Across A Table from Chef Daniel Humm

Photos by Brent Herrig Photography. Stealing them is mean. And illegal…

One of the best meals of my life was at Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park.

I’d interviewed one of his line cooks and met his sous chef at an event, and a good friend of mine supplied a large portion of their extensive fancy draft beer. Between the extremely friendly people we’d happened to make casual connections with and the overall superb level of hospitality at Eleven Madison, we had four of the best hours of my eating life.

I have allergies. Ones I’ve had for almost twenty years. Ones that are now often looked on as a “trend”. Those who choose to go “my-lifestyle” for a month or so, or take it on “to lose weight”… I’m not saying you’re making it harder for those with serious allergies and life-threatening reactions to certain foods, but I caution you that you may not be making things easier. Every reason and every person is different. But as I can only speak for myself, I will say that having a meal on par with my company – course for course – is a rarity. And Eleven Madison was the first four-star meal I’d ever had that left me feeling as satiated as the man across from me.

It was my first real understanding of the word “hospitality”, which so many chefs, restaurateurs and drinks makers have pressed to me since then. This was before Eleven Madison underwent its menu transformation, and before The NoMad took over in its attention.

But, while many incredible meals have followed in its wake, I have a special spot in my heart for the meal that blew me away, allergies and all, and the chef that, weeks later, took me into that gleaming kitchen and showed me that “hospitality” is only one part of a balanced life. This is any early interview, and I’ve learned so much about striking the conversation since then. And while it feels comparatively ancient, it’s one that’s still close to my heart.

Brent Herrig © 2012

Daniel Humm – On “The Beginning”

You were born and grew up in Switzerland where you started training at fourteen. Was there a specific first memory that inspired you to take on food as your career?

I was very young, maybe eight years old. My dad is an architect so he would eat at nice places. And one time we had a special dinner at the restaurant of Frédy Girardet – a very famous chef. And we had a table in the kitchen with some of my dad’s business partners, and Frédy – who at that point was arguably the best chef, period – made me spaghetti with tomatoes and lobster, and I’ll never forget it. All the chefs with their toques, and us sitting in that kitchen… it was impressive. And that was the moment I decided I wanted to be a chef.

You were also racing mountain bikes while you started training in the kitchen. How did the kitchen win out?

I was on the Swiss National Team mountain biking, racing all over Europe. But when I was eighteen I had a pretty bad crash and it just kind of shook me up. For four months I was injured and couldn’t race and I got really depressed; you train so much and all of a sudden you can’t perform. I really enjoyed cooking, and to make money (you don’t make much money racing unless you’re Lance Armstrong) I was working in the kitchen. And I loved it. And after that accident I decided to take that path.

You still are extremely athletic (running, biking, swimming and now yoga, too). What’s your routine now?

I’m training for the Boston Marathon, so right now I’m just running; I probably run about seventy miles a week to train. But then through the year I do a couple of bicycle races. Depending on what’s coming up I focus on it. After the marathon I’m doing a one-week mountain bike race in British Columbia that’s a very challenging race with a lot of professionals. I just love it. I need to be active.

A lot of chefs are adrenaline junkies, staying out late and racing motorcycles and all. Does being active fill that need for you?

For me there are three things in life: I love my job, I love working. I love my family – I have two little girls and my wife. And I love running and biking. These are my three things. It’s very simple. And the more I can do these three things, the happier I am.

How did the grid system and customizing each course of the tasting menu per tastes of each diner come about?

I knew we had to evolve from what we’d been doing at this restaurant since the opening twelve years ago. It’s the nature of this restaurant and it’s what makes this restaurant so special; we never sit on our laurels, we always change. We had two options before: a prefix three-course or a tasting menu. Eighty percent of our guests were eating the tasting menu. So there was a message, and the message was that probably most of the people would be okay if we just cooked for them.

But that’s too boring because there are so many restaurants who do that already and we wanted to be different! We believe that the New Yorker likes to have some control; New York is that way. But that they were only eating the tasting menus told us that they wanted to also have surprise. So we tried to find a menu that does both – that gives some control but still has a lot of surprise.

And obviously it worked. Congratulations on the laurels!

You know last year, 2011, was an incredible year because three of my life goals came true within six weeks: publishing my cookbook, owning my own restaurant, and getting three stars from Michelin. It was very special and definitely a sign we’re on the right track. But also I feel like we just started! Really, only three years ago we really started to be the restaurant we are today. So we’re really in the beginning. It’s an exciting time.

Your new restaurant, NoMad (opening in March), is markedly different than EMP. What excites you about it?

We we had to grow a little bit because we have so many talented people here. If we would not have had an opportunity for growth we would have lost them, and I would rather have them work for me than the competition! That’s the reason why for me you have to have growth.

NoMad has a Parisian flair to it. It’s going to be our food, but maybe not plated with tweezers. And I think I want people to use the restaurant for different occasions: you could have breakfast there, you could bring your mom in for lunch, you can bring your girlfriend for dinner and you can bring your friends for a late girls or boys night out. EMP is one experience. But I think NoMad is going to be more versatile the way you can use it.

What do you try to instill in the younger / newer chefs at EMP?

I hire people not on the basis of their resumes. People come and do a stage here, I get to know them and they cook for us. But it’s the question – do I want to spend time with this person? Because time is the most precious thing. I don’t want to have people here that I don’t like or that I don’t want to spend time with. And that’s how we hire. So I think that’s a great lesson.

We can teach anything if somebody has the right attitude and willingness. It’s not brain surgery what we do; it’s cooking. I want to teach young people to just have a good time and not get caught up… I became a chef because I love cooking and I love being in the kitchen. And all this stuff – interviews and cookbook tours and television – they should not be the drive and should not be the passion. The passion needs to be the products and the people you work with.

The cookbook has been reviewed to be so beautiful that it alone is a work of art. But what were your intentions as far as it being a recipe book?

In our world it’s very difficult to keep something because everything we do disappears. We cook, we serve, people enjoy it, they go home, it’s gone. It only lasts in memories. Eventually in 30 years there won’t be many people who will remember exactly the way it was. A painter has a painting and 100 years from now it’s exactly the way he wanted it. A musician puts out a record – it’s exactly the way he wanted it to be. In our world that doesn’t exist except if you do a book. We have had such an amazing experience for five years here at Eleven Madison that we wanted to share it with people and put it exactly the way it is.

We broke each recipe up. So if you have a fish dish with pickled daikon and citrus, and then a vinaigrette and herbs and edamame beans and fresh olive oil and on and on… you could do the poached fish with the citrus and maybe the daikon which is maybe a third of the recipes that are there and it’s still a great dish. The recipes are user-friendly. It doesn’t always need to be every component.

What are some of your favorite NY eats outside of EMP?

I love a great pastrami sandwich. Love it. I love Korean dumplings and ramen. I love the sandwiches that they do at Parm. I love Grimaldi’s Pizza. I love it. There’s definitely a lot… New York is such a great place.

Since this interview…

Daniel opened up The NoMad, which my friend Rebecca claims is one of her top favorite restaurant in NYC. I’ve only had underwhelming cocktails in what I thought was a rather pretentious library, but until I’ve had their evidently dream-worthy chicken I shant rule the NoMad out. Yesterday I scarfed down ribs and sipped away at a Bloody Derby on Madison Avenue in sight of Eleven Madison, and I once again remembered that silly, special night, and the stellar slap of hospitality there.

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