In the summer of 2009, the stage was set for a complete disruption of the New York fine dining hierarchy. Over the previous decade, many of the French and Italian legends that had defined New York’s fine dining scene — establishments like Lutece, La Cote Basque, and La Caravelle — had closed their doors. While the city still had a handful of extravagant dining rooms where Manhattan’s wealthy gourmands could drop their cash, many — Per Se, Jean Georges, and the like — reached their creative peaks years prior. Still reeling from the recession, restaurants of all stripes were offering budget-friendly deals and comfort food specials to appeal to diners feeling the pinch. With the city slouching through an economic funk, it seemed like an odd time to spend money on a splashy dining experience for anyone but the wealthiest New Yorkers.
But that August, Frank Bruni revisited a restaurant that had slowly, steadily upped its game over the last decade. “Eleven Madison Park, which opened in 1998, now ranks among the most alluring and impressive restaurants in New York,” Bruni wrote of its forward-thinking yet luxurious experience. “It has reached this pinnacle because its principal owner, the indefatigable Danny Meyer, made a key move in 2006, bringing aboard the chef Daniel Humm, and because together they decided — out of pride, it seems to me, more than any commercial calculation — that this restaurant could and should shine as brightly as any other.”
By anointing the restaurant with a fourth star, Bruni was not only announcing that New York had a brand new four-star restaurant — one of just six — but one that would change how New Yorkers saw fine dining. In the coming years, Eleven Madison Park, overseen by Humm and general manager Will Guidara, would reinvent itself again and again: It would reduce the number of seats in the dining room, kill cheaper prix fixe menus, eliminate the host stand, and introduce a service style where the chefs themselves would bring the food to the table as servers attended to every other detail. There would be “dreamweavers,” employees tasked with creating highly personal, theatrical extra touches during the meal. “We realize that people come here for more than to be fed or have a business meeting,” Humm told the New York Times in 2010. “When they walk into the door they basically say, ‘Take me for a ride.’” Guidara would remark: “Tasting menus are like monologues. This is a dialogue.”
As reported by Eater and confirmed by the duo in the New York Times, that dialogue is now over — Humm will buy out Guidara from Eleven Madison Park and the other restaurants in their group Make It Nice (including several locations of the Nomad, Nomad Bar, and the fast-casual Made Nice), with the split official as of July 2019. It’s hard to imagine the restaurants without Guidara’s particular vision of hospitality to complement Humm’s refined culinary style. But the highly crafted, relentlessly performed story of front-and-back-of-house partnership has come to its conclusion.
Guidara and Humm’s complete 2010 retooling of Eleven Madison Park made it a more expensive and exclusive establishment, but these tweaks helped propel the restaurant, and them, to new levels of international acclaim: EMP jumped from 50 to 24 on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best List, and it shot from one Michelin star to three within the span of one year. With both food and the service, it seemed like the duo were breathing new life into a scene that had been stuffy and stagnant for nearly a decade.
Unlike their three-Michelin-star peers, the much-younger Humm and Guidara also loved a good party, and built EMP’s more tongue-in-cheek, casual events into the restaurant’s brand — their post–James Beard Awards and Derby Day bacchanals were regarded as two of the wildest industry events of the year, while EMP pop-ups in the Hamptons and in Aspen, which would launch in 2017, added elaborate lobster boils and “cocktail explainers” to their repertoire. In high school parlance, Humm and Guidara were the honor students who also threw raging keggers and always managed to clean everything up before their parents rolled back into the driveway. The pair — along with their longtime publicist, Sarah Rosenberg — found a way to be both recognized for their perfectionism and their warmth.
But for Humm and Guidara to cement their place as restaurant world heavy-hitters, they had to prove that they could expand their brand — to keep growing, hiring, and making money — and strike out on their own without Meyer, the mentor who had brought them together. In 2011, as EMP’s star was ascending, Humm and Guidara signed a deal to run the food and beverage at the Nomad, a splashy new hotel slated to open the following year approximately five blocks away from Eleven Madison Park. A few months later, Meyer agreed to sell EMP, his most prized possession, to his proteges.
With New York’s most popular fancy restaurant under their control, and another buzzy project on the horizon, it seemed that Humm and Guidara had truly become the new kings of New York’s fine dining scene.
The Nomad, with a stunning dining room full of natural light, an imposing bar flanked by wooden elephant statues, and a sprawling, book-lined “library” lounge, instantly became the hottest restaurant in New York when it debuted in April 2012. Unlike its tasting menu sibling, food was served a la carte. And although he was now cooking at an all-day hotel restaurant, Humm still swung for the rafters: The modernist fruits de mer platter, earthy carrots braised in duck fat, and extravagant chicken for two stuffed with brioche and foie gras became instant classics. (The chicken for two would kick off a years-long roasted chicken resurgence in NYC). The hotel’s unique location one block south of the Ace Hotel and three blocks north of Madison Square Park — formerly a no-man’s land for dining and nightlife — made it feel like the anchor of a brand new dining neighborhood.
In typical Humm and Guidara fashion, the Nomad was chock-full of surprises calibrated to appeal to young, wealthy gourmands: Some books on the library’s shelves were hollowed and filled with booze bottles that were free for anyone who found them. For guests who wanted to booze it up in large groups, Guidara and Humm created what must be the world’s fanciest ever bottle service trolly. The boys also tricked out a space on the hotel roof, with unparalleled views of the Empire State Building, where they served tasting menus, al fresco, on select summer nights (weather permitting). This new, ostentatious restaurant only further helped cement Humm and Guidara’s reputation as New York’s new fine dining visionaries.
