Eleven Madison Park Sous Chef Connie Chung: Understanding Someone Else's Vision Helps You Understand Your Own
Connie Chung works on Eleven Madison Park's (11 Madison Avenue, 212-889-0905) show-stopping creations alongside Daniel Humm and a legion of other sous chefs. The 29-year-old was raised in a Chicago suburb, and she spent spent much of college ODing on food porn, so she decided to make cooking her career. Here, she talks about how understanding Humm's vision helps her understand her own, how fancy stuff can mess up a dish, and how quickly cooks eat.
Why do you like cooking? I really enjoy the idea of creating something that not only brings basic sustenance to people but can also bring so much satisfaction and comfort. It can be as structured and as creative as you want it to be.
What made you want to be in this industry? College was the first time I really got to cook for myself, and I loved it. I loved throwing dinner parties for my friends. I loved what that brought to my life. As I was completing my degree, I came to the realization that sitting in a lab at a computer crunching data from experiments was not what I wanted to do with my life. So I decided to take this thing that I enjoyed so much and make it my career.
Wow, dinner parties in college -- what were they like? I was a Food Network and food magazine junkie. Whenever I saw or read something I thought was cool, I'd make it into an excuse for a dinner party. Most adventurous endeavor -- turducken.
What is it like to execute someone else's vision? It's really educational. When you try to execute someone else's vision, you have to have a clear idea of what that is, which is really difficult. But when you gain a better understanding of someone else's vision, you learn what you like and what you don't like, and that helps you gain a better understanding of what your own vision is.
So what have you learned about your own vision? Food needs to have thought. It needs to make sense, but don't overthink it. The best dishes are usually the simplest that just focus on being delicious. When you get into trying to make this tuile or this emulsion or using this powder, the food gets cluttered and confused.
What are some lessons you've picked up? Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Any mentors? I'm surrounded by such a young and talented team. They inspire and motivate every day. And, of course, Daniel Humm.
What do you admire about Humm? Not only does he have a great palate, but his drive and passion are so inspirational. His never-ending drive for perfection pushes each and every one of us to be better every day.
What's the hardest thing about working there? Not to take things personally. When you create a dish, work on a project, work with a cook, and the dish sucks, or the project fails, or the cook makes a mistake, it's so hard to not take that as a personal blow to your ability as a chef, your organization skills, or your ability to teach. But it's not about that. You can't succeed if you never try. And you can't always succeed when you try. There have to be failures to counterbalance the successes. And those failures are not always your fault.
What are some examples of creative stuff you get to contribute? The great thing about our kitchen is everyone gets a chance to contribute. In my position, a larger portion of my time is devoted to working on new dishes. A good example is the communal courses like the new deli course with house-made pastrami and four different flavors of soda.
Of course, the New York flavors. How does a big menu change affect you? At Eleven Madison Park, we change the menu in its entirety every three months. With over 15 courses, it's definitely a challenge. I work with chef and the other sous chefs to develop new dishes. I then oversee recipe writing, editing, and costing. Finally, I make sure all the information is gathered and standardized so that we can share it with the cooks and prepare them for the big change.
What are your hours like? I generally go in around 8 or 9 a.m. and leave around 9 p.m. If we have a photo shoot, or are coming up on a big menu change, it'll be a little longer. Whatever it takes to get the job done!
What do you want to do eventually? I used to think that I wanted a small restaurant of my own. Nothing mind-blowing. Just a great little spot where people just go to have great food. It's what a lot of young chefs want. But like everything else, life changes. Now I'm not so sure. I'm excited to see where this will take me. This is definitely an exciting road we're on.
What's your experience eating with the kitchen staff? Cooks can eat really, really quickly.
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