It's been a big year for Eleven Madison Park chef Daniel Humm and General Manager Will Guidara: Right before their recently released cookbook came out (buy on Amazon), the restaurant earned its third Michelin star and Humm/Guidara took over ownership from restaurateur Danny Meyer. Below, the duo talk Michelin stars, offering email support with the cookbook, and finding inspiration in airplane safety guides.
So why write a cookbook?
Daniel Humm: It's important that people will remember what we did. We work so hard, and we want it to be significant, what we do. To publish a book does a little bit of that. But then also, this restaurant has been six years in the making. Recently, I would say over the last three years, things have really gelled and come together. So many people besides us have been part of this journey of six years. I think it's really a beautiful thing that we can capture moments in the book. Because in the moment, at the restaurant, every moment changes, every day. People come and go, and the book really allows you to put something into the world that will stay there, exactly the way you did it.
Will Guidara: We've talked about that a lot recently. What we do, what anyone does who runs a restaurant like this, there's a lot of art to it. And when you look at singers, or painters, or a lot of artists, they have something that memorializes their art. And people forevermore can appreciate it exactly the way it was intended. And then there are restaurants. And a restaurant inevitably changes, or closes, and what you do only exists in the memories of the people who were there. So the impact of this book for us on a personal level I think is something that we've only realized recently. Which is that finally there's a way for people to see the food, to understand our story, to get our philosophy in a way that will never change. In a hundred years, the cookbook will be exactly like it was today. And that's cool, I think you want to feel like there's a sense of permanency in what you're doing. And so for us we were really excited to have an opportunity to do that.
I'm really glad you bring up the idea that a cookbook is sort of a portrait of a restaurant at a moment in time. But approaching it from that angle, how do you decide what you do include in it?
DH: When we went through the list, what dishes we want to pick for the book, over the last three years, we picked the dishes that we liked the most and then reworked them. A dish that we did three years ago that we really liked, if we do the dish today, it's going to change automatically. So we made a list of all the great dishes that we've done. Per year, we come up with about a hundred new dishes, so there's been a lot to choose from. And then as we went through the recipe writing, we just made them current. You know, the main philosophy doesn't change but every year the food goes in a little bit of a different direction. And when you pick up an old recipe, even three years ago, you add what has changed over the last three years and then you have a different dish sometimes. That's kind of how we did it. And we worked for a year, really working on these dishes and the recipes.
WG: I don't imagine there's a scientific answer to that. It's like how does a band create their greatest hits album? It's a combination I think of the ones that received the most critical acclaim — you know, the things like the suckling pig confit. Which, from the beginning, obviously had to be in the book. But also it was a personal journey for [Humm]. Figuring out which dishes most appropriately express where he was at different phases over the last few years. There are two stories in this book: there's the narrative text that tells the story, but the dishes also tell the story. It's hard to say exactly why one dish is in there, but it kind of touches [Humm] and then it makes sense to put it in [the book].
Talk to me about the process of writing this book.
WG: That was a big decision as well, right, because when you look at most books, it's the chef and a writer from outside the restaurant. What you see here is collaborative. We've always believed that the true expression of Eleven Madison Park comes from within these walls. We were working with another writer at the very beginning, but it just didn't feel like Eleven Madison Park. Essentially what we ended up doing was creating a book composed entirely by our team. Our photographer, our graphic designer, and then a bunch of people from our team.
You talk a lot about the emphasis on a balance between classic and modern. How does that come through in the book?
WG: I think that's a philosophy that governs everything we do. We don't say that as a way to compare ourselves to other restaurants, it's more of an internal philosophy. I think what we believe, and I think the language we use in [the book] is being timeless while also embodying a time. And so in our restaurant, we'll carve a duck tableside, which is very classic. And then we'll also do our version of a clam bake, which is much more modern in its presentation. I think in the book, the same holds true. There are a lot of very classic elements of this book, whether it's the way that it's organized or the types of dishes that are brought forth or just even approaching a book like this. A big tome of a cookbook that feels classic to us. But then the modernity to it, doing things like the basics in the back of the book. It essentially offers readers and opportunity to not feel a compulsion to cook the entire dish but just use it as a reference guide to purees. The other day I made pasta for the first time at home and I didn't know what I was doing. A friend of mine bought me a pasta maker and I called [Humm] and said chef, how do I make pasta? And he goes, Will. It's in the cookbook. It's in the basics section.
DH: What he was really saying is well I found this recipe online. How do you do it? Do you put olive oil in it? And I was like dude, look in the book.
WG: Look in the book that you just wrote. [Laughs.] But also we have an email address so if anyone has an issue, they can reach out to us. There's a day in the life. There's the floor plan of the restaurant. I just think the best things in life are the things that honor tradition while also pushing forward. Innovating. Reinventing. We try to carry that with us into whatever we do, hopefully it was felt within the book.
DH: And I think the room also has that. I think the room is very timeless, it is classic in a way but because it's timeless it's also modern. The way we do the flowers, there are modern elements.
