Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

We don't need another version of butter-poached lobster, we need sustainable dining: Daniel Humm

The superstar chef and owner of iconic New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park on why he upended his successful format to begin again

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Aug 30, 2023 10:51:19 AM IST
Updated: Aug 30, 2023 11:10:03 AM IST

Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, New York, at Mumbai's Masque restaurant Image: Swapnil Sakhare for Forbes India Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park, New York, at Mumbai's Masque restaurant Image: Swapnil Sakhare for Forbes India
Daniel Humm speaks softly and with a drawl. He smiles a lot and chortles, too, when describing his gluttony. A few hours before we met, the chef and owner of Eleven Madison Park (EMP), the iconic New York restaurant, had, somewhat reluctantly, dropped in at Mumbai’s Swati Snacks for lunch. “I didn’t know how much I could eat, because I had a large dinner planned too,” says Humm, whose restaurant is often frequented by the swish set. “But once I was there, I had to try everything,” he giggles.     
The only time you see Humm somewhat agitated is when you ask him if the plant-based menu, with which he re-launched EMP last year after the pandemic, is just another fad. Why would he replace his globally acclaimed lavender-glazed duck or butter-poached lobster with, say, beet or squash? “Because,” Humm thumps his fist on the table to emphasise every word, “our food system is collapsing.”    

Born in Switzerland, Humm was an accidental chef after a mishap derailed his dreams of becoming a professional cyclist. He moved to the US when he was 26, and joined EMP, then helmed by Danny Meyer, in 2006. A few years later, he bought out Meyer’s stake and handheld the restaurant to accolades that include three Michelin stars, multiple James Beard awards, and the toque of the world’s best in 2017. Then, post-pandemic, he took everything apart, and restarted his journey with a vegan menu that has brought him three Michelin stars but also a fair share of criticism.    
Humm is now in India for a collaboration with Mumbai restaurant Masque where he and chef Varun Totlani are plating two exclusive dinner courses on September 1 and 2. The 60-cover event has sold out on both nights, “within eight hours of launching bookings”, says Totlani, despite a price tag of Rs35,000 plus taxes per person.    

“The menu for the dinner will be inspired by EMP without losing the essence of Indian food,” he adds. “Like, during his recent visit to Kashmir, Humm really enjoyed gulkand (rose jam), and I am planning to make that the hero of one of the desserts.”   
The rest of the menu will also be plant-based, championing Humm’s new-found food philosophy. In a conversation with Forbes India, the American chef explains what caused him to change course, and why ‘plant-forward’ is the only way going ahead. Edited excerpts:     
Q. EMP was the world's best restaurant in 2017, it had three Michelin stars, it won multiple James Beard awards. But when it opened after the pandemic, the menu turned completely plant-based. What happened?    
To answer this, I’d go a little further back in time. I used to be a professional cyclist and when I was 22, I had an accident that ended my cycling career. Thankfully, I was fine, but it made me rethink everything. I realised that I will never be the best in cycling, and I decided to pivot to cooking. But I did it like an athlete—I wanted to be the best and win every award that there is.   
But, you know, most fine-dining restaurants around the world pretty much serve the same thing. It’s like a wave—guests expect certain things like caviar, kobe beef, duck, lobster—and I was never rethinking that myself either. I guess there are rules of getting three Michelin stars, getting to the top of the Best 50 list, James Beard awards. We learnt the rules of the game, and we played them well—better than anyone.   
But when we reached the No 1 spot in 2017, it was quite disorienting. The journalists, that night, and everyone else asked us: “What next?” That question started to haunt me because I really didn’t have an answer. For 25 years, this was my goal, and by the time we became No 1, there was not a single award that we didn’t win. Once we became No 1, it brought challenges within the team. Different people had different ideas about what to do next—are we going to open restaurants around the world, are we going to open more casual restaurants, are we creating products? It’s like we didn’t have a direction any more. Of course, you can still improve, but it’s harder when you are not fighting for something anymore.   

