Swiss chef Daniel Humm heads up the kitchen at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park, which received four stars from Frank Bruni in 2009. Humm started his first cooking apprenticeship when he was 14, and after cheffing restaurants in Switzerland and San Francisco he came to Eleven Madison Park as executive chef in 2006.
Humm was nice enough to talk to us even though his wife was in the early stages of labor. Turn the page for his thoughts on getting four stars, recognizing Frank Bruni, Twittering chefs and Obama’s first term–and why his staff might Google you if you make a reservation.
Check back here later today for the second half of the interview, in which Humm talks sports, books, and war.
How are things at Eleven Madison Park after the four-star New York Times review?
Things are going great. The review was a while ago now, but we’re still going strong. You know, the excitement of the team is lasting. When you receive such a review, it’s an accomplishment, but also a commitment to the future. We had some strategy meetings in the beginning of the year, when we kind of decided our new goals for next year. And it’s really exciting. We have a lot more that we want to contribute as a restaurant.
So what are some of those goals for next year?
I think, for one thing, when you have that review in your pocket, you can act more confident. As far as the food, you don’t need to try so hard anymore. That doesn’t mean you’re not working just as hard as before, but you feel you don’t need to do what all the other restaurants are doing.
As a young chef, to make people pay attention to you, you’ve got to push the envelope a bit, show off a bit. One one plate you might have five different cooking techniques and 10 ingredients, just to show you can do these intricate things.
But now, with four stars, less is more, you have that confidence. Maybe there is a meat, a vegetable, a sauce, and that’s it. Some of the cooks would say: But this other restaurant has some potato, some rice. But if you’re a little more confident…
You know, on the way to getting there you to compete with all the best restaurants, you have to have the most expensive china, the most this and that. Some of it you do need, but now we can be selective: We at Eleven Madison Park believe in this, and this is where we are going to spend our money. We don’t need to ride every wave. We can let other restaurants do that.
But is isn’t resting on our laurels, it’s the opposite.
We can do stuff that some restaurants don’t do. We talk a lot about coming home versus going out. We always want to be the four-star restaurant of the new generation, and do certain things that feel like going out, but then other things that feel like coming home. Like cooking some food that’ s shared family-style, or at the end of the meal, we put some cognac on the table, and guests can just drink it, like in a trattoria. Just like something that’s done in casual restaurants but that we really like. Whatever that we love and feels right, we want to do. We don’t live in that box anymore.
Did you recognize Frank Bruni when he came in?
[Laughs] Of course, we recognized him. But over the years that he has reviewed us, he probably ate with us 20 times. Anybody who eats with us 20 times, we’re going to recognize, you don’t even need to use the same name. Our staff is in tune with the guests. If we see people a few times times we say: hold on, we’ve seen these people before, and we can figure it out. We left him alone but we were aware of who he was.
But you know, the thing is, I believe so much that even if you recognize a critic or anybody, if you are a mediocre restaurant you can’t become a great restaurant. You have to live it all the time, that’s the only way to achieve a review like that.
But yes, part of our job is being aware of who is eating with us. We Google people. We want to know-the more we know about our guests, the more we can facilitate the experience.
Are you on Twitter?
I’m not on Twitter. You know, I’ve thought about it and I think…I see some people doing it successfully, but you’ve got to be interesting. You’ve got to do it five or six times a day; you’ve got to think of a good sentence; you’ve got to be funny. It becomes like another job, just to be on Twitter. I have considered it, it’s the new thing, and I think you can create buzz. Done right it can be a great tool.
How about you, are you on Twitter?
I’m required to for work, yes. But I agree, some people really are good at it. They have a knack for it.
Are you good at it?
No! Nope, I’m not.
I just don’t think that way, in those short sentences. It’s a kind of PR. What would the world be interested in? Maybe one day.
Do you get a lot of people taking pictures of food in your dining room? Do you allow it?
Absolutely, we allow it as long as it doesn’t interrupt other guests. If someone takes out a tripod and flashes, then we have to say: I’m sorry, but… For me, as a chef, it’s an honor that people are so much into the food that they want to take pictures. I have no problem with it.
There is the one aspect: Often these pictures they take, they’re going to post them on their blogs, and you know, the it’s not quite the quality you want, the food is half eaten. You could get upset about it, but because it happens so often I think people know it’s not really a reflection of the restaurant.
So your wife is pregnant, and her due date was yesterday. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me right now!
Still waiting, yeah, but it will probably be tonight or tomorrow.
Is this your first child?
It’s our second child. I’m not in the restaurant right now because this morning she had some contractions, so we’ve been waiting, and this is the first part of labor. The doctor said not to move her too much anymore. It’s going to be soon.
What do you think about Obama’s first term?
I’m not very involved in politics, but from the outside, I was very excited, in the beginning, I thought he was definitely the right choice. But I think people expected more, or maybe he promised a little too much, and now he has a hard time living up to it. And I also feel like he wants to do right for everyone, you know, maybe he’s concerned about being reelected. I feel he should act more from his beliefs rather than always trying to make it right for everyone. But that’s politics. What do you think?
I agree with you– he was elected, he has the majority, and nothing’s ever going to be unanimous. He should push through the policies that he said he would, and not worry so much about getting a consensus.
But also, to his credit, it’s a very hard thing to do. Very difficult.
What do you think about Sarah Palin? Is she going to run for president in 2012?
She’s fucking crazy, and I hope she will never be president. I mean, it’s scary to watch her.
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