Daniel Humm is currently celebrating 25 successful years in his restaurant; Eleven Madison Park in New York, and is living by the mantra of his new book, Eat More Plants, but the process of shifting from steaks to veggies was a serious undertaking, not least because of world renowned dishes like his famous lavender duck.
Pivoting to a plant-based menu mid-pandemic sent shockwaves through the restaurant industry and its critics, but the Swiss-born chef not only held on to his coveted three Michelin stars, he became the first plant-based restaurant in the history of the Michelin guide to earn such an honor.
M&F sat down with Humm between courses to find out how his love of competitive exercise led him to follow both heart and stomach, in order to make a contribution to a sustainable future.
“I have always enjoyed playing sports and exercising, it helps me to go beyond myself, both physically and mentally,” Humm tells M&F. “One of my main interests is running. In the past year, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in the Boston Marathon, where I completed it in under 3 hours, which was a significant achievement for me.”
There’s no doubt that Humm is a highly competitive individual. He worked in his first kitchen at the age of 14, to support his cycling career, but after turning pro, a serious accident at the age of 24 resulted in internal bleeding and forced him reevaluate. “I thought at the time, ‘hey maybe this cycling thing isn’t the best thing to continue’ and that’s when I decided to start cooking instead,” he shares. “That experience opened my eyes. It made me realize that the high risk of injury and hard training schedules may not have been worth it for a long-term career. Not that being a chef is the easiest career path, but cycling for me was and always will be a love of mine and a sport that influences who I am personally and professionally.”
These days, Humm is still highly active and in addition to running marathons, he’s also added boxing to his various methods of training. He still loves to cycle, but has well and truly caught the running bug. “Currently, I’m immersed in training for the next Boston Marathon,” says Humm. “My goal is to finish it in less than 2 hours. I’m constantly striving to improve my personal records and achieve new milestones in both my sporting and culinary journey. It’s not about competing with others; it’s about pushing myself to be the best I can be.”
Daniel Humm learned lessons from cycling that helped him dominate the restaurant space
As an athlete, Humm learned in those early days of cycling that discipline, endurance, and the joy of pushing past limits was the recipe for success. And, it’s just the same for him when working in the kitchen. “After my accident, I was forced to put an end to my cycling dream and had to rethink my entire future,” explains Humm. “As I began working more, in these renowned kitchens, I found a love of cooking and made the move to make it a full-time endeavor. I have taken the learnings, resilience, and an athlete’s mentality into everything I do at Eleven Madison Park. I’ve learned a lot about discipline, teamwork, and the importance of setting goals. If I was going to commit myself to the fine dining space, I was going to take that discipline and training from my cycling days and take risks to be the best in order to reach the top.”
Since 2012, Daniel Humm has amassed three Michelin stars. As a celebrated chef with a busy waiting list to eat in his restaurant, everything seemed to be ticking over nicely, but his desire to push himself and set new goals took him in a completely new direction. “In 2017, we were named the number one restaurant in the world,” says Humm. “And, with that, we were left a little disoriented as we searched for what was next to strive for. I thought ‘there must be more’ to the culinary space and fine dining than winning accolades, as wonderful as they are. Then, when the pandemic hit, it highlighted that our food system needs to find ways to change how it operates in order to be more sustainable, especially when it comes to luxury experiences. ‘Luxury’ foods like caviar, lobster, or Kobe beef get imported from the other side of the world frozen, and natural resources continue to decline.”
Instead of resting on his laurels, this chef laced-up his apron and got to work. “I felt that by elevating plant-based food to the highest level, we can challenge or redefine what luxury means for fine dining, as well as what we eat at home,” says Humm. “Instead of celebrating how far your food has travelled, we can instead value the beauty and flavor of fresh, plant-based produce that was grown in your local farm.” Switching to plant-based, at a time when one of Humm’s signature dishes was made with duck was undoubtedly a bold move, but he concentrated on the goals that he had set for himself, and for his team of talented cooks.
Daniel Humm Contributes to a Sustainable Future By Goal Setting
“I anticipated there would be criticism,” shares Humm. “But, within that criticism emerged an even greater sense of purpose. This is what drives me and my team. Eleven Madison Park is not ‘anti-meat’, but rather ‘pro-planet’. Global environmental research has showcased the substantial impact of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from animal agriculture. My goal has been to craft the finest plant-based options, showcasing them in novel and unconventional ways in order to challenge the long-established norms that will drive meaningful conversations and awareness. One of Humm’s most personal goals it to make sure that everyone has access to sustainable food, especially those that can’t afford fine dining.
“We reached out to our friends at Rethink Food, an organization founded in 2017 by Eleven Madison Park alum Matt Jozwiak, with the mission of bridging the gap between the 108 billion tons of food that go unused in the United States each year and the 38 million Americans who continue to face food insecurity,” says the Chef. “We’ve collaborated with Rethink many times in the past, and then we became partners at the dawn of the pandemic. Through this work, we were introduced to Robert ‘Bob’ Madison and his team at the Jacob A. Riis Settlement at Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City, where we’ve served hundreds of meals to the community each weekday. Every meal at Eleven Madison Park and every purchase from elevenmadisonhome.com contributes directly to this mission. We are committed to using our resources to combat food insecurity, aiming to create a more sustainable and equitable food system in New York City and beyond.”
Daniel Humm asserts that small steps can lead to great change. “My diet is predominantly plant-based, but not entirely” he notes. “I’ve found that the more I eat plant-based, the less I crave meat. Even if everyone were to eat plant-based for just one day out of the week, it would make a significant difference for the future. I often say it’s about progress, not perfection. I am also a huge fan of traveling and experiencing other cultures, and in those senses I believe it’s important to experience and taste dishes from all around the world.”
So, what does a Michelin star chef eat after intense exercise? Try Daniel Humm’s “Morel Mushroom and Seaweed Baked Rice” for a tantalizing recovery meal.
“Eat More Plants. A Chef’s Journal” is available to pre-order now.