Since Daniel Humm and Will Guidara bought Eleven Madison Park from Danny Meyer in 2011, it has earned a reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world, sustaining three Michelin stars since 2012. It has also become nearly synonymous with exclusivity and luxury. I cannot remember a time when there wasn’t a waiting list for reservations, or when a meal didn’t cost hundreds of dollars (the dining room tasting menu is currently $335 a person, not including tip or alcohol, paid in advance), and friends who have had the opportunity to go have gushed about the attention to detail, the incredible hospitality, and the ability to hang out and drink all the apple brandy you want after the meal. Even after Guidara departed the restaurant in 2019 and Humm turned EMP into a mostly vegan restaurant last year, to somewhat lackluster reviews, it has stayed a destination for the wealthy and all those who aspire to emulate their lifestyles.
But now, Eleven Madison Park is attempting to bring that luxury to your home kitchen. Eleven Madison Home is its new home delivery box, which provides “one day of plant-based meals curated to be as delicious as possible — from breakfast through to dinner, plus healthy snacks and delicious sweets,” for two. (You’d be forgiven for asking why they’re getting into the meal delivery game when everyone is finally getting back to restaurants, because a restaurant like EMP can make its own schedule.) The two-person box costs $285 — with taxes, it comes in at just over $310, or almost the cost of a meal at the restaurant — and there are options to enhance your weekly order with items like a granola trio ($65) or a whole roasted curry cauliflower ($75). Like the restaurant’s pivot to a plant focus, Humm positions the boxes as a step toward a more sustainable future.
“It’s not news to anyone that our current food system is unsustainable,” Humm says in a note that accompanies the first box, and he argues that as a chef, his impact can come through encouraging people to eschew meat once a week. “What could be the impact if we all ate plant-based food more often? We don’t need to eat like this every day, but just one day per week can have an immediate effect.”
When Eleven Madison Park pivoted, many questioned whether the experience would still be worth the price. Some grumbled a menu without meat — and luxury signifiers like caviar and butter-poached lobster tail — could never justify such a cost, both because meat is more expensive to create, and probably due to skepticism that vegetables could ever be as good as a steak. In the switch, Humm is arguing that the skill of EMP’s chefs could make a beet transcendent: After all, what you’re paying for from EMP is not just ingredients; it’s labor, it’s atmosphere, it’s creativity and ambiance and innovation.
Except that’s not what you get with a home meal kit, and Eleven Madison Home’s existence raises questions about what we really do pay for in a fine dining restaurant, and what happens when everything but the food is stripped away. Because what you get is an uneven, mostly fine, single day’s worth of eating, at the cost of what most people spend on groceries over the course of a few weeks.
The first-ever Eleven Madison Home box was sent out last week. The box’s contents change each time, and my order came with the day’s food, as well as descriptors of some ingredients’ origins, and instructions on how to cook what needs to be cooked. “The Weekly Box is designed to make the adjustment to one plant-based day a week as easy — and as delicious — as possible,” Humm writes in the accompanying note. The menu for that one day: breakfast of coconut chia yogurt and a granola bar; vegetable minestrone soup and a gem lettuce salad for lunch; root vegetable chips for a snack; and for dinner, wild mushroom rice with a dessert of double-chocolate espresso cookies that should be made in a convection oven (“if you have a non-convection oven, cooking times may be longer”). Again, that one plant-based day will cost you over $300.
It’s hard not to harp on the price. For reference, four meals for two people from Blue Apron will cost $85.91 a week. Purple Carrot, which is also entirely plant-based, costs $106 for four dinners a week. A medium recurring box from Daily Harvest, which you can fill with 14 vegan meals of your choosing, is just over $100. But of course, these meal-kit services are not from Eleven Madison Park. Eleven Madison Home makes much of the provenance of its produce, its hyperseasonality, and the recipes that you can sometimes find at the restaurant itself. A portion of the proceeds go to Rethink Food, a nonprofit started by a former EMP chef that distributes plant-based meals across New York City. The service is also hyperlocal itself, not requiring vials of olive oil and single servings of sliced carrots to be shipped across the country. (Of course, this means you have to be in New York City to get it, and even then it’s not a guarantee; I had to get my order delivered to my office in Manhattan, because Eleven Madison Home wouldn’t deliver to my home in Queens.)
