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The success of Daniel Humm’s new meat-free cuisine

If you are a vegetarian (or a vegan), then you will know what it feels like to go to a fine dining restaurant, especially one abroad.

It will be clear that the chef has no real interest in your meal and that he is cooking it only because he has been forced to.


For instance, the British Chef Gordon Ramsay, has said that he is ‘allergic’ to vegans and the TV presenter Anthony Bourdain once said “vegetarians are the enemy of everything good and decent in the human spirit,  an affront to everything I stand for.”


   The clearest signal that the tide has finally turned came a few weeks ago when the Michelin guide awarded three stars, its highest accolade, to Eleven Madison Park in New York, making it the only restaurant in the world with a fully plant-based menu to be ranked among the world’s best.


   The stars are the latest honour for Daniel Humm, long regarded as one of the world’s best chefs, who risked everything, including his business and his reputation, when he decided to take meat and dairy off the menu. Humm has single-handedly proved that a restaurant does not need to serve meat to be highly regarded. While vegan restaurants are often treated as places that serve boring food to cranks and faddists, Eleven Madison Park is about fun and excellence. And about saving the planet.


   Some of you may remember Humm from his visit to India in 2018 (when I wrote about him here). He was here for over a fortnight, travelled around the country and ate only Indian food. When he went back to New York, he put rasam and a dosa on the Eleven Madison Park menu and experimented with kulfi.


   That year, Eleven Madison Park was number one on the list of the World’s Fifty Best restaurants and had earned three Michelin stars for several years. But, even while he was at the top of his profession, Humm was still searching, looking for new ideas and new cuisines.


   When we next met at Davis and Brook, his London restaurant in 2020, I got the sense that Humm was pulling back from some of his success. He owned a second restaurant brand called Nomad, which ran successful outposts in New York and Los Angles and was due to open in London. But Humm sold Nomad and bought out his long term business partner in Eleven Madison Park.


   I asked him what was going on. All his contemporaries in New York were opening new restaurants. But Humm was cutting back. He replied that he did not want to be rich. He just wanted to focus on Eleven Madison Park and ensure that it stayed the best restaurant in the world.


   A few months later, the pandemic hit and the restaurant closed down. Because the virus hit New York hard, the lockdown was strict and Humm began spending more time by himself at home.


   Three things have always struck me about Humm. The first is that he is always conscious of the need to help the community. The second is that while he draws the line at calling himself an artist, many of his reference points are from the art world, not the food world. And the third is that even though he seems friendly and gregarious, he is essentially an introvert who inhabits a parallel world inside his own head.


   All three came to the fore during the pandemic. Humm turned Eleven Madison Park into a modern version of a soup kitchen, cooking thousands of meals each day which he and his staff delivered to New Yorkers who were food-insecure or had been pushed into poverty during the pandemic.


 "Chefs are being forced to acknowledge that the old style meaty menus are dying. Gordon Ramsay is now praising vegan food." 

   And then, he began to think about what he would do when the pandemic ended. He thought of the sculptor Louise Bourgeois, who used the spider as a symbol. A spider creates a perfect web, drawing on nothing else but its own inner resources. And if the web is destroyed or torn, it starts again from scratch, creating another web, which is just as beautiful. In some ways, Humm turned into that spider. He had created the world’s best restaurant. But now, the pandemic had broken the web. He was going to start all over again, pulling out the thread from deep inside his soul.


   But what kind of web would it be?


   Even as Humm was thinking it through, he had to face up to economic realities. With the restaurant shut, there were no revenues. For the first part of the lockdown, he paid a high rent on the space. Some estimates suggest that his company lost $15 million during that phase. Filing for bankruptcy became a real possibility.


   Fortunately, before it could come to that, Humm was able to re-open Eleven Madison Park. He was told not to worry; guests would come back, looking for familiarity and comfort. But Humm decided not to offer that same easy familiarity and comfort on his menu. Instead, he would take all animal products out of the kitchen and go completely plant-based.


   Last week, when we did a long Zoom interview for this column, I asked him why he took such a huge chance when he was on the verge of bankruptcy. His answers made sense—the planet was in danger, all of us had to cut back on meat etc.—and yet they did not.


   Why risk everything at a time of adversity when there was a clear and comfortable road ahead?


   Humm has no real explanation except that the only voice he listened to was the one inside his head. And that told him that he had to change the direction of his food.


   We now know what happened next. The new plant-based menu was a big hit. The restaurant is now booked out months ahead. Even so, says Humm, he did not think the restaurant would keep its three Michelin stars and was surprised and overjoyed when it did.


   Not all of the responses have been favourable. The restaurant was savaged by the New York Times in a review that Humm says he was shocked by. There was a lot of negativity in the food media which clearly hurt Humm. But the guest responses were so positive that they made up for the negative media. Humm forwarded me a letter he had received from a cattle breeder from Texas who came to the restaurant and had what he called, “A life changing experience.”


   Humm is conscious of the impact the restaurant’s success will have on fine dining around the world. “Nobody building a car factory today can build an old-style factory,” he says. “The electric car has changed all that.” Something similar, he suggests, is happening to food. Nobody can open a fine dining restaurant in exactly the same way that they would have done it five years ago.


   Any new restaurant will have to take into account the trend towards plant-based food. As the international director of the Michelin guide said: Eleven Madison Park’s success will make a new generation of chefs “take bold steps in creating innovative dining  experiences that please the palate, emphasise the importance of sustainability and inspire change. Eleven Madison Park is the North Star they can fix their eyes upon as they navigate their gastronomic journey.”


   Chefs are being forced to acknowledge that the old style meaty menus are dying. Gordon Ramsay is now praising vegan food. A few months ago, Alain Ducasse told me how much he enjoyed his meal at Eleven Madison Park and how all chefs will have to pay more attention to vegetables. Not all of this is because of Humm. He did not invent veganism. But he did demonstrate that it was not incompatible with fine dining and culinary excellence.


   It couldn’t have happened, Humm told me, if he still had partners and was planning to build a restaurant empire. To take this kind of risk he needed to be on his own so that he would be the only one to take the decisions and to face the consequences if it all went wrong.


   It was such a characteristic Humm observation that it reminded me of what he is at his core: if not an artist, then certainly a chef who thinks like an artist, working alone to create something that captures the vision he has in his head.



Posted On: 28 Oct 2022 12:00 PM
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