As part of our Chef Chat series, we talk with Daniel Humm, the head chef of Eleven Madison Park. Humm reveals that the key to restaurant longevity lies in the art of reinvention.
How would you define American cuisine?
American cuisine is so hard to define. After much thought, I believe it’s focused on the products that can be sourced across the country and the way in which the seasons dictate the ingredients.
Cooking what is around us and what is available to us is now commonplace and is the backbone of this country’s cuisine.
Yes, there are regional elements that come into play and intensely cultural dishes that remain integral to a certain city, but overall the cuisine is about showcasing the ingredients available in one’s own back yard.
Your interest in cooking started around the age of 14, is that correct? What is one piece of advice you would give to an emerging chef, something you wish you had known when you first started out?
Yes, I found cooking to be a real passion of mine at a young age. The profession has certainly changed over the years, but one bit of advice I always share with our young cooks and staff is that you must look for inspiration in unexpected places.
Don’t focus only on what other chefs or restaurants are doing, but look to other artists, other brands and other people you respect.
What is the key to restaurant longevity?
Always look for ways to evolve and reinvent. We’ve created a culture that embraces change and that has really allowed us to maintain relevance while constantly pursuing excellence.
How has your heritage influenced your food?
Growing up in Switzerland, I was exposed to the beauty and bounty of food at a very young age. I would join my mother at the farmer’s market almost every morning. We ate seasonally, locally, and I’d lend a hand in the kitchen preparing ingredients and getting meals on the table.
I learned about the importance of quality ingredients and of developing a relationship with the hardworking farmers we bought our goods from. That’s certainly had a lasting impact on my career and how I approach each and every dish.
What makes your menu unique?
The inspiration behind the menu comes from so many places, from so many different industries, and brands we respect. It also comes from New York, our home, and from the deep culinary cultural roots here.
This allows us to create a narrative and build an experience for our guests that is unique, but also familiar at the same time. You have a sense of place here at Eleven Madison Park that’s truly New York.
In the dining experience, how much value would you place on food quality, service, presentation and ambience?
For a dining experience to be truly great, all these factors need to come into play. They need to work in harmony. The quality of the food is the first thing diners will notice, but if the service is lacking, or the ambience is off, food quality is only so important.
Balance is key. Teamwork is key. There is no such thing as back of house or front of house in our restaurant, as it’s all seamless support.
When national dishes have been transplanted, can they be as authentic as they are in their homeland?
Absolutely. What it comes down to is the quality of the dish and the ingredients it is prepared with. Once those things are in place I believe a dish can travel around the world and be just as delicious as where it came from. It’s the ability of chefs to succeed in transplanting dishes around the world that helps cuisine as a whole spread and evolve.
Can fusion food work without diluting culture and identity?
I think that so much of food is about bringing ideas together and finding ways to develop concepts and dishes, as well as utilising and revering local ingredients. Some people might call that fusion, others may not.
I do believe that having roots in a cuisine or a culture is important, but that it’s also important to look forward and to reinvent.
What is the next evolution in the cuisine world?
Many great chefs, ideas and restaurants in South and Central America are bringing a lot of indigenous ingredients and recipes to the attention of the culinary world.
Just like the emergence of Nordic cuisine and its influence, I believe we are seeing something similar with the cuisines and ingredients of South and Central America. I’m excited to see what’s next.