Road to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017: Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park
Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are the duo behind Eleven Madison Park, a three-michelin-star restaurant in New York City, named third best in the world last year at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony. While Humm is in charge of the kitchen and known for sharp flavours and impeccable execution, Guidara has raised the bar of front of house demeanour with fun and bespoke treatment of the guests. Ahead of the first major renovation in 11 years, we’ve caught up with them while they were on their way to the Hampton house that will host the restaurant over the summer.
Hi Daniel/Will, it’s a pretty good moment to catch up with you considering your projects.
Will Guidara: Yes, we’re actually on our way to the Hamptons right now which is where we’re doing the restaurant pop-up while we’re closed.
Speaking of that, can you tell us about your renovation of EMP, is it going to be a radical change?
Daniel Humm: Everything changes, from the dining room to the kitchen – really everything, even the bathrooms: a total renovation. But, at the same time, we want to really embrace the room know, it’s a really historic room in a historic building. Do you know anything about the building?
Actually I don’t
D: Okay, so the building was built in the 20s, and it was supposed to become the tallest building in the world. In 1929, it was halted due to the Great Depression. They ran out of money. And the building ended up with only like 30 stories instead of a hundred. And what we ended up with is this incredible dining room, that was supposed to be a lobby of the building – so it’s very historic, it has huge windows and it’s done in this Art Deco style and I think with this renovation, in fact, we are bringing the room even more back to its original state. We’re really embracing the room and the building.
W: I think that when people walk into the restaurant, after the renovation, it will be very clear that it’s different, but it will also feel very familiar. If we’ve done our job correctly, then that will be the result. But it’s exciting for us because we’ve been running the restaurant for 11 years now, and we’ve changed the experience several times but we’ve never had the opportunity to really reinvest and change physically the restaurant itself and so to be able to do that, and kind of in a way allow it to catch up to the experience that we’ve been surveying within it, is really, really exciting for us.
How is the menu going to reflect this change?
D: You know, along the way, we’ve changed a lot, and there have been times when we changed the format, our menu. We’ve probaly done more radical changes in the past. The restaurant already evolves every single year, and with this renovation we’re not planning to change that pattern. However, of course when you renovate, and you have a team like we have – which is very collaborative and super creative – everyone is super fired up about this change and of course our minds. Such a renovation will inspire creativity, you know, such a renovation.
Before closing and moving to the Hamptons over the summer, I understand you are going to do a retrospective “greatest hits” menu based on spring?
How did you pick the dishes?
D: It’s been really fun. We have been at EMP for 11 years so we wanted to do an 11-course retrospective menu of the last 11 years. So basically we looked through the menus, and we looked at the dishes that were most significant during that time. Some of them were very significant for us, for our own development, and some of them were very significant because of the reviews we got – and some just for the guests, there are dishes they just really picked up on so they became sort of significant too. We really went back all the way to revisit those dishes, and it’s been really fun to work on them again bringing them back, tasting them and making sure the menu fits together well, too. And it’s amazing! There are so many emotions that are involved with these dishes. You taste these dishes, and you remember where you were at that time, and where the restaurant was at the time, and what inspiration came at that time. It’s been a really cool experience so far, even just for ourselves.
W: It’s almost like, you know, going through an old family photo album, or something from when you were growing up, and you get to look at all those pictures of yourself and you actually start to feel the same emotions that you did when those photos were first taken – just in this case you can eat those photos.
Sounds terrific. Will, how would you describe the cuisine of Daniel to someone who is not familiar with it?
W: I think the first thing I would say is it’s delicious, and I understand that that might sound like it should be obvious but the cuisine in restaurants like ours has becomes very focused on introducing people to new ingredients, or telling a story, or showcasing new techniques, and some people can lose focus on the fact that at the end of the day, food is just supposed to taste really, really good. I’m super blessed that I get to work with a chef that understands this. I think that’s a really big part of the cuisine, and one that I’m proud of. However, I also think that there’s an elemental truth to the food he cooks, which it’s been fun to watch him develop over the years, where i’s not about showing off, and showing how many different things you can do, or put on a play, or all of those things, there’s a beautiful simplicity that doesn’t make it easier. In fact, I think that’s the opposite, it makes it more difficult when you put less things on the plate, you need to make sure that every single thing is perfect. So I think delicious, elemental, but then there is a reason for being with all the different dishes, whether it’s telling a story of the place, or the ingredients, or referencing a moment of time. Each dish has a sense of purpose.