Including the email address in the book seemed to me a very brave choice and I'm curious to hear how many people end up writing you.
DH: We are getting — well, the book hasn't really come out yet, but so far we've gotten sixty emails which is quite a bit. Some are really simple questions like can I use milk instead of half and half? It's great.
WG: One email said "We love your book but it broke our cookbook stand." No, but we're a hospitality based restaurant, and hospitality means engaging people in dialog. And to find a way to make a book — which is definitively a monologue — into a dialog has been a really cool experience. People are always endeavoring to create communication with their guests, and so we put that in there. We were sitting actually upstairs on a Sunday when we're closed and it was two in the afternoon and we're like all right. Do we do this? All right, let's do it. And I'm really happy that we did.
There's an emphasis throughout the book on finding inspiration in unexpected places. Where'd you look for inspiration for the cookbook?
DH: I think at first you think oh I have to have a lot of fancy or fine dining meals to get inspiration. We do get inspiration from that for sure. But sometimes it's totally unexpected. One night, we went out and we got falafel off the falafel truck. And it was the beginning of truffle season and so we were just eating that falafel and looking at those things which on the outside have the texture of the truffle. I said look, if this could be black and taste like a truffle it would be incredible. You wouldn't know the difference. And we came back here and we worked a couple days and it was incredible. And when you look at them next to each other, the truffle and the truffle falafel, they look the same. That was really unexpected.
WG: And as it pertains to the book, well, what does the book look like? The White Album, by the Beatles. There are things that we're inspired by. We're inspired by music, obviously the Miles Davis thing. And the White Album is something that you hold in your hand and you're like wow, this is cool.
DH: We've been inspired by companies, like Apple for example.
WG: And the email address comes in there. Like the whole idea of these tech companies offering email support. Look in the back of the book, the day in the life. Every time we fly together we always look at the evacuation instructions, the little drawings. And I love those. And the pictures that show the visual representations of a day in the life were inspired by that. If you only look to other cookbooks when you're writing a book, then you're not going to do anything that different. It's when you look at things that have nothing to do with cookbooks that you're like oh wow, that would be cool.
Have you ever thought about doing an iPad app?
DH: We're working on it. It won't be interactive, because that would be a big effort, with videos and stuff. That would be cool. I do believe there will always be a place for beautiful cookbooks that are real books.
WG: It's available as an app, but it's the same as the book. We spent a long time thinking about whether we wanted to take the app and make it significant and amazing, and I think at the end of the day we realized we couldn't do it in the right way in a way that was as good as we wanted it to be. And with that in mind, we said you know what? We're going to do more stuff. We'll put that off. Because I think that's the direction you need to go? But this didn't feel like the book to do it.
So an interactive app is a future possibility?
WG: Well, we're getting more comfortable with working with film. We did the film, the book trailer for this. We're having fun with it. We haven't gotten to the point where we feel comfort to take on such large project.
The book mentions wanting to create a four star restaurant for your generation. What does that mean, especially in light of how much emphasis is being put on the economy being such a mess and particularly hard on younger people?
WG: I think it's a four star restaurant where you can throw on a pair of jeans. And it's not like we're saying to the world, hey! Dress down and come in. You know [former EMP owner Danny Meyer] in his foreword says less starch. And I think that's essential to what we do. Even as we're sitting here, you can hear people are laughing. They're speaking louder. There's not a compulsion to whisper. I think that's a youthful sensibility behind what we do. We take what we do very, very, very seriously, but we try not to take ourselves as seriously. And when I say "we," I mean our entire team. Okay, I understand, you can't eat our meals once a week, right?It's a long, rich meal. But it should be the kind of environment where you feel comfortable walking into the space. I don't think price is a relevant part of that. I think that there are young people, old people with money. And I think for this type of thing, people save up and we try to make sure we're always offering really good value. But it's not about price, it's about the culture, the vibe, the energy. And it's something we still work on.
Chef Humm, how does that come through in the food?
DH: In general our food is recognizable. It tastes like what it looks like: you see a carrot it tastes like a carrot, you see beef it tastes like beef. In a word, it's approachable.
How have things been different since it was announced that EMP got three Michelin stars?
DH: For me, that was really something important because I grew up in Europe and all my life I've been checking out the guides. I traveled to go see the best chefs, and [the restaurants] were like temples. Which we are not. [Laughs.] But back then as a young chef, you look at these places and they're temples. It means a lot in that sense to go home now, to go back to Europe and be recognized as being at that same level. It's the only guide that really has a true meaning across the world. People know it, people know what it means, three stars. In any city, if you're in Japan or you're in London or Spain. So it's really meaningful.
WG: I think for our staff, it brings with it a sense of pride and a sense of responsibility. And I think that's exciting. It's a powerful thing, three Michelin stars. It's hard to express how excited we were when we found out that happened. It's one of those rare moments where you're like —
DH: That's it, you know? I mean that's it.
WG: And that doesn't mean we're done. We still have a long way to go. But for us, we just walk a little bit taller.