Before it was owned by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, before it was named the “World’s Best Restaurant,” New York City’s lauded Eleven Madison Park was awarded four stars by the New York Times. Here, in an excerpt from the restaurant’s newest cookbook, are two memories of that celebratory night.
The first time I met Daniel Boulud, he was checking into Campton Place in San Francisco. It was 2003, and I was thrilled that he would be staying at the hotel where I was the chef. I imagine if I were the guitar player in a small club, it would be like hearing that Keith Richards was going to stop by. Daniel is a legend to those of us who work in the kitchen. Though I share my first name with him, I’d be a fool not to recognize that there is only one Daniel.
I met him briefly at the front desk; he told me his schedule was pretty packed, so he was unsure whether he would have time to dine at my restaurant. My heart sunk, but I immediately went down to the kitchen to make a plate of hors d’oeuvres to send up to his room. It was, in retrospect, over the top: nearly an entire tasting menu of small bites crowded on one plate showcasing every technique I could muster. Tweezers were used.
The dish was sent to his room and, not more than a half hour later, Daniel rang: “I must dine here,” he said. “Tomorrow, oui?” He came the next evening, and I cooked for him. It meant the world to me to have him enjoy my food, but spending the rest of the evening talking with him about life, Switzerland (where he had lived for a while), restaurants, cooking, and coming to America was one of the great honors of my career.
I told him I was slated to cook at the James Beard House in a few months. He could sense my trepidation — I had never been to New York City. I didn’t even fully comprehend what the James Beard Foundation was. Daniel told me he would assist in any way he could and even offered his kitchens for my prep work.
Later, when I was considering a move to New York City, Daniel made that transition not only possible but also comfortable. He shared all of his contacts: suppliers, great cooks looking for work, his regulars, food writers, and influencers I should know. He could tell when I started to feel confident in my new role and proud of the food I was producing at Eleven Madison Park. Only then did he start sending people to the restaurant; people who would shine a light on it. It was because of him that people started talking about — and eating at — the restaurant.
Daniel Boulud is a wonderful mentor to so many young chefs — and not just the ones who work in his kitchens. He teaches the next generation of chefs lessons you can’t learn in culinary school — how to have pride as a chef, how to make the work your life’s pursuit, and how to celebrate along the way. “Cooking is magic,” he told me. “Don’t worry about anything else. Have fun.”
In 2009, Eleven Madison Park was awarded four stars from the New York Times. That evening, friends from all over the city joined us at the restaurant to celebrate. Champagne started flowing; it was becoming quite the party. In walked Daniel with a huge smile on his face.
“Bravo, Chef,” he said, embracing me. Then, in a quick motion, he grabbed two bottles of Champagne, took me by the hand, and we stepped on top of the bar, facing the crowd. Daniel taught me how to shower the crowd in Champagne and act totally ridiculous. Around 3 a.m., while I was still dancing, I discovered that Daniel had made his way into my kitchen and was cooking eggs and truffles alongside whole lobes of foie gras and rib eyes for my cooks.
I watched Daniel in his perfectly tailored suit, teaching my team about seasoning beef while cooking up a storm and making his way through a bottle of Champagne. My cooks were hanging on his every word (and fetching whatever he commanded of them). Know this: any kitchen that Daniel is in — he completely owns it. He is a giant.
When Will and I finalized the deal to purchase Eleven Madison Park in 2011, our celebratory dinner could only have been held at Daniel. Daniel prepared poulet en vessie especially for us. The presentation — a huge bladder — combined with the flourish of basting and carving tableside, were incredible. I owe Daniel so much: his guidance and generosity are boundless. He taught me that you can spend your life striving for greatness, but you can also have a lot of fun.
When I look back at the past fifteen years, the two of us have shared so many milestones. I was at his wedding. He welcomed me to my thirties and forties, and I helped him into his sixties. We’ve toasted at awards and after-parties, at birthdays, over holiday feasts. Daniel is family.
Danny Meyer is one of the most important, impactful, and influential people in my life. Years ago, Danny ate dinner at Campton Place and enjoyed his meal so much that he immediately offered me the job of chef at Eleven Madison Park. I said “No, thank you.” I had just received four stars in the San Francisco Chronicle and felt I would be abandoning my team if I left.
When I initially turned down his offer to come to New York, he accepted that — no pressure. But, he kept in touch — calling me sporadically to listen, to offer advice, to check in. After some time, he offered to fly me out to the city, so he could be the one to show it to me. I took multiple trips, happy to spend time with Danny but unable to commit. He took me to his favorite restaurants like Prune and Peter Luger’s. We had nightcaps and walked through the Lower East Side and the West Village, through Gramercy Park and Union Square. We talked about restaurants, food, and our hopes and dreams.
The last time I visited New York, I spent a lot of time strolling up and down the streets of Manhattan, letting its energy soak into me. Eleven Madison Park had been without a proper chef for six months. Tons of qualified people were interested; Danny could have had his pick, but for some reason he believed in me and that filled me with strength. In the car on the way back to the airport, I called Danny and accepted. “Let’s do something incredible together,” I told him.
Upon my arrival in New York, Eleven Madison Park got worse. Really bad. We never closed the restaurant while we were trying to transform it. Guests who expected a big, brash brasserie came in one day for their oysters and steak frites and got instead an avant-garde and unfamiliar menu. When I took French fries off the menu, there was a revolt. I cut the portion size of most dishes in half. I had no staff. I had no cooks. And I was making what customers we did have very, very angry.
I figured Valentine’s Day would be a great time to premiere my ambitious multicourse menu. We had about five hundred covers that evening, for which I was preparing courses like “Fantasy of Foie Gras” featuring seven different preparations of duck liver. At about 8 p.m., the kitchen went down. Hard.
Danny’s belief in me never wavered. He shielded me from the criticism, acting almost like it never happened. I tried to apologize once, and he stopped me. “We made a plan. We continue with our plan. Keep doing what you are doing,” he said.
With all the great chefs I trained with, Danny was the one who truly taught me how to be a chef. He taught me that the people are everything — my team in the kitchen, those serving the dining room, and the guests at the tables there. He instilled a sense of responsibility toward the business and our investors. He showed me the importance of putting language to things — the how and the why of what we were trying to do. Until then, I was improvising.
Danny brought Will and me together, and he was as committed as the two of us were to making Eleven Madison Park something special. Somehow I felt like he was there at every step supporting us, but he also completely got out of the way and let us do our thing.
In 2007, I had been at the helm of the kitchen for two years, and we were awarded three-stars in the New York Times. We celebrated for a brief moment, and then the recession hit. We started losing money. The restaurant was hanging on by a thread, but Danny continued to support us, never wavering.
One magical day in the late summer of 2009, Frank Bruni made us the newest four-star restaurant in New York. Everything, it seemed, was going to be okay.
I’ll never forget the party the night we earned those four stars. The highlight for me was when Danny came in through the front doors of the restaurant, a grin stretched ear to ear, the proud papa.
Reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press and Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter: Stories & Watercolors, Recipes & Photographs, written by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara with illustrations by Janice Barnes and photographs by Francesco Tonelli.