I have this ritual: after I have an audition in NY, I treat myself to a glass of wine at the restaurant down the street from my agency. The twist here is that this post-audition tipple is at the bar of Eleven Madison Park, ranked as the 4th best restaurant in the world, and consistently garnering 3 Michelin stars. This is a far cry from the post-audition snack of McDonalds apple pie I used to indulge myself with ten years ago. From the drive thru, no less. But I’ve worked hard, and I feel deserving of a glorious goblet of red hued perfection – the fact that the closest locale is one of the world’s most lauded restaurants – well, that’s just serendipity. So when I had the privilege of meeting Chef Daniel Humm at the 60th anniversary for Relais & Chateau at the French Consolate, I shared with him my ritual. His response: “But you’ve never had the food?” The tone in his voice said this would be rectified.
Fast forward to the next day: I knew the food would be exceptional. I knew it would be layered with precision, and thought, with unsurpassed technique and unparalleled service. Restaurants of this caliber have to be. What I wasn’t expecting in this multi-course adventure that Chef Humm crafted for me, was the wholly satisfying component that is often lacking from Michelin course meals: soul. A humble bowl of tomato broth with a thyme sprig transported me to eating tomato sandwiches with my grandmother – it conjured beautiful memories; it smelled like summer but warmed like autumn. Then there was the whimsy – a play on a deli meal paired with house sodas, a cheese course tucked into a picnic basket (pretzel bread and beer in tow), and a smoked fish presentation that did everything but say “tah-dah” – it was unequivocally magical. And to talk to Daniel through each of these courses – to hear about the cycling injury that kept him off his bike and propelled him into the kitchen, how he strives for excellence and balances being a dad and a chef – that was the proverbial icing on the cake (or in this case, the duck fat butter on the brioche). He shared how years ago one critic said Eleven Madison Park needed “more Miles Davis” and that instead of discouraging him, it became their ethos. So much so that pictures of Miles hang in the kitchen along with words that parallel the artist and EMP. Pictures I was able to see when I went backstage to have my dessert – an apple shaved ice – churned out a few feet from the mise en place. This place, this chef, are both absolutely surreal.
I am so humbled to have Chef Humm on Chefs Talks today – yes, because he’s at the top of his game – yes, because Eleven Madison Park serves up undoubtedly the best meal I’ve ever had, but also because this experience is a reminder that fancy need not be fussy, and that not all Michelin starred chefs are created equal.
- What’s the staff meal your kitchen gets most excited about?
Staff meal is so important for me and for the restaurant. People come and go from our team, but family meal always gives everyone a chance to express themselves, to share a taste of their culture, background, or interests with the team. It’s very motivating for us all and I’ve learned so much from my team and been exposed to so many foods and ingredients simply through our family meals. We’ve had some great ones, Greek-seasoned meatballs with tzatziki, bolognese with garlic bread, a Korean feast, and I remember this one Thai cook that prepared a meal using all her mother’s recipes, it was amazing.
- What is the one knife you can’t live without?
I love Victorinox Knives and they hold a special place in my heart. When I first told my dad I wanted to be a chef he wasn’t pleased, but he said “at least you are going to have good tools” and gave me a set of Victorinox knives.
- What’s your naughty food indulgence?
BBQ Pop Chips.
- What’s your mini bar go to?
A granola bar or bag of nuts. If I’m reaching into the mini bar I’m usually desperate for some energy and a quick snack.
- If you could stage at any restaurant in your city, where would it be and why?
I’m obsessed with Japanese food culture —the focus on ingredients, simplicity, and sensibility—and it would be amazing to spend some time with a chef like Masa Takayama to learn from a master.
- After a long day at work you go home and…?
Turn on some music and read The TIG.
- If you weren’t working in a kitchen, what would you be doing?
I’d be riding bikes professionally.
- Drink of choice?
I’m very lucky at both restaurants to be surrounded by some of the most talented bartenders and I love to taste their new creations.
- One cookbook you can’t live without/most referenced?
Michel Bras’ Essential Cuisine. That has been the most influential book for me and my cooking style. It was so far ahead of its time and still today it is considered one of the most forward thinking books. It is unbelievable and it changed my life
- What’s the most overrated ingredient?
Microgreens and baby vegetables – the use is out of hand and often out of season.
- Describe your cooking in one word:
Photos via: Meghan’s Own, The New Potato, CBS