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In Humm we trust

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Daniel Humm is currently the world’s best chef, but the man behind New York’s Eleven Madison Park reveals he is as passionate about his team as his minimalist cuisine

About halfway through our conversation, Daniel Humm says, “Most of my friends, actually all of my friends, are artists — painters, sculptors.” I am not surprised because the Swiss-born chef — of acclaimed New York City restaurant Eleven Madison Park, which won The World’s Best Restaurant accolade for 2017 — has often admitted that art inspires him more than anything else. Where once he used to flip through cookbooks, he now spends his free time in galleries and museums, in love with minimalism, and returning to the works of Agnes Martin and Lucio Fontana for inspiration.

 

We are chatting in the lobby of The St Regis Mumbai, which is playing host to an invite-only dinner. Humm is in the country for The World Series presented by American Express, a duo of dinners, one each in Mumbai (April 22) and Delhi (April 28). He has flown down with a team of 14 chefs, and is currently worried that some boxes of produce have not made it. But he puts on a brave face, focussing instead on his chefs. “To travel with the team is an extremely bonding experience,” he shares. “They are everything. If the team is happy, the food tastes good.”

In Humm we trust

Betting on teamwork

India is the latest pit-stop in a relatively sparse itinerary, but he says this trip has been life changing. “India has, in particular, been really incredible for me; because it’s a cuisine and a culture that’s quite unique. To be honest, it’s the most foreign place I’ve been to. Mumbai maybe less so, as it feels quite western, but I went to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Chandigarh — it’s quite different, and amazing.”

A taste of NYC in Mumbai
  • On Sunday, the 75 diners who were invited to The St Regis Mumbai’s Astor Ballroom were treated to a nine-course meal. At the dinner hosted by Rahul Khanna, industrialists, singers and restaurateurs dined on favourites from Eleven Madison Park — from scallops, foie gras and lamb, to a black-and-white cookie, made with cheddar and apples, that was inspired by New York. The most loved dish of the night was dessert, simply called Milk and Honey. The many-textured concoction consisted of oat biscuit shortbread, milk ice cream with buckwheat honey, honey brittle and dehydrated milk flakes. To drink, there were Hennessy cocktails and wines from the New Zealand vineyard, Cloudy Bay. The dinner ended, as it does in Eleven Madison Park, with each guest taking home a jar of homemade granola to enjoy the morning after.

How often does he and his team go on trips? “Once in a while, but we are also trying to be selective. We don’t want to do too many. It’s really for research and team building. Maybe we do two trips like this a year,” he says. In fact, it is to retain his staff, and challenge them, that the 40-year-old has been on an expansion spree the last few years. Besides Eleven Madison Park, for which he signed a 20-year lease in 2017, there is New York-based NoMad Hotel, which his company, Make It Nice — with restaurateur Will Guidara — handles all the dining for. They have also expanded their services to Los Angeles, where NoMad has opened another hotel. And last year they opened Made Nice, a fast casual eatery that serves affordable food for those who do not want to spend $300 dollars on a tasting menu.

“We have an incredible team, and I really want to make sure we create opportunities for these people to stay with us, because it would be a shame if they’ve been with us for five, six or seven years, and then move on to do their own thing or work for the competition,” says Humm, about the growth spurt. “I think it’s important to grow if you want to keep your people.” To that end Eleven Madison Park Summer House, which opened last year as an East Hamptons pop-up will be coming back this year, and there are plans for a Winter House pop-up in Aspen.

In Humm we trust

A people’s chef

Humm has never underplayed his intentions to top the World’s 50 Best list. And having achieved it, it is clear he wants the accolades for more than himself. “In a way, our restaurant has become number one. That was the goal we wanted,” he explains. “And there have been different goals along the way — three Michelin stars, The New York Times stars,” he adds, referring to the four-star reviews he received from the Times in 2009, that has led to a perpetually full restaurant ever since. It is also worth noting that Eleven Madison Park has held on to its Michelin stars after getting them in 2012.

“The achievements energise the team, fuel them. The confidence that comes from them is so incredible, the restaurant is better because of it. It’s like everyone is fired up every day to work.” This passion is oft noted by patrons, especially of the Dreamweavers, the three front-of-house staff who are not “in the dining room, but are always working during the hours of service”. Their job: to pick up stray threads of conversation and ensure diners have a special experience — like a mug of mead for a Game of Thrones fan or a pizza from a specific pizzeria someone mentioned. “Sometimes we do it on the spot, and other times we research and find out things [about our guests],” he says.

Humm sums up his food philosophy quite simply. “I want to really connect with the guests; give them something they’ve had before, but give it to them in a reinvented way.” To that end, he is going, as he likes to describe it, “elemental” — not doing away with ingredients as a minimalist would, but rather, getting to the core of each ingredient he cooks with, like the stunning celery root cooked in a pig’s bladder. It makes sense, I realise, that all of his friends are artists. Because he is one, too.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 1:37:38 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/food/daniel-humm-on-being-the-worlds-best-chef-and-his-minimalist-cuisine/article23694902.ece

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