It makes totally sense.
W: I think it’s beautiful (laughs)
Okay, and now for Daniel. Daniel, how would you describe Will’s approach with the guests?
D: (What Will said) is definitely a big change over the years, I think when you’re young, you’re full of ideas and excitement, and, you know, overly, maybe overly so it’s really hard sometimes to tame yourself. Sometimes when you’re young there are too many thing on the plate, and because you want to make an impact, you want to work with as many techniques and ingredients as you can, and over time – for me – it’s definitely gotten a lot more simple, but like Will said, it’s the most difficult challenge that we have taken on ourselves to maybe have a dish with two ingredients speak just as loud or even louder than ten ingredients or ten different things and, you know, there’s absolutely no room for error.
W: He asked you to describe my service.
D: Oh! (laughs)
(Laughs) It was getting really interesting, so I didn’t want to interrupt, but yes, I did ask that.
W: I thought you were getting there (laughs)
D: (Laughs) Okay, the service! I think what Will says about (our food) being delicious, I think the first thing that comes to mind is the service being voracious. And again, it also sounds fairly obvious, but it’s really not, it’s like in the food, it’s the most difficult thing to do. Of course the service is technically perfect, that’s a given, but on top of that Will has the talent to really bring each individual’s personality of the service team out, and the way he hired the people, they’re smart individuals with beautiful life experiences, and then the way he leads them is that they really can be themselves. I think that’s what makes our service so good, because it’s so personable, and it’s the most difficult thing because it’s easy to put rules into place, and everyone has to follow these rules, but it’s much harder if you let people be themselves in a way that you can still have perfect service. I think because of that there is a natural feel about it. Meaning it’s not it doesn’t feel as normal because people can express themselves, be themselves, so there’s a real comfort that comes with it for the guests, and ease. It doesn’t feel forced, it doesn’t feel like there are many rules. So it’s technically perfect but there’s a casualness – actually that’s not the best word – but there’s sort of a casualness about it that puts everyone at ease. Both for the employees and the guests, it puts everyone at ease.
Actually, whenever I talk with people who dined at EMP or NoMad, of course they say that the food is exquisite, but they also say that they had a lot of fun. Is that the secret behind your success?
D: We work so much that if it’s not fun for us, then I don’t know what the point of it is, and if we can have fun, that’s translates to the guests. I think we use that word a lot, and I think it’s one of the beautiful parts about what we get to do for a living. I love restaurants, we both love restaurants, and when you truly love what you do, I think that the people you interact with can feel that, and that it just makes the entire experience much more fulfilling.
What do you think is the craziest thing you did to make a guest happy at your restaurant?
W: I mean, we do a lot of crazy stuff, I don’t even know. A recent story: you know what laser tag is? People have like these guns with lasers.
W: We had some guests that early in the meal, they were talking about laser tag. So we went to the store when they were having their first courses and bought a bunch of laser tag guns, and, after dessert, we brought them on a walk from Madison Park to NoMad and finished their meal there. And in between, staged an entire game of laser tag in the dark, in front of the restaurant. Things like that, you know, I think we can come up with better examples, but it’s not about examples, as much as it is that I take what we do very, very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves as seriously, and when that is the case, it opens you up to doing things that are about the guests more than they are about you.
That’s an amazing approach. Going back to your projects, before re-opening EMP you will have this summer house pop-up, you’re actually going there now. How long does it take to get there from Manhattan?
W: It’s like a two-hour and fifteen-minute drive.
Do you expect a different clientele from what you have at EMP?