One month after the Nomad opened, Eleven Madison Park jumped 14 slots on the World’s 50 Best restaurants list, finally cracking the top 10. In July 2012, just two months after the list was released, Humm and Guidara announced plans for another major overhaul of the Eleven Madison Park Experience. In terms of both food and service, the new menu would pay homage to the history of New York and its local terroir, both edible and otherwise.
It featured a riff on eggs benedict was served in a bespoke tin, with a liberal dollop of caviar on top of bearnaise foam. The “picnic basket” course included a bottle of house beer with a label designed by I Heart New York creator Milton Glaser. Carrot tartare was prepared tableside using an old-fashioned metal hand grinder, as an homage to the Meatpacking District. During the dessert course, guests were asked to play a culinary game of three-card-monte that had been devised by an actual magician. And upon stumbling out of the restaurant after four hours at their table, diners were stopped by a hot dog cart vendor on the corner of Madison Avenue and East 24th Street, who gave them a box of petit fours for the road. “You’ve got to listen to your guests,” Humm told the Times. “And our guests are telling us that they want this unique experience and journey.”
Just a few weeks after the I Love New York menu made its debut, New York Times critic Pete Wells fired a warning shot, writing that Humm’s excellent cooking was at odds with the clunky patter and awkward shoe-horning of storytelling into service. “The narrative tone isn’t sharp, it isn’t quick, it isn’t wised up, and it assumes the listener knows nothing: in other words, it’s not a New York voice,” Wells wrote. “By the end of the four hours, I felt as if I’d gone to a Seder hosted by Presbyterians.” The quasi-review was, for certain, a major blow. Instead of issuing any formal plans for a change of course, Guidara and Humm simply dug their heels in and slowly worked out the kinks by placing more emphasis on the cuisine and the fun of intoxicating luxury. Both the food and service reflected the auteurist personalities of its owners, and now the duo were finally at the helm of a restaurant that could compete with the other establishments at the top of the increasingly powerful (to a certain subset anyway) World’s 50 Best list — the last trophy for them to collect.
In 2017, Eleven Madison Park achieved that accolade and followed this pinnacle moment with a series of major moves that, uncharacteristically, didn’t pan out as Humm and Guidara had planned. Earning the No. 1 spot on the notoriously problematic list represented a huge marketing coup — butts in seats were never really a problem from EMP, but the top spot would all but guarantee a full dining room for months. Instead of raking in those sweet, sweet reservations from trophy hunters, the pair decided to close the restaurant for a costly renovation, a chance to prove to the world that best could be bettered with enough vision. EMP would drop from No. 1 to No. 4 in 2018. In 2019, a new rule went into effect barring previous No. 1 restaurants from the list entirely; Guidara and Humm did get a Netflix documentary series episode out of their journey to re-open the so-called “world’s best restaurant,” but they lost out on four of the mere 12 months they could have declared themselves to be the best restaurateurs in the world.
As Humm and Guidara’s group expanded, there were signs that the previously unstoppable duo were not invincible. In 2017, they launched their first fast-casual restaurant, Made Nice, and were subsequently goose-egged by the New York Times. The team reworked the concept, but didn’t open any other locations, as would typically happen with successful a chain-in-waiting. Nomad hotels opened in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but the former never really captured local diners the way the New York original did. Even so, the duo announced in January 2019 that they planned to open a new restaurant in Claridge’s hotel in London. (It — along with every other pending project — is still in the works, at least officially.) In February 2019, EMP announced it would not be returning to the Hamptons for its annual Summer House pop-up series — perhaps a sign that the duo knew they might not last through the summer.
In an email sent to employees shortly before news of the split broke, the pair wrote that Humm will continue to lead the Make It Nice group “from a shared perspective of both the kitchen and the dining room, working as hard as ever in our pursuit of both excellence and hospitality.” The email also confirmed that Guidara plans to launch “a new hospitality company,” with “future restaurant projects lined up with industry veterans.” EMP and the Nomad have the name recognition to keep chugging along in the absence of one its major creative sources, if not continue at the same frenetic pace; Guidara’s rolodex and perspective can certainly sustain another restaurant group. But who can say whether, on their own, either will be able to make it quite that nice again.
Together, Humm and Guidara showed how far success in the restaurant world could take a pair of driven, obsessive, unapologetically earnest dreamers. They helped create a vision of the hospitality industry that was both prestigious and alluring enough to court college graduates into thinking of restaurant work as a career. EMP’s over-the-top hospitality theatrics, best exemplified by the presence of the on-staff dreamweaver, became the new gold standard for high-end dining.
But even as Humm and Guidara drew people into their vision of what the hospitality industry could be, those lured in tended to look a lot like them. Photo after photo of the EMP kitchen through the years shows a group that mostly looks like Humm and Guidara; young, white men in crisp uniforms ready to demand perfection of themselves. Guests might find themselves having a similar experience when looking around at fellow diners in the dining room.
If there’s one thing about eras ending, it’s that a new one inevitably follows. The end of the Guidara-Humm partnership and the post-recession world of fine dining they best represented coincides with the start of a new decade. There has never been more interest in fine dining in America than there is now, and there are new leaders poised to capture its attention and spirit. In New York City, one of the best new restaurants of the year picks up on the intensely considered aesthetics of EMP, but channels that energy towards acquainting diners with the beauty of Korean cooking. At another exciting new restaurant in Houston, the owners use the multi-course menu to invite guests to confront the racism and oppression in America and its food systems. Across the country, people are redefining the stakes for hospitality once again, demanding that the restaurants they create are inclusive and welcoming for all.
Together, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara changed the game. Now, it’s someone else’s turn to win it for a while.