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Elite Traveler Speaks to Daniel Humm

By Zahra Al-Kateb

Since becoming New York’s culinary wunderkind, Swiss chef Daniel Humm has been awarded an abundance of accolades, from a four star review in The New York Times to numerous James Beard Awards.

One of the finest chefs under 40, Humm is renowned for simple, seasonal dishes that emphasize local produce and is currently the chef and co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York City alongside Will Guidara.

We caught up with the formidable talent who told us how he has achieved international success, where his love of cooking originates from and what it’s like to be voted as Elite readers’ Chef of the Year.

Congratulations on being named Chef of the Year in the Elite Traveler Top 100 Restaurants. How does it feel to be recognized by the public in this way?

It’s very humbling to receive such an honor, especially one voted on by the diners. Our team works incredibly hard and this accomplishment validates all that work and intensity. It will inspire us to work even harder, to push one another, and to strive for perfection even more. Each and every service at the restaurant must be treated as if it is the only one that matters and in a sense you can say that this raises the expectations for us even more.

Where did your love of cooking originate from?

Food was always an important part of my childhood and my mother was the first to truly get me interested in cooking. So many of our meals were cooked at home and I regularly joined her when she went shopping at local markets, prepped ingredients, and cooked meals for our family. I was exposed to some amazing ingredients and learned to appreciate the simple things like great produce and locally made products.

Was it always your intention to work within fine dining?

It was not always my intention, but around the age of 12 it became my goal to cook. Being in the kitchen felt natural to me: It was a place where I was able to use my hands, be creative and learn a craft. As I worked more and more in kitchens I developed an immense love of cuisine, of the precision that fine dining required, the order of the kitchen, and I continued down that path.

Now, I see what we do as fine dining for sure, but what I believe we do differently than many of the places I used to work is placing an equal emphasis on what happens in the kitchen and the dining room. Fine dining has changed over the past few decades and now we’re in this unique position to redefine it, employ graciousness at all levels and match that with delicious food.

How do you think your upbringing in Switzerland has influenced your technique?

I believe that what my mother exposed me to in terms of early food and cooking experiences really set the tone and the foundation for my interest in food. But it was my time in the kitchen where precision and technique truly became a focus of mine. Growing up and working in Swiss kitchens you didn’t think about other restaurants, other chefs around the world; you just focused on working your hardest at the best Swiss restaurants you could. I believe that the work ethic learned in those kitchens helped me acquire a lot of the essentials, as well as form a very intense work ethic.

The menu at Eleven Madison Park focuses on the agricultural bounty of New York. Why do you think it is important to source local ingredients?

When Will and I were having a deep discussion about what our focus would be, where we would draw inspiration from,  and what we wanted our narrative to be, we were a bit shocked to see that so many restaurants in New York don’t actually honor this place. We love the ingredients here, the access to farmers, artisans, beautiful waters, as well as the history, and we wanted our cuisine and our experience to have a sense of place. In order to do that we must look locally, celebrate the crops and goods that are harvested by some of the hardest working people I know. Looking local also allows us to get inspired by the seasons and to build relationships with people who genuinely care about their products and the way in which they are produced and harvested.

How do you spend your free time?

Physical activity for me is very important, whether it’s a bike ride, hike, run, or yoga – it provides balance in my life, almost acting as a reset button. Chefs work long hours, we are on our feet constantly, and we also enjoy a good meal, sometimes multiple in one evening. Working some exercise into my day allows me to re-focus.

You recently opened The NoMad and NoMad Bar at The NoMad Hotel. Do you have any plans to open any further restaurants?

Not at the moment, as we certainly have our hands full with everything going on at NoMad and Eleven Madison Park.

As well as releasing The NoMad Cookbook, what are your plans for 2015?

We’re always working to get better, to improve our food, our service, and our experience, and those goals exist every single year. We certainly have already planned 2015, but we’re also starting to document how Eleven Madison has changed, how the menu has shifted, and we’re hoping to turn that story into a book one day as well.

Is there a dish at Eleven Madison Park at the moment that really stands out for you?

Naming just one dish is difficult because I’m proud of them all and each dish contributes to the story of the meal. If I had to choose just one though, then it would be the celery root on our menu right now. I love celery root and we are preparing it in an inflated pig’s bladder, the earliest method of sous vide cooking, and we pair the celery root with black truffle purée. When plated the dish only uses a few ingredients and I love the simplicity of it. Often times simple cooking can be more difficult than complex cooking with multiple ingredients or techniques and I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with this dish.

Which up-and-coming young chefs do you hold in high regard and why?

Chris Kostow of Meadowood is really doing some amazing things out west. His restaurant, his cookbook, and his overall style of cooking continues to impress me. He’s not an up-and-comer, he is here and he is definitely one of the most exciting chefs – also watching his path since our days at Campton Place is very special.

I’m also excited to see two of our former sous chefs finding incredible success at their own restaurants: Bryce Shuman at Betony in New York City and Lee Wolen at Boka in Chicago. Both of them are amazing chefs, but also some of the best people I’ve worked with and I’m very proud of what they’ve accomplished.