W: We want our restaurant to be all about New York: by New Yorkers and for New Yorkers. The renovation is gonna take a couple months and we couldn’t lose our team because our team is everything, we’ve worked for so long to build what we have. So we needed go somewhere or do something so that everyone could continue to have a job through that time. So the two of us were talking one day, and we just said: “Well, how nice would it be to turn this into an opportunity, a gift we could give to the workers.” Also, most of our clientele from New York goes to the Hamptons for the summer. So we’re still there with them.
You get closer to them in some way.
W: Yeah, exactly
As if all this wasn’t enough, on 5th April you’ll be in Melbourne for the 50 Best ceremony. How cool is that?
D: It’s very cool! We’ve never been, none of us has been to Australia. The best part about the 50 Best is how it has really brought the world – the culinary world – together. It has made the world smaller and I think before that you knew about restaurants in France, Italy, Spain, but today, we know about restaurants in Australia, and we know about restaurants in South America, and you know, really, all over the world. I think that’s beautiful and, and over these years, going to these gatherings, we’ve just made so many friends from around the world, and shared ideas, and learned about new cuisines, and I think that’s been the best part. We’re excited to go to a new place that we haven’t been to.
W: It’s also fun that Ben Shewry was at my restaurant last year for the 50 Best and now a few of our people are at Attica. It’s gonna be fun to go see our teammates, see where they are now. It’s like a little family reunion.
There is that feeling that the 50 Best is a kind of a map that made chefs and restaurants are much closer, and, as you said, you got to a point where you even shared part of the staff, with a restaurant so far away.
W: Yeah, I know, I mean, it’s like a big extended family. It’s pretty awesome, man, the idea of becoming friends with a lot of these people, then every year, you get to go on a big, awesome vacation (laughs). We all go to London for a few days, or we all go to Australia for a few days, and you always come home very inspired. When you’re with passionate people, that reignites your passion, in a pretty powerful way, and you come home looking to reinvest and push, that’s the greatest part of it.
With the list there’s a winner, and then there are loads of other people competing, and you have always been one of the most competitive restaurants, during the past couple of editions. Do you have high expectations, for this year?
W: I think, setting high expectations for something like that is a dangerous thing. You just need to go and then try a process and feel fulfilled by the community. I know it’s a thing that people say but just to be on that list at all is pretty amazing, and then you just obviously want to do as well as you can.
The US is a big country and you are representing it, do you feel any responsibility for that?
W: Yes but it’s not just us. We are out there with Grant Achatz and some other people. I think what is fun is going out there is that you do feel a certain bond with people from America, it feels good to kind of travel, and like, represent the country together.
By the way, when was the last time you had a breathtaking meal, and what did you have that blew your mind away?
W: Daniel’s gonna go first.
D: For me it was last summer. it was in a restaurant in the south of France, outside of Arles it was at a restaurant called La Chassagnette. It’s a restaurant that cooks with all-organic ingredients, and super focused on everything from their gardens. It’s not world famous but the meal really touched me. The way they focused on the vegetables, and really all the ingredients of the plates.
W: For me it was a few months ago, it was in Seattle at a restaurant called Canlis. It’s a third-generation, family-owned restaurant. The family are all the dining room people. The place is beautiful, and they’re system is based around the mentality, and their pursuit of it, it’s just unbelievable. They have a new chef, and it was unbelievable.
Time for a fun question. Will, what advice and feedback would you give to Daniel? Be upfront.
W: Uhm, you know, to spend more time buying gifts for his business partner.
Obviously. Daniel, what advice and feedback you want to give to Will?
D: (Laughs) I bought Will a gift the other day, a book that is called Death by Meetings (laughs). So less meetings!
Guys, we would like to have you in London one day. Last month, we had the privilege of having Dan Barber with WastED. It’s just such a great project, and we just kept going back there, because it was really amazing. But, you know, you should come as well with your thing.
W: London is amazing, it’s still a dream for us. One day.
All right, we’re gonna wait for that day, in the meantime, thanks a lot for your time and all the best for the ceremony in Melbourne. Hopefully we’re gonna see you very soon here, or in New York, if we come.
D: Alright, hey bud, thank you so much, have a good day, or I guess a good night, now. Thank you.
Filippo L’Astorina, the Editor