When I opened my box in the office, multiple coworkers remarked that its contents did not look like enough food for two people for a whole day. Everything exuded a patina of “health.” The menu noted how chia seeds are a “superfood,” that the chips have been brined so they don’t absorb “too much oil” when frying, and the “protein press” granola bar is made from a protein-rich mixture that includes leftover seed husks from Ulli’s Oil Mill. I started with the coconut chia seed yogurt, strewn with cocoa nibs and topped with a tangy strawberry lime compote; like most things in the box, it came in a twee and expensive-feeling glass jar. The serving felt satisfyingly hefty. The problem is I don’t really like sweet yogurt, so after a quarter of the jar I couldn’t stomach the texture anymore. This would be a frustrating waste no matter what, but at this cost it feels like some deeper crime.
This became a recurring problem as I ate my way through the day. Rounding it out, $300 for two means each meal costs around $50, which made the yogurt about $25. I continued my breakfast with the “protein press” granola bar, which basically tasted like a Kind bar. But the bar and the four bites of yogurt sated my hunger, which made me think I would be able to stretch this food (and its cost) further, giving myself small injections of the luxury over the course of a couple days. Maybe I could have the salad for lunch today and the soup the following, or refrigerate my yogurt and force down the rest tomorrow. I was optimistic I could make this worth it.
“The thing about dinner at [the previous incarnation of] Eleven Madison Park is that even if the food didn’t always blow you away,” Eater NY critic Ryan Sutton wrote in his latest review of the restaurant, “it was often hard to leave without the distinct sensation that the team did their best to make almost every diner feel like a minor celebrity.” Sutton actually appreciated how, in the COVID era, things felt more restrained. So when visiting the location itself, even if the servers are a little less chatty or you don’t get to linger with a cocktail in the same way, you’re still experiencing hospitality in the restaurant space. Someone has plated your food with tweezers, folded your napkin for you, asked you what you wanted and brought it to you.
The intimate, careful pleasures of fine dining are gone with the box; there is nothing to distract you from what you’re eating (and sometimes cooking), which makes for a lackluster experience, and one that obscures the labor involved. Someone did indeed make this salad dressing, season this soup, and painstakingly simmer the mushroom broth I’d later be using. But when everything is designed to be transported and jarred and reheated by someone who may not be all that good at cooking, something about the Eleven-Madison-Park-ness of it is lost. At EMP, I may have thought the salad — gem lettuce with smoked chickpeas, sprouts, large slices of radishes, and a lemon tahini dressing — was a refreshing, flavorful prelude to a larger meal. At my desk under the office’s fluorescent lights, I realized I had successfully turned Eleven Madison Park into a sad desk lunch.
I finished lunch with the root vegetable chips, flavored with black lime and sumac, which I loved so much I desperately wished there were more than five. I was full though, which felt like a win. Maybe I could stretch the box out for the whole week. But around 3:30, my stomach began grumbling again, so I turned to the spring vegetable minestrone. More than any other dish, this seemed to be the one that would transport me to EMP, with the menu reading that the soup “‘has been part of the Eleven Madison Park repertoire for a long time.” I headed to the microwave.
The minestrone boasted a butter chicken-orange broth, flavored, according to the jar, with saffron, white wine, and tomato. It tasted remarkably thin, with a tinny, almost fishy aftertaste reminiscent of a watered-down can of Campbell’s soup. I searched the ingredient list again, hoping to jog my taste buds into picking up any other flavors, but there appeared to be no spice but salt, and no seasoning but the lightest touch of garlic. There was also too much broth compared to the vegetables and orzo, leaving me with half a bowl of liquid by the time I ate everything else. I took another few sips, painfully aware that without the atmosphere and the hospitality, just how little else I’ve paid for.
