When Eleven Madison Park, New York reopens on 10 June, it will be the world’s first three Michelin star plant-based restaurant. Will it retain three stars when Michelin inspectors visit again? Will they make an exception? Will they see this as the sign of the times? And more importantly, can Daniel Humm reinvent himself as the world’s leading vegetable and plant-based chef having reached the pinnacle already once?
For those who don’t know Daniel Humm, he is chef and today the owner of Eleven Madison Park, a three Michelin star restaurant in New York and one that has already been World’s 50 Best Restaurants no 1 restaurant in 2017.
The Swiss chef is not one to shy away from challenges and his story is nothing short of fascinating. Having failed to make his mark in cycling when he was young, he set his sights on cooking as a way of reaching the top. One story he says is that of being sent home when he was young for telling his art teacher he could not draw a house he had in mind because the paper was too small, Daniel is setting himself up for the greatest challenge of all.
The pandemic has clearly given each and every one of us a lot of time to think and reflect. For some this has meant the need for reinvention and at 45, Daniel is on the cusp of doing something that is not only bold and risky but also inspiring.
Like many other chefs across the world, he turned his 3 Michelin star restaurant kitchen into a soup kitchen cooking over 1 million meals for the food insecure in New York. It is a project that helped him reconnect with food in a completely different way and one he wants to continue.
But most of all, it has given him time to think about a more sustainable future. When the restaurant reopens, he will no longer be serving his signature dishes from duck to caviar or langoustines. Instead, vegetables will take centre stage.
In a world that needs to do something about a looming climate crisis, Daniel Humm knows that drastic change is required. He could have taken an easier option creating exceptions here and there. Instead he is leading from the top and putting his money where his mouth is.
They say that the best creativity comes from creating constraints and in this he is clearly creating the largest possible constraints known to chefs. Gone are the use of butter, eggs, animal fat which are the foundation of cuisine and flavour and instead Daniel will use ‘time’ and creativity to create deliciousness.
Can time be the new caviar? It certainly is the new luxury. He himself said in an interview that creating something special with a vegetable takes much longer than doing it with meat or fish. And that’s understandable because we all are accustomed to meat or fish taking centre stage in any meal so thinking about a vegetable or plant as a centre-piece requires a lot of out of the box thinking.
Daniel said that the change is easier to make now that the restaurant is closed and he thinks it would not have been possible to change to plant-based from one day to the next if the restaurant had been open.
The pandemic has been a great accelerator of change. This is one of the largest changes that I’ve seen in the food and restaurant world. Daniel should be not only applauded but also supported for making this decision.
Other chefs have attempted a vegetable-based cuisine at very high levels. We all remember René Redzepi of Noma with his summer vegetable based menu (which this year will be supplemented with seafood because as Rene himself said the Copenhagen market alone is not yet ready for a full vegetarian menu. Then there was Alain Passard who has been using vegetables more and more in his cuisine but never completely eliminating meat or fish from the menu. But never has one before announced going fully plant-based.
The cost of a meal at Eleven Madison park remains the same but each meal will also help feed 5 insecure people in New York. What’s most important, however, is that customers will no longer pay for the ‘caviar’, which they can eat in any case at home, but rather for the creativity and the time of the restaurant staff.
Story telling will be extremely important. How this story is told will not just make or break the restaurant but it could have a major impact on how we look at food at the highest level in future.
There will be some who will call this a publicity stunt, who might criticise the price for eating vegetables and ‘salad’, albeit in the hands of one of the world’s best chefs. Some will say that this does not really make a difference to our future. After all can one restaurant change the world?
But it is such action at the very top that can inspire future generations to take the plunge and reinvent the way we look at food and sustainability. Of course there are many approaches, some better than others, some more drastic than others but what’s important is that we take the steps to make the world more sustainable.
Rooting for Daniel is rooting for our future. That’s why it is essential that he succeeds.