Daniel Humm is the chef/co-owner of Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad and NoMad Bar at The NoMad Hotel. His cuisine is focused on the locally sourced ingredients of New York, with an emphasis on simplicity, purity, and seasonal flavors. A native of Switzerland, he was exposed to food at a very young age, and began working in kitchens at the age of 14. From there he spent time in some of the finest Swiss hotels and restaurants before earning his first Michelin star at the age of 24. In 2003, Daniel moved to the United States to become the executive chef at Campton Place in San Francisco, where he received four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle. Three years later, he moved to New York to become the executive chef at Eleven Madison Park.
What inspired you to get into this business? Share some of your mentors and how they have helped you.
When I was young I really had two passions: biking and food. With the former I was on track to pursue cycling as a career, already on the junior national team in Switzerland. With food though, I had learned from a very young age the importance of great ingredients from my mom, and valued great, simple food from a young age. But I had never thought of it as a career really. After a pretty bad cycling accident I started to have doubts about pursuing that as a career and the path to the kitchen became more of a reality. Over the course of my career there have been some very important mentors to help me get to where I am today, but the greatest are my mother and chef Gerard Rabaey. In their own way they helped me lay the foundation first in appreciating great food, and secondly in understanding how to run a kitchen.
How has your cuisine evolved since you started and how do you think it will change in the future?
As a young cook I felt compelled to show off a little, to put as many techniques and ingredients on the plate as I could to prove my skill. But now, it’s more about stripping those things away, about keeping a dish simple, focused, and letting a few ingredients shine on a plate instead of a dozen. What this does is put more emphasis on the ingredients and I believe it’s actually more of a challenge as a chef to create something magical – but when you do, it’s that much more impactful.
It is true, smells and flavours cover the biggest percentage of memory. Would you share with us, a unique, still vivid moment in life?
I firmly believe that you can connect with a guest based on memories they have of tastes and smells they’ve experienced before. Sometimes it can go as deep as a childhood memory and have an enormous impact and I love that about being a chef. If you look at our Milk and Honey dessert, which we now serve at NoMad, to me that evokes childhood memories of warm milk and honey my mother used to serve me. When I taste that dish I’m transported and it does more than just excite my taste buds. The same can be said for so many dishes and it’s a joy to try to make those connections for our guests.
“A successful chef needs to be so much more than a good cook. You need to be an inspiring leader, someone who can manage others, can lift them up, but also be able to be emotional with praise and unemotional with criticism.” says Daniel Humm.
What are the most important values you demonstrate as a successful chef?
A successful chef needs to be so much more than a good cook. You need to be an inspiring leader, someone who can manage others, can lift them up, but also be able to be emotional with praise and unemotional with criticism. Early in my career I may have been more likely to yell, to lose my temper, but today I realize that’s not the way to lead a team. The kitchen is a stressful place and in order for it to run smoothly it needs to be managed not with fear, but through level-headedness.
What is the best advice you’ve been given?
Can I quote Miles Davis? “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”
Every life takes its own direction, influenced by a unique pattern of decisions and circumstances. Yet, we are driven by many different kinds of motives, some self-serving and some aimed at purposes beyond the self. What moves you to make the important choices that shape your behavior and, ultimately, the directions of your life?
Right now, my goal, the goal for the restaurants, is that we serve the most delicious food and offer the most gracious hospitality. For me, that’s the ultimate balance and truest reflection of what we aim to do every single day of service, whether it’s at Eleven Madison Park or at NoMad.
How do you maintain your and your team’s daily motivation and inspiration despite obstacles, pushback or setbacks?
Every day is a new day, if you have a bad service we figure out what went wrong and then get back on course the next day. We can’t let things carryover or linger, and as a unit we all must collaborate and be there to support one another. As a restaurant group, we have hired people that are creative thinkers, collaborators, problem solvers, and just truly a group of people who love what they do and know how to get things done.
Have you fulfilled your dreams?
I feel very blessed for how things in my career have gone, but know that we’re not done striving to be better – so in a sense, not yet!