Daniel Humm is a Swiss chef and restaurant owner. He is chef/co-owner of Eleven Madison Park in New York City and a recipient of three Michelin stars.
My Definition Of Success | Success is waking up every day and getting to do what I love most. Cooking is both my passion and my profession and, to me, that is success. And I never take this success for granted. This can happen far too easily in the restaurant industry, which is so difficult, demanding, and competitive that’s it’s easy to lose sight of how lucky we are to spend our days working towards the singular goal of making our guests happy. To maintain my success, it is essential I maintain the level of joy I feel when I am in the kitchen. I have learned that the best way to do this is by working with a team that supports and inspires me and to continuously push myself creatively and technically.
I Am Driven By | There’s a magic that happens in a restaurant when the interaction between the guest, the service, and the food hits all the right notes. My desire to create that magic is what drives me. I love contending with all the details and moving parts that must be taken into consideration in order for our guests to have an experience they will never forget. It is an incredible challenge to face every day. There is nothing more exhilarating and satisfying than seeing the magic happen, and then trying to make it even more magical the next day. It’s addictive.
The Difference Between Good And Great | Talent, passion, and dedication lead to greatness. And of the three, talent is the least important. To be a great chef, a person needs to be willing to make tremendous sacrifices, particularly at the start of their career. If they can’t do this, no matter how talented they may be, success will elude them. The hours are grueling and the physical demands cannot be overstated. But this is how we learn the intricacies of the kitchen. If the passion is there, and the passion runs deep, a chef will have the internal resources needed to put in the hours required to hone their craft. There is also luck involved. Finding the right mentors is essential, but not something we can necessarily control. If an emerging chef has been fortunate enough to encounter great mentors, and they have the passion and the talent, greatness is certainly possible. But, it is never guaranteed.
A Key Talent | One of my greatest strengths is not my own, but the strength that comes from collaborating with my team and having my team collaborate with one another. When Will Guidara (my business partner and best friend) and I took over Eleven Madison Park, we were determined to break down the wall that separates the kitchen and the dining room. Our vision was to have the Front of House and Back of House work in tandem, as a unit, not as two separate teams. Quickly, we were able to see how much stronger this made our restaurant and our staff. It created fluidity to the communication that’s needed for the kitchen best support what’s happening in the dining room, and vice versa. We make sure there’s ample opportunity for our staff to contribute their ideas and share their talents with us and with each other. This has created a deep sense of ownership and commitment from our team, which makes us who we are and keeps us strong. Collaboration has been one of the most critical aspects to our success. Whether it’s Will and I collaborating with one another, or with our team, or other people in our industry, we know we’ll learn more and accomplish more than if we stayed inside the silo of our own minds.
Principles I Live By | One of the first English phrases I learned was, “make it nice.” These are the words I live by. With everything I do, I take the time to “make it nice.” As a chef and a restaurateur, this means that I need to pay attention to all the details; nothing can be done haphazardly and no corners can be cut. A table can’t be nice if the napkins aren’t folded properly, just like a dish can’t be nice if the vegetables aren’t fresh. It takes a lot of energy, care and patience to make a restaurant nice for your guests. But you also have to make it nice for your staff, and for yourself. “Make it nice” can sound so simple, but in trying to live up that standard, I’m required to always push myself to do and be my absolute best. I will never settle for anything that’s just okay.
How I Use My Mind | As a chef, it’s important for me to get into the mindset of my guests. I need to consider their point of view when I’m creating a dish. How will they receive it? What will they see, smell, and think when it’s placed in front of them? How will they maneuver the food onto their fork? How will they experience that first bite? How many bites will they need for the dish to feel complete? A chef must ask these questions and more to get inside the mind of their guests. This is an essential part of my process because I am not making these dishes for myself. I am making them for the people who take the time to come to my restaurant and eat my food. If I do not think about them and do everything I can to give them the best experience possible, than I am not doing my job.
Performing At My Peak |It’s not possible for anyone to be at their peak all the time. I try to see it more like a line-graph that peaks and dips, but, ultimately, I maintain a steady upward trajectory. I’ve learned that to continue to perform at my best level, I need to balance my passion for cooking with other activities I love, like cycling, running, and yoga. By taking time to step away from the kitchen, I’m able to be completely present when I’m there. It’s important for chefs to think about playing the long-game, both physically and psychologically. Otherwise, we can easily suffer from burnout and fatigue.
On Inspiring Others | We are very fortunate to have such a great staff. We would not have achieved the level of success we have without our dedicated and talented team. There are so many restaurants in New York and opportunities for people who want to work in the food and hospitality industry, and we take the time to appreciate the people who commit themselves to our company. The level of service we show our guests makes our team somewhat of a self-selecting group. Not everyone wants to work at a restaurant where table clothes are freshly pressed before each party is seated. But those who want to invest the time and attention needed to warrant three-Michelin stars will find deep satisfaction in the work that we do. Our staff is motivated by the challenges they’re presented with day to day and their sense of ownership over the role they play in making Eleven Madison Park a magical place. They know Will and I value them and that our guests do, as well. Yes, we work very hard and hold very high expectations for ourselves, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We make a point of having fun together, both at the restaurant and outside.
I Am Inspired By | My mother was my first inspiration. She taught me the importance of using only the best ingredients, which meant shopping locally and eating seasonally. With the right ingredients, even the simplest recipe can be an absolute delicacy. Gerard Rabaey has also been a major inspiration in my life. A Swiss chef and my mentor, he imparted to me his tireless work ethic. My experiences cooking under him further ignite my passion for food and shaped me into the chef I am today.
*Photo credit: Francesco Tonelli