BY NOW, IT'S ALMOST embarrassing for a New York food writer to place Eleven Madison Park on a best-eats list. The restaurant has received so many accolades and pats on the back it almost flouts the critics' code of preferring hole-in-the-walls done good, Michelin legacies or celebrity-chef ventures. But surely there's a reason for this unabashed bandwagon-jumping.
Shaped like a miniature Grand Central, Eleven Madison Park – or EMP, as aficionados shorthand it – has high ceilings and upper-wall windows that pour slanted light beams into the venue. It's a perfect fit with the menu, which consists of Daniel Humm's riff on New York classics like the black-and-white cookie or clambake. Ironically, sort of, the proprietors eschew associations to a Sex and the City cameo the restaurant had under previous ownership, in spite of that show's underlying New York affiliation. Much preferred is a connection to Miles Davis, a sort of inside joke at the establishment, born of an early review that suggested EMP needed “a bit of Miles Davis”, full stop, no explanation.
Most restaurateurs would be inclined to ignore this rather esoteric piece of advice, but co-owners Humm and General Manager Will Guidara sought to quantify and improve. Two black-and-white portraits of the jazz legend now hang in the kitchen, but that's just the obvious change. At the doorway to the kitchen, a high-traffic point for staff as well as guests invited for the now de rigueur kitchen tour, is a list of adjectives, from “cool” to “spontaneous” to “collaborative”, that are the culmination of an in-house brainstorming session during which participants were asked to list adjectives that described Davis and his music. Those watchwords are just the beginning of the meticulous and constant refinements.
Humm and Guidara apply this fastidiousness to every aspect of this restaurant, and their second, more casual venture, NoMad. Young – both are in their mid-30s – and preternaturally ambitious, they aren't without ego, which is fairly expected, given the attention with which they've been lavished in more recent history. The duo came into ownership of EMP only a few years ago, having been employed by gastronomic tycoon Danny Meyer of Gramercy Tavern and Shake Shack fame, who sold them the enterprise after they'd brought it some measure of success and were invited to headline NoMad. But the transformation of EMP from forgotten brasserie to destination dining hotspot has truly been the stuff of fairy tales.
“When I was growing up, becoming a chef wasn't a glamorous decision,” reflects Humm. “Making a lot of money or getting famous as a chef wasn't even a thought. But the rise of the celebrity chef has given this profession a lot of credibility and a lot of attention.
“That, for the most part, is a good thing. But it also creates the false expectation that this is an easy profession and one that is trendy and fun. So what we're seeing is both a fascination with food and restaurants and chefs in general, but also a whole group of restaurants and cooks that are so focused on the celebrity aspect that they've forgotten why so many of us do what we do.” Humm, obviously, has benefited greatly from this movement. But so too has he earned it, indulging the hands that fed him.
His entire menu, for example, is a paean to feedback. When a critic said more Miles, they brought in more Miles. When EMP placed 50th on S.Pellegrino's World's 50 Best list, he and Guidara studied the restaurants that placed more highly, introducing service and logistics changes, as well as a stronger thematic slant that paid homage to New York, though Humm himself hails from and was trained in Switzerland. The concept veers occasionally on gimmicky, but Humm insists that it's merely the natural evolution and journey of a seasoned chef.
“When I was younger I wanted to cook things that were complicated, that used a lot of different techniques and exotic ingredients. But as I've matured, I've come to realise that there's a beauty in highlighting great ingredients in a very pure, simple way. Instead of focusing on how to make something as impressive as possible, I focus on making my dishes as delicious as possible. And I draw inspiration from unexpected places – from music, from art, from the city around me. I play a lot with familiar flavour combinations, which I think triggers a sense of comfort in our diners,” he says.
Ironically once again, this successful shift had the curious effect of making the restaurant less New York, in the sense that the diners who visit the restaurant nowadays seem to be mainly culinary tourists, foodies willing to bide their time on booking site OpenTable to gain a precious reservation. To be fair, with the tasting menu-only format and a minimum threehour turnaround time, EMP isn't exactly
catering to regulars.
Not that that's a bad thing in today's increasingly democratic dining scene. The increased international exposure bumped the restaurant up into a top five spot on the World's 50 Best this year, whether by coincidence or design. That reputation translated into a fully booked guest stint earlier this year at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong's Mandarin Grill – even priced at a cool $5,288 a head for a wine-pairing dinner. And while the locals might not be dining at EMP nightly, that doesn't mean they don't rate the place.
“People come here to take risks, to try out an idea, and to see if they can make it here,” says Humm. “That encourages chefs and restaurateurs to really push their boundaries. Because New Yorkers are scrutinising people who aren't afraid to not like something – they'll give you a piece of [their] mind, whether you ask for it or not – there's always the desire to perform at an incredibly high level.”