Of all the restaurant cookbooks published this year, it’s hard to beat Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook in terms of sheer beauty. Co-written by chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara, the book is really a portrait of Eleven Madison Park rather than just a collection of its recipes, explaining everything from the role of every kitchen staff member to providing an hour-by-hour timeline of the restaurant’s comings and goings. This year also saw Humm and Guidara take over control of the restaurant from Danny Meyer. We called up the duo to learn more about the book and their vision for the restaurant’s future.
The cookbook is gorgeous, but also a bit intimidating in its complexity. Who did you have in mind when you were writing it?
Daniel Humm: What was really important is that the book really be a piece of the restaurant. We wrote it how the restaurant is today. In our world, we never have something physical that showcases the exact experience. At the same time, we wanted to make it as accessible as possible. We didn’t want to compromise what we were doing, but the way we wrote the recipes were with the American measurements that we don’t use in the kitchen because we realize that not all people have digital scales.
Will Guidara: We try to be a high-end restaurant that focuses on excellence in the way that any three-star Michelin restaurant does. We do it in a way that people who aren’t accustomed to this kind of restaurant can be comfortable. The people we have in mind for the book are the same people as when we run the restaurant. We have an older clientele that you’d expect, but also kids from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side who are into food. We’re the four-star restaurant that appeals to that generation. It’s a balance between hospitality and excellence. The book doesn’t compromise, but we provided alternatives for some of the techniques and gave an email address [for help] for people who struggle with a recipe. If people want to attempt just a puree or ice cream, they’ll have Daniel’s technique.
So have you gotten lots of emails asking for help?
Will Guidara: We’ve gotten hundreds. Some asking for help, but the thing we’ve been excited and entertained by is people making the recipes and sending us their photographs.
Daniel Humm: We have one guy cooking through the whole book, dish by dish, and he takes pictures day by day.
Will Guidara: We’re keeping his email in case things don’t work out with Daniel!
How should readers approach menu planning when using the book?
Daniel Humm: We’re fortunate that we’re in New York City with the Greenmarket, and to use the chapters by seasons. One thing to keep in mind is that some recipes are really elaborate, with 10 recipes in a dish. It doesn’t need all the recipes to make a great dish. Look at the beet salad. [In the restaurant] we use cutters to shape the beets, but just take away the way we cook the beets and the goat cheese and use a vinaigrette and you have a great dish. Focus on the ingredients.
Not everyone has a sous-vide machine or access to liquid nitrogen. What are some of the easier techniques to master that don’t require special equipment?
Daniel Humm: I think with sous-vide, it depends on the recipe, but you can poach or slow-cook something.
Will Guidara: Yeah, it’s not ghetto sous-vide!
Daniel Humm: With liquid nitrogen, in most cases it just helps in terms of a time perspective. For most techniques there are few options. It’s not just one simple answer.
Will Guidara: You can wrap a chicken breast in duct tape and microwave it and it’s like sous-vide.
So that’s the real secret to Eleven Madison Park’s food: duct tape and microwaving! Kidding! OK, the other part of the book that was really interesting were the essays about restaurant life. What were some key moments in your mind that defined your tenure?
Daniel Humm: The first key moment was right in the beginning. It was the moment we started working together. The other was when we decided we were going to be together. Another was after the recession when we did struggle and we miraculously got a four-star review.
Will Guidara: And buying the restaurant from Danny Meyer.
Speaking of that, are you going to change anything now that you have sole ownership?
Will Guidara: I think Danny was a great leader and what we learned from him was letting people do their thing. For the past four years, we’ve been running the restaurant the way we wanted. It’s a constant state of change here, and we’re always looking to reinvent it. We are staying exactly the same in that we’re always changing.
Another thing that I found interesting in the book is the full day’s timeline. What’s your favorite time of day at the restaurant?
Will Guidara: I get into work around 9:30 a.m. I get in early and leave earlier than Daniel, who comes in later and stays later. I like being in the dining room then, before the dining room staff has arrived.
Daniel Humm: For me, I think it’s after service when everything slows down and I have time to talk. In the kitchen early in the day, everyone has such a big list of things to do and their minds are occupied by the daily stuff. By the end of the day, people are freed of that and it’s a good time to reflect on the progress we want to make.
Will Guidara: The kitchen is always so busy that no one ever has time to talk so that’s why Daniel likes it, but in the dining room we talk all day, so that’s why I like it quiet.
Check back in tomorrow, when Daniel and Will explain why job interviews are like first dates.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 15, 2011