We Chat With: Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park


[Photograph: Brent Herrig]

The kitchen of Eleven Madison Park is at a full bustle behind us, but co-owner and Executive Chef Daniel Humm is calm and attentive, holding my gaze despite the activity all around him. Now and then an employee ends his shift, and Humm stops to thank him by name as he passes. All is crisp white and gleaming silver. With three Michelin stars, a James Beard award for Best Chef: NYC and a new cookbook being lauded as a masterpiece, it's evident Humm is definitely doing something special.

We got a chance to chat with Humm about Eleven Madison Park after its recent ownership transfer, his cookbook, and much more.

You were born and grew up in Switzerland, where you started training at fourteen. Was there a particular moment when you decided you wanted to pursue a culinary career? I was very young, maybe eight years old. My dad is an architect so he would eat at nice places. And one time it was 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 race. 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. 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.

For me there are three things in life: I love my job and 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 them more I can do these three things, the happier I am.

How did the Eleven Madison Park "grid" menu, and customizing each course of the tasting menu according to the 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 what makes this restaurant so special; we never sit on our laurels, we always change. We had two options before: a three-course or a tasting menu. Eighty percent of our guests were eating the tasting menu. 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! 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.

And obviously it worked. 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. 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 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!

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 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. The passion needs to be the products and the people you work with.

The cookbook clearly has a strong visual element. 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 a hundred 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 we wanted to 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 New York 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.