this idea, but before we abandoned it, I was in the Hudson Valley spending time with a farmer, Alex Paffenroth, in Warwick, NY. He’s obsessed with carrots and has all these different kinds—the sweet, the savory, everything. I came back that evening to the restaurant and had like 30 different types of carrots. We had a creative session and we were working on the steak tartare, trying all these different versions, about to give up, and all of a sudden, I look over to this case of carrots and said, “I think it has to be carrots!” So in 2010, we came up with this dish that became the carrot tartare.
WW: Eleven Madison Park is 25 years old, and you’ve been at the helm for 20. What does it stand for today?
DH: Our transformation to plant-based is our commitment to the future, which comprises forward-looking and forward-thinking approaches, and how to take stock in what we are creating today in better preparedness for tomorrow. We now endeavor to not only make it nice, but to make it matter. We’re just getting started.
WW: What are you cooking at home right now?
DH: I love to cook at home, but it requires time. When I come home, it’s usually late, and I don’t cook. On the weekends, I love to cook and I love to explore plant-based cooking more, even for myself. Before our vision at Eleven Madison Park was much toward Europe and France. But today, with plant-based cooking, because other traditions have done this a lot longer, our horizon has opened up and we’re looking at the entire world. The diversity of foods. I’ve been collecting cookbooks my whole life, but today I collect very different cookbooks because I want to learn about simple dishes from different cultures—Lebanese, Israeli, Indian. Because when you make them, it inspires you.