Daniel Humm's round, smiling face looks remarkably rested for a man who's just endured a 16-hour flight from New York, touching down at 7pm the night before our interview. The 36-year-old chef is one of the hottest in New York; his restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, has three Michelin stars and four stars - the highest ranking - in The New York Times. In 2012, he was voted Best Chef in America by a jury of his peers for the James Beard Awards, and climbed 14 spots to rank at number 10 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
He and Will Guidara, general manager and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, are in town for a guest chef stint at the Mandarin Grill at the Mandarin Oriental in Central. Although the promotion ends on Sunday, the two have extended their visit for another week to sample some Hong Kong cuisine and attend next weekend's Rugby Sevens.
Eleven Madison Park didn't start off as a fine dining restaurant. It was opened in 1998 as a brasserie by top restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose many projects include Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack. In 2005, he brought in Humm, a young Swiss chef who had apprenticed at the age of 14 at the Kurhotel Schinznach-Bad before working at the then Michelin three-star Le Pont de Brent. At 24, Humm became executive chef of the Gasthaus zum Gupf, which received a star within a year. He moved to the United States, working first at the Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco, then going across the country to Eleven Madison Park in New York.
"Danny Meyer wasn't happy with the restaurant and wanted to change directions," says Humm. "He wanted to bring me in to make the food more refined; he thought the dining room had so much potential. Will came a couple months [later] to run the dining room because it was difficult for me to do my work without someone [in the front of house] who had the same vision. It was a two-star New York Times restaurant when I started. It took a year to get three stars, and four years to get four stars. After that, we got the Michelin stars - we went from one to three, and then the World's 50 Best - we were 50, 24 and now we're number 10."
Humm and Guidara - who'd worked with Meyer for 10 years, including opening all the restaurants at the Museum of Modern Art - weren't content to rest on their laurels, although it would have been easy - and logical - to stick with the formula that had won them so many stars. They changed the menu from à la carte to a grid with just 16 words that listed the main ingredients. Last September, they changed again, and the only option - for lunch or dinner - is a US$195 tasting menu tailored to the tastes of diners.
"We're still going, it's still evolving," says Humm, who in his spare time is a competitive cyclist at one level below professional. "Now we just cook for you, but there are choices you can make - dry-aged beef or duck, hot foie gras or cold. If they say 'We've had such a big meal already and want to eat a little lighter,' we can accommodate that. We cater towards the guest. They don't need to tell us in advance; we can improvise." Diners during the promotion at the Mandarin Grill will taste dishes such as foie gras terrine with green asparagus and black truffle; and oyster with wood sorrel and mignonette.
"When I started at Eleven Madison Park, maybe a year into it, we got a review from [Moira Hodgson at] the New York Observer. She gave us 3½ out of four stars - a favourable review, but way too good for where we were at the time.
"One of the lines said, 'I wish this place would have a little more Miles Davis'. We thought, 'This is cool, but what does it mean?' We started researching and came up with 11 words - because Eleven Madison Park - that were most commonly used to describe his music - forward-moving, endless reinvention, cool, collaborative, spontaneous, vibrant, light and so forth. We looked at the list of words and were inspired by it.
"Since that moment, for the past seven years, this has been our guiding light. Forward-moving and endless reinvention have become such a big part of Eleven Madison - that's just who we are. One quote we saw maybe three years ago at the Museum of Modern Art was by Willem de Kooning - it says, 'I have to change to stay the same'. That's kind of what we feel at Eleven Madison - it has to keep changing or else we lose something."
In 2011, Humm and Guidara made the restaurant their own when they bought it from Meyer. "It's always been our dream to have our own restaurant," Humm says. "With Eleven Madison Park, we spent so much energy building it into what it is today, it was such an intense time and we fell so much in love with it - all our thinking was around this space and the location. It would have been hard to move on, it became very personal. Danny began to see how personal it was for us - I think that was part of the reason we were able to buy it. I think everyone involved saw what would be best for the restaurant."
The following year, Humm and Guidara opened NoMad in the NoMad Hotel.
"Many of the chefs and dining room managers came from Eleven Madison Park, so it has the same DNA. It's inspired by The Rolling Stones. It's more loose, alive, but still deliberate. It's a lot cheaper - main courses range from US$25 to US$35. It does more covers and it lives from that energy - we want the energy, the hustle and bustle."
The restaurant, which Humm says is a four-minute walk from Eleven Madison, received a three-star review in The New York Times.
Humm, who's married with two young daughters, isn't letting all the stars and awards go to his head. "You're only as good as your last meal. The pressure is in satisfying every guest every night. My father is an architect and he might take three or four years to draw something and then build it, but once it's done it's there forever. But in this business, we create a dish and then we have to redo it every single day on that level."
The chef's long-term plan is to leave a legacy. "I want it so that 50 years from now, people will look back at this time and say, 'Wow, those guys at Eleven Madison Park were ahead of their time, they were doing something really cool'. We see it a little with the cookbook [ Eleven Madison Park] that came out; we see people around the world copying certain things - that's one of the greatest compliments. If in 50 years you can look back and say that we really changed the way things are done, that's important to both of us."