Around 5:30, I realized I was incredibly gassy.
The criticisms of the Eleven Madison Home box are almost too obvious. Arguing with the concept of the box, however, quickly puts one in a quagmire. You can:
1. Point out that Humm didn’t invent veganism.
2. Balk at the price and say vegetables aren’t as expensive as meat, and
3. Say that a $300-a-week box available to only the most privileged New Yorkers isn’t going to fix our food system.
And the responses will be:
1. Who cares?
2. Meat and vegetable and labor costs in this country are skewed to the point that there’s no way to get an accurate read on what something “should” cost, and
3. Anything is better than nothing, right? It’s hard to imagine anyone signing up for this for any other reason than they want to be able to say they get their lunch from Eleven Madison Park. But if getting this box means 100 fewer eggs and 50 fewer chicken breasts are consumed every week, then maybe it’s worth it.
So let’s take Humm at his word, that this box doesn’t exist to radically change the food system, or even to appeal to vegans. It is just “intentionally designed to make it easier to eat plant-based, one day per week,” for those who choose to order it. The implication is that recipients are eating meat or dairy every day, and that this box will show them that vegan food can be both easy and delicious, a seamless replacement for a dairy yogurt breakfast, a jerky snack, or a chicken-and-rice dinner.
Dinner was indeed a glimmer of hope: Following the instructions, I made my partner and myself the wild mushroom rice, with peak seasonal morel mushrooms, rice from Blue Moon Acres Farm, baby bok choy, and a garnish of pickled hon-shimeji mushrooms. The broth, flavored with lemongrass and Sichuan peppercorn, was rich and earthy, the rice was somehow creamy but with every grain perfectly defined, and the mushrooms pickled in white balsamic and sugar gave a bright burst. We agreed it was one of those dishes that felt like more than the sum of its parts, and that if we ordered it on a date night out we’d be thrilled. At a restaurant, I’d be happy to pay for this plate of rice plus a cookie dessert to be cooked by someone else and brought to me. But at home, I was paying $50 for the ingredients alone, and the privilege of making it myself.
It is on Humm’s qualifications that I say this box fails. Yes, it’s prohibitively expensive for most, but it’s also just… fine. Despite being made with the freshest, most seasonal produce and designed by expert chefs, most dishes feel like nothing special.
When Humm first announced Eleven Madison Park would be vegan, a WSJ reporter posited he could “nudge his customers — and the rest of the world — to find luxury, surprise and delight in a plate of vegetables.” It would be trickle-down change, influencing and inspiring those lower down to emulate those at the top. Except the middle is miles ahead of Humm at this point; there are more, easier options than ever for choosing plant-based for a meal or for a whole day. Plant-based meal services like Daily Harvest and Green Chef deliver honestly comparable meals for a fraction of the cost. There are all manner of plant-based canned and frozen meals at the grocery store, and many people live within ordering distance of an Indian, Chinese, or other restaurant that can easily cater to a vegan diet. Fast-casual restaurants like Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Starbucks, and more have vegan options on their menus — you could order a vegan Chipotle bowl for every meal for six days and still come out under. And a search for “vegan recipes” brings up hundreds of cookbooks and links.
I don’t know what I wanted out of this box. It’s possible the mythos of Eleven Madison Park overshadowed any realistic expectations. But also, there’s not a version of this product that could accomplish what Humm wants it to: The reasons why people choose not to eat vegan, whether they’re cultural or financial or digestive, aren’t challenged by the box.
And more crucially, a problem this big doesn’t get solved with a product. Even arguments that “at least it’s a drop in the bucket!” can’t hold, because whose bucket are we talking about? Rather than edge the world toward a more sustainable food chain, the Eleven Madison Home box replicates the problems that are already there. The rich get yet another way to get the best of the best, and for everyone else, vegan or not, nothing changes. At least there’s comfort in knowing the best of the best is often pretty mediocre.