Daniel Humm has two words for critics who roasted him after he ditched meat and fish for an all-vegan menu: Beet it!
The chef and owner of Eleven Madison Park has regained gastronomic glory while transforming his NoMad restaurant into a vegan shrine over the past 19 months — and it’s not because of overwhelming support from the press.
When Humm first told diners their 10-course, $365 meal will no longer include duck, lobster and caviar, there was a lot of customer angst, he confirms. Critics, meanwhile, took him to task for serving what they called pricey but predictable vegan fare.
Most famously, New York Times critic Pete Wells said a beet dish “tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint.”
Humm, 48, declined to comment specifically on the tough coverage. But he did admit that, at the outset, concocting an entirely plant-based menu proved to be a bigger challenge than he had braced for.
“In the beginning, we were like, ‘What’s the main course?’” Humm said. “We didn’t know. There was no playbook that said how it’s done.”
In the end, Humm says he was forced to rethink the dining experience. The accolades and acolytes returned, and EMP was awarded three Michelin stars in October — a vegan first. The prestigious restaurant guide praised Humm’s “zealous dedication to masterful precision” and called his all-plant menu “a bold vision of luxury dining.”
“The freshly baked, delicately crisped vegan roll presented with faux butter is a magical creation,” the guide gushed. “A quenelle of tonburi, mimicking caviar, plated with horseradish cream and accompanied by a radish tostada with a swipe of pumpkin seed butter is simply stunning.”
Instead of using seasonal vegetables to accompany animal proteins, the season itself became the story, according to Humm.
“I thought we would be limited but it turns out we were limited before because we were cooking seasonal condiments for meat and fish. Today we are cooking the season completely. The whole dish is of the season.”
Although reservations are no longer impossible to get, the mood in the dining room is “almost euphoric and for sure it is because it is plant-based,” Humm said, adding the diners are younger and more diverse.
“Before, by the time people hit the main course, the energy was crashing. People were full, sleepy and wanted to go home,” the Swiss-born chef said. “Now it’s completely the opposite. As the night goes on, the energy in the dining room completely rises.”
The pandemic was a key driver in forcing Humm, a former professional cyclist, to shift gears. He shut the restaurant and transformed it into a commissary with Rethink Food, founded by an EMP alum, and where Humm serves as a founding board member. The community kitchen served up 1 million meals during the 16 months EMP was closed, he said.
When it was time to reopen the restaurant, Humm said, “it was clear that I needed to use the language of food because the pandemic not only exposed food insecurity, it exposed a lot of broken systems, and I felt that I had a responsibility and unique platform, to be truly honest of what I have seen as a chef.”
Now, Humm said his focus remains squarely on elevating vegan cuisine to its rightful place at the culinary table.
“I wanted to use my language to show that you can have an incredibly delicious, beautiful, magical meal without animal products,” he said. “I’m more convinced than ever that we are on the right side of history.”
Today, part of EMP’s $365-a-person tasting menu (for 8 to 10 courses) and its $195 per person bar tasting menu (6 courses) go towards the cost of the 500 meals a day that EMP chefs cook and serve for the city’s food insecure from their truck. One meal at the restaurant provides five free meals to the food insecure, Humm said.
It’s also a way to repurpose food waste, Humm added — countering criticism in the press to the contrary. He has also been hounded by reports of paying unliveable minimum wages for staff, which he declined to address when asked by Side Dish.
Away from the kitchen, the divorced father of three — who dropped out of school at 14, left home at 15 and had his first child at 18 — has been linked to billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and actress Demi Moore. (His love life was yet another topic he declined to delve into.)
Humm’s passion for plant-based cuisine has made him a poster child for those that kicked off the new year by celebrating “Veganuary” – a global campaign where people pledge to follow a vegan lifestyle for 30 days.
“Restaurants are embracing Veganuary like never before, from corner bodegas to Michelin starred restaurants like Eleven Madison Park,” said Wendy Matthews, US director of the nonprofit’s campaign.
Launched in 2014, a mere 3,325 people pledged to go vegan for a month. That number jumped to 400,000 during the pandemic and was up to 629,000 last year, Matthews said.
We hear … There’s still time to cram in the best of the city’s holiday season from some of the city’s most creative chefs and restaurateurs. Pop-ups abound and holiday decor is everywhere, including the Moxy Hotel’s Magic HOUR Rooftop lounge, with its Instagram-savy apres-ski carousel, and at the Macabee Bar for Hanukkah, in the West Village.