Chef Daniel Humm shocked the fine dining world last year when his upscale New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park went vegan. But he vindicated himself from haters when the restaurant became the first plant-based establishment to be awarded three stars by the Michelin guide.
“The plant-based menu is a bold vision of luxury dining,” proclaimed the 2022 New York Michelin guide, adding that it hoped recognizing Eleven Madison Park would encourage other chefs to embrace sustainability.
Daniel Humm’s story
Daniel Humm was born in Switzerland in 1976 and began working in kitchens when he was only 14. After a series of early jobs in fine Swiss hotels and restaurants, he earned his first Michelin star at the age of 24.
Humm moved to San Francisco in 2003 and became executive chef at Campton Place. The then 26-year-old got rave write-ups in local papers for his critter-centric dishes like lobster salad and foie gras. Humm moved to New York in 2006, where he and business partner Will Guidara started what would become the fine dining establishment Eleven Madison Park.
In 2017, Eleven Madison Park topped a world’s 50 best restaurants list. They were known for a $335 per person tasting menu, often featuring duck with honey and lavender. Humm and Guidara branched out into other enterprises, including running food and beverage at New York’s Nomad hotel and opening a new restaurant within Claridge’s hotel in London.
Humm was known for signature dishes like clams with fennel, smoked-sturgeon cheesecake with caviar and lobster poached in mushroom butter. All a far cry from vegan. And then everything changed.
The switch to vegan
Like most restaurants, Eleven Madison Park closed for the pandemic. It reopened vegan.
“And the way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable. And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact,” Humm said on an episode of the “How I Built This” podcast. “So we decided that our restaurant will be 100% plant-based.”
The new menu featured a 12-course tasting menu for $335, the same price as pre-pandemic, but without the corpses. New dishes included cucumber with melon and smoked daikon, fried pepper with Swiss chard and zucchini with lemongrass and marinated tofu.
Would Eleven Madison Park keep its long-held Michelin stars after this switch? Humm wasn’t sure. After winning the recent award, he said, “If we receive the awards then that’s a wonderful thing, and if we don’t, we are taking the risk and we’ve got to be okay with that too.”
The three-star award for Eleven Madison came on Oct. 6, as Michelin revealed its winners for the New York area. The other three-star winners were Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, Le Bernardin, Masa and Per Se.
Haters going to hate
Some people met Eleven Madison Park’s switch to plant-based with skepticism, criticism and even a bad New York Times review. It turns out that when you say you’re going to make big changes for environmental reasons, suddenly you’re scrutinized in a way that other fine dining establishments aren’t. There’s a stereotype of restaurant staff working hard for long hours and not necessarily for high pay. But suddenly Humm seemed to be facing more allegations of questionable working conditions than other restaurants. People also speculated that Humm only switched to a vegan menu as an extra challenge to winning prizes, and questioned whether he himself followed a completely vegan diet.
Then, there’s the price. Diners asked how a meal of vegetables could possibly cost $335. Many people assume it’s not dinner if nobody died, and a spectacular creature must die spectacularly to warrant that sort of price tag. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to spend $335 for dinner. But I’d rather be merely profligate than a conspirator to murder, so I’ll stick with the vegetables, thank you.
New releases and holiday specials
“We currently have released a holiday assortment for Thanksgiving and are planning a celebration of truffle for the winter,” said Daniel DiStefano, executive chef of Made Nice.
Made Nice is Eleven Madison Park’s fast casual arm. Thanksgiving offerings include an apple granola crumble pie, caramel apples, stuffing mix, cranberry chutney and cocktail mixers. Or check out the restaurant’s ultimate budget buys on its sweet and salty snack page, where you can try granola, heirloom popcorn and spiced nuts for $8 to $25.
“In addition we have recently (just this week) released an exclusive line of limited collaboration homewares made by some of our closest artisans and inspired by the experience at Eleven Madison Park,” DiStefano said.
Photography by Evan Sung