Header image: berry cheesecake with white currant sorbet; Daniel Humm (left) and Will Guidara (right)
Daniel Humm, world-class chef and co-owner of the No.3 restaurant in the world, Eleven Madison Park, has just served a packet of orange-coloured baked cheese crackers to a guest paying hundreds of dollars for a tasting menu. It’s a bold idea initiated by his co-owner and business partner Will Guidara, and it pays off: the unsuspecting diner is “mind-blown”.
“The customer was joking around about eating Cheez-its,” recalls Humm. “So Will came to the kitchen and suggested we serve some with the eggs benedict caviar course. I could have said no, this is my food and I don’t want Cheez-Its on the table, but I trusted him that it would blow their minds and it did.”
Guidara says it’s the trust between kitchen and dining room that allows them to pull off such unusual and sometimes risky moves that ultimately make the customer’s experience so memorable.
“I can’t think of any other chef who would allow that,” says Guidara, who oversees the front-of-house teams. “If I have an idea that’s going to blow the guest’s mind, I want a chef who trusts me with that.”
This trust didn’t come overnight. Guidara and Humm have been working together for more than 10 years and have built their reputations together. While many restaurants are recognisable by their famous chefs, Eleven Madison Park is synonymous with both the head of its dining room and its kitchen, and the restaurant is as well-known for Guidara’s outstanding hospitality as it is for Humm’s stunning plates.
While Eleven Madison Park has always been known for its creative approach to hospitality, with quirky touches like the Cheez-Its and the tendency to make bespoke courses for each person, the service has evolved with the food. This year, Humm and Guidara made the decision to cut their menu from 15 courses to just eight. At the same time, working on the concept of “less is more,” they made the dining experience a little less formal, cutting the amount of interruptions to the table and allowing guests to enjoy each other’s company.
“Any great restaurant has to be a genuine reflection of the people running it,” says Guidara. “We took over this restaurant in our twenties and we’ve changed a lot in the last 10 years so the restaurant needs to change too. For a long time we loved 15-course menus but we stopped loving them. We don’t like going to a restaurant where you can’t remember all the food you’ve eaten, and when you’re being interrupted constantly with different courses you don’t have time to actually talk to each other.”
The eight-course tasting menu still takes place over several hours and includes many of Humm’s signatures such as lavender roasted duck and celery root cooked in a pig’s bladder, but the portion sizes are a little larger now. The whole experience still includes tableside drinks rituals, a course in the kitchen and take-home gifts, but the service is also more casual, with meticulously trained wait staff allowed to engage more informally with guests at the table.
“Once you gain a certain level of confidence in your food, you don’t need to add those last four elements to a dish – the garnish or the extra sauce,” says Guidara. “In the dining room we’ve gained confidence in our service such that we’re able to strip away some of the formality and embrace the fact that if you know your stuff and you’re nailing the fundamental elements of service, you can approach it with a more casual demeanour.”
The pair, who also own the dining spaces at the NoMad hotel just north of Eleven Madison Park, are going even further with the informal theme and opening fast-casual restaurant Made Nice later this year. Customers will be able to order quinoa falafel with roasted beets and cucumber relish or salad with crispy potatoes and salmon, and the idea is to provide a counter service where people can spend $15 and be in and out in five minutes.
“I’m excited because we’re affecting the food world with what we do here at Eleven Madison Park but how many people can really afford to eat here? Not many,” says Humm. