“Speaking about 15 years ago made sense. Now it is too late. What we need is not talk about sustainability but radical change,” said Daniel Humm, chef of acclaimed restaurant Eleven Madison Park which turned plant-based when it reopened earlier this year.
In his first public appearance after a scathing review of his restaurant Eleven Madison Park by food critic Peter Wells who revealed in passing that meat was still being served in the restaurant’s private room, Daniel Humm said that facing bankruptcy and suddenly getting comfortable with the idea of losing everything became liberating. “We are not anti-meat. We are pro planet. We have the platform and the resources of a creative team to use that creativity to make a plant-based menu beautiful and delicious,” he said. “Today caviar is used in huge quantities but there is nothing luxurious about it. It is farm raised, it is flown from far away and doesn’t even taste good. It is an old idea of luxury,” the Swiss chef of Eleven Madison Park said.
He was speaking at 50 Best Talks held in Antwerp, Belgium yesterday. It was the first physical event to be organised by The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants since the pandemic. “While it is clear that going plant-based is not an option for many restaurants because when people hear the word vegan they immediately switch off we need to use our resources creatively to make plant-based meals beautiful and delicious.”
“I hope that more people will be empowered to think differently,” he said.
Selassie Atadika who is the chef of Miduno Nomadic restaurant said her challenge was that of sourcing produce correctly. She spoke of the need to convince farmers that they should produce things which she could buy rather than things they want to export. “It is about creating an environment for marginalised people to survive,” she said.
“In my kitchen I serve as a teacher, a story-teller but also as someone who works with farmers,” she said.
There are three things that are necessary. One is to always be open to education, the other is to bring other voices to the table. “There needs to be space for other chefs, suppliers, producers and those who have more expertise than you. We also need to think about how to support businesses in these communities,” she said.
She said that while she served protein in the restaurant the majority of the things she serves are plant-based. When I use animal protein it is to add flavour but I reduce the amount I use which is good for the health of our planet,” she said.
Junghyun Park, chef of Atomix in New York said that his case was different because he only served very few people. “We source protein but it is on a very small scale and always in respect of the seasons.”
Daniel Humm reflected on his decision to go plant-based. He said the COVID-19 pandemic and having cooked over 1 million meals for New York’s poor made him rethink everything. “In particular I started to question what was the point of serving a $350 dinner when 10 minutes away people could not afford food on the table.”
He said that after clinching the top spot in the World’s 50 Best and also 3 Michelin stars he was aware he had an incredible platform. “It became clear to me that I could not reopen the restaurant as before.”
Speaking about well-being of staff in restaurants, he said that one thing had to be tackled which was the elephant in the room. “Restaurants are too cheap. People need to realise they are not paying just for the food but for all the other costs involved. If we want to give our employees better conditions we need to raise the industry’s prices,” he said.
On this point Selassie said that she had an all female team and tried to create a family environment in the kitchen in a country, Ghana, which is very hierarchical. “I have met families, been to funerals and weddings, I’ve even accompanied staff members to university or a doctor,” she said.