If a backstage selfie with Lin-Manuel Miranda at Hamilton has become the ultimate status marker of Broadway-going celebs, a shot with Daniel Humm in the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park is the food-world equivalent. Serena Williams made sure to drop in during her meal. Jon Batiste led the brigade in a rousing cry of "oui" during his visit. And Jimmy Fallon even took time to do a bit, busting out a pitch-perfect impersonation of Humm's business partner, Will Guidara, between courses.
The A-list energy swirling around the EMP kitchen is a testament to the new vitality that Humm has brought to the rarified world of fine dining at a time when its relevance is constantly up for a debate. A European master among peers like Joël Robuchon and Ferran Adrià, the Swiss-born chef has turned Eleven Madison Park into a powerhouse of international gastronomy, ranking third in the World’s Best 50 Restaurants List (the only U.S. entry in the top ten). But it's his obsession with New York's culture—including its most famous icons—that has made it more than an aloof temple of haute-cuisine, and filled his Instagram with earnest homages to Biggie and Questlove in between artful shots of ash-cooked venison and caviar-studded oysters.
Humm's ascent to this curious nexus of global cuisine and New York society began when Danny Meyer discovered the chef manning the stoves at Campton Place Restaurant in San Francisco, and tapped him to helm the kitchen of Eleven Madison. Although Humm garnered praise for his seasonal cooking, it wasn’t until 2011, when he and Guidara bought the restaurant from Union Square Hospitality Group, that he became a true force on the New York dining scene. As the white tablecloths and stuffy service synonymous with fine dining were losing their cachet, Humm was kicking off tasting menus with cheddar shortbread disguised as black-and-white cookies, tucking cheese courses into picnic baskets, and serving three-card Monte–inspired desserts. At Eleven Madison Park, exquisite food was accompanied by theatrics, culminating in the most coveted part of the evening: being whisked into the kitchen for an intimate tour. Together, Humm and Guidara re-imagined fine dining, and they've continued to tweak the formula ever since.
Beyond their Art Deco powerhouse on the park, the duo have been just as productive. First, they helped resurrect the grandeur of hotel dining at the NoMad, where stellar cocktails and black truffle-stuffed chicken infused the genre with new-school energy. (The next incarnation of the NoMad opens next year in downtown L.A.). And this September, Humm will launch the vegetable-focused, counter-service concept Made Nice, following in the footsteps of fine-dining chefs like Wolfgang Puck and José Andrés, who have successfully delved into the democratic fast-casual realm. “I’ve always been fascinated by some of the fashion brands that operate on different levels, like Armani with Black Label, Emporio, and Jeans,” he explains. “I’ve long felt we should do it the same way—high, middle, and low—with food.”
When it comes to making food fashionable, few have the golden touch of Humm. From the glistening duck his mentor labored over, to the honey-sweetened milk mom made for him when he was sick, here are 10 of the dishes that helped him bridge classicism with an appreciation of the all things modern.