People used to come for the duck breast. And the foie gras. And the lobster with pumpkin was the biggest of all. Eleven Madison in New York was long regarded as the epitome of a sophisticated three-star restaurant. Daniel Humm celebrated a clean, completely modern haute cuisine there, that set standards worldwide.
And the Swiss-native still does. Only now with a difference. The food is vegan. Or as he describes it: plant-based.
That’s massive. Particularly because the 47-year-old has succeeded in doing something that many had not expected: he’s managed to keep the prestigious three Michelin stars. This makes Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park the first and only restaurant in the world to receive the highest Michelin Guide award with a vegan menu. Humm has written gastronomy history – even though he was on the verge of losing everything several times.
Daniel Humm: A trauma that unleashed strengths
Growing up in Zurich, his childhood and youth were characterized by problems at school, lack of orientation, not being truly understood. As someone who has succeeded in America, Daniel Humm now looks on his Swiss home with a sense of alienation. On the despondent narrow-mindedness that he felt as young as eight years old: When he was tasked with drawing a skyscraper on a sheet of paper in an art lesson, he thought the paper was too small – but was refused a larger one by the teacher.
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So little Daniel drew two-thirds of the multi-story building on the desk. True to the motto: Think big. Result: Crisis, parents were summoned to the school, years of therapy with a school psychologist. She was also the one who told him: “Somewhere, there’ll always be a sheet of paper big enough for your dreams.” For the insecure youth, this was not just the first time he felt understood by the authoritarian world of adults. It can also be described as the start of his career, which to this day is characterized by pushing boundaries.
Eleven Madison Park: The best restaurant in USA
Humm dropped out of school at the age of 14 and did an apprenticeship as a chef at the Swiss Spa Hotel Schinznach-Bad. His teacher Viktor Geiser aroused his passion for the culinary craft. After his apprenticeship, the ambitious young man made the leap into the world of top gastronomy. He cooked at extremely prestigious addresses such as the Le Pont de Brent in Montreux or the Gupf in Appenzell. In 2003, he followed the call to San Francisco, where he was offered the position of Executive Chef at Campton Place. He was inundated with praise from the regional press – so much so that Daniel Meyer in New York, more than 4,000 kilometers away, heard of the up-and-coming chef, who wasn’t even 30 years old at the time. As the owner of the Union Square Hospitality Group – a million-Dollar empire in the hospitality sector – Meyer was looking for a new chef for his restaurant. The name: Eleven Madison Park. The location: Madison Avenue in the heart of New York. Humm started with a clear goal: To turn the restaurant into a culinary hotspot. The following years read like a fairytale, but all of it is true: First Michelin star in 2009, second star followed soon after in 2011. Business was going so well that in the same year, Humm teamed up with the restaurant’s host, Will Guidara, and purchased the restaurant from the original owner, Meyer. The third star was awarded in 2012, the business received top rankings in the prestigious list of World’s 50 Best Restaurants – which Eleven Madison Park ultimately came top in in 2017. This made it the most decorated restaurant in the USA. Simply put, Daniel Humm had succeeded. However, the problems started at the height of his success.
Daniel Humm’s crisis years
“When we were named the best restaurant in the world, my world collapsed,” Humm recalled in an interview with Swiss Gault Millau in 2020. “I had run up a mountain and when I arrived at the top, the view wasn’t as good as I had been expecting. There were days when I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t even call my assistant, that was too much.” Humm embarked on a trip to India for several weeks – but this only helped for a short time. Back in the Big Apple, Humm had to cope with one crisis after another. The separation from his business partner Will Guidara, for example, which drove Humm to financial ruin in 2019 – including complicated buy-out contracts, disputes, upheavals and reconciliations.
And then there was the coronavirus pandemic, which really tested the company in many respects – and Humm, like so many in the industry, wasn’t just forced to stop. But also to question things. What can and should players in the world of top gastronomy do in times like these? What is their role, including in the future? How sustainable is top gastronomy, how sustainable should it be? What is luxury?
Questions like these were going through the mind of the exhausted chef constantly. He mulled them over for a long time. And came up with a radical answer to all the questions in May 2021.
What is luxury?
“The way we source our food, the way we consume it and also the way we handle meat is simply not sustainable.” Daniel Humm kept the world of international top gastronomy on the edge of their seats with sentences like these in several interviews in spring 2021. And also caused massive waves. How is it possible for a three-star restaurant to use only plant-based products? What is really behind this decision? How credible is a chef who suddenly replaces foie gras and duck with pumpkin and artichokes overnight when it comes to sustainability?
Today, a good two years later, Humm has proven to even his toughest critics: He’s serious about it all. Very serious indeed. “We need to rethink our idea of luxury from the ground up,” he recently explained to Times Magazine. “What makes a thing valuable is not its price in itself, but the way that thing is refined by people through their traditional craftsmanship. That’s my idea of luxury. Creating an almost supernatural experience for our guests with a carrot requires significantly more work than ever before with meat.” So for Daniel Humm, luxury is: Accepting sustainability as a culinary challenge – and giving his all. “We have ten more chefs than before, simply because we have more work to do with plant-based products,” says Humm, thus also answering the question of why the vegan menu price is no different from the previous one. And to be honest, once you’ve dined at the new Eleven Madison Park, you also understand why.
Taste explosion at Eleven Madison Park
The Tonburi Quenelle, for example, which looks like and has a similar texture to caviar. Combined with horseradish cream and radish tostada, refined with a splash of pumpkin seed butter, this dish plays with familiar tastes – and flatters the palate with subtleties that you would never have believed any of the individual ingredients had in them.
The stewed seitan goes one step further: It is wrapped in spinach, while morels reveal a broad spectrum of umami notes, which are captured masterfully by a sumptuous sauce.
And desserts are also the ideal playground for plant-based virtuosity, as the frozen cherry blossom and rose with strawberries dish shows. “I love cooking now more than ever,” says Daniel Humm. “Because I’ve admitted to myself that certain traditions simply no longer make sense. Here at Eleven Madison Park, we’re not against meat. But we are for the planet. And that’s not a trend. But the future.”