Also read: Ajay Mariwala 2.0: Spicing it up with a secret sauce
Q. And then the pandemic hit…   
It was devastating for us. We were closed for two years. And by that, I mean completely shut. EMP doesn’t work on the sidewalk. A lot of our team also broke apart because people were on visas… In real estate, they say it’s location, location, location, in the restaurant business, it’s all about the people. And to see that fall apart overnight was devastating. I remember on a Sunday night, we took the team together and told them the mayor has ordered the city to shut down, let’s clean up, and we’ll see each other in two weeks. That team, we were never together again.
The pandemic brought a lot of financial pressures. The restaurant business works on credit—we sell meals tonight, and then we pay for the ingredients in 30 days. So, if you don’t sell meals, you can’t pay. We were facing bankruptcy and I didn’t know if we were going to see EMP again.     
On the other hand, the number of food-insecure people in New York was climbing. Typically, of the eight million people in New York, one million are food insecure—it doesn’t mean homeless, it means the family doesn’t know how to bring every meal to the table. Within the first two weeks, that number went up to two million—that’s 25 percent of the city. That’s when I thought that I have a kitchen, a team, we know how to make delicious food, and we also know farmers whose produce is going bad because the city shut down. So, I turned the restaurant into a community kitchen, working along with non-profit Rethink Food which I co-founded, and we started cooking about 8,000 boxed meals a day. I went into different neighbourhoods to understand how the meals were being distributed. Through that, I got to know New York in a way I had never known before. I met people who had nothing, yet gave everything. And I felt guilty that I had been living here for 20 years, and I only knew my little world, which wasn’t the real New York. I finally started to feel at home in New York in a way I hadn’t done before. And waking up every day I felt what we were doing had a purpose. And that there is so much more to cooking than lavender-glazed duck and butter-poached lobster.     
Q. So, is this the turning point?   
About eight months into the pandemic, our landlord calls me—this was the time we were facing bankruptcy—and says we see what you are doing, we will help you. You owe us nothing and you will open again. At first, I didn’t even know how to react. But then, I started to think creatively again. And I felt I had the opportunity to do both—to use EMP to create beauty continuously through these incredible meals, and also give back. The meals will continue, and now every diner at EMP will also give back as part of the proceeds go to Rethink.    
I also saw how our food system is close to collapsing. Our oceans are filled with plastic, the meat industry is contributing to global warming. Fact is, we are running out of resources to feed the whole planet if we continue the way we are. Something has to change now.    
Equally, the idea of luxury is now an old idea. Take caviar—it’s not a luxurious ingredient today. It’s farm-raised somewhere in a tank in the desert. It doesn’t taste good today. You can probably buy caviar at the JFK airport maybe? And I was guilty of doing this too for a long time. It was complicated—we were a fine-dining restaurant, we had to have caviar and it was scary to let go. So, this time, I knew I had the responsibility while opening a new restaurant. Creatively, the world doesn’t need another preparation of a butter-poached lobster, the world needs something else.    
When you go into a supermarket in the US today, if you enter the dairy section, you’ll see multiple varieties of milk. I am lost when I go there, but what is equally clear is that big food businesses that have the resources to do the research have realised we are running out of resources. They are investing in science to find alternatives. But none of it is taste-based. We chefs have a responsibility to take that because we should create the next milk or the next butter. With that, I have found a new mountain to climb—of making plant-based cooking delicious and beautiful.    
Initially, we all felt we would be limited with this. But, today, when I look back, we were limited before, when we were just cooking seasonal condiments with the fish, the meat—the lobster with lemon, the lobster with onion. Today, the entire dish is completely of the season. What is the main course in a vegetarian meal? It could be a thousand different things. In a typical fine-dining restaurant, you just have, say, five choices—the five types of meat.    
When we reopened, it made headlines around the world in a way we never expected. And the headlines weren’t just about creativity, it became political. We were not prepared for it at all. On one side, for chefs it was challenging because, while we chefs know things have changed, it also brought up fear. It made me an outsider—it was as if I was turning my back to my industry. But that was never my intention.  
But, since then, I’ve become an ambassador to Unesco, I’ve been invited to the UN, at COP26. My role has changed in a way that I wasn’t prepared for, and I’m learning as much as I can as I go.
Q. In the last decade or so, we've seen multiple trends in culinary: Farm to fork, deconstruction, molecular gastronomy, to name a few. These have come, peaked and waned. What makes you confident that plant-based isn't going to be something similar?   
Because this is not a trend. This will not return to where it was. There is no more fish, for instance. I was in Italy now, in the summer. They’re on the coast and they aren’t eating local fish—they are eating fish from somewhere else because there is no fish. There are mountains of plastic in the ocean, fish are getting diseases they never had before, and it’s making us sick too. There is a study that says that, by 2050, we need five planets to feed one planet if we continue to consume this way. There’s not enough. Eighty percent of the farmland in the world is used for animal farming, it accounts for 11 percent of the calories—so it’s not efficient. That’s why this isn’t going away.    
Q. Is plant-only a philosophy you’ve embraced in personal life as well?   
All my life I’ve been fond of vegetables, without being a vegetarian. When I started turning the restaurant plant-based, I first thought about what I was going to do with my work, and then I thought about what I want to eat personally. So, five to six days we are eating plant-based food, and the other day, when you are going out, all of a sudden it feels strange to eat meat. Even, being here in India, there were moments where we had meat, and, for the first time, it felt strange because it’s affecting me. I think there is something spiritual about it.

Also read: Would you pay the 'true' climate cost for food?
Q. During the pandemic you served boxed meals to the underprivileged. How does the chef of a $365 per person restaurant put together meals for the other end of the spectrum? Does the process of one compromise with that of the other?     
No. It, in fact, benefits. We always cook family meals for our staff, we cook with parts of ingredients that we don’t use for the menu. So, our teams eats some of the most delicious-yet-cost-effective meals. Now, we are doing more of it and sharing it with the community.  
For us, it’s been a great benefit of attracting more talent now that we aren’t just cooking for Michelin stars but also pushing plant-forward eating and giving back. Not every restaurant has the opportunity to give back, because making money with a restaurant is hard. For us, it was sort of like Robinhood, taking from the rich people to give back.    
Q. The closure of Noma, another of the most exclusive restaurants in the world, in 2024, has raised a big question mark on fine-dining. Earlier, El Bulli, once the world’s best, also shut down. Do you think fine-dining is dying or is there a sustainable way of doing it?   
One hundred percent. I don’t know who’s saying this, but there’s just no way people are not going to look for these refined experiences. Are we saying creativity is dead? No. That’s just silly. That has to continue, and we have to fight for it to continue because those restaurants are pushing boundaries and impacting tastes. That’s important to maintain. It’s like in fashion—what’s on the runway is impacting what you buy at H&M and Zara. I don’t know who’s saying this, but I don’t think it’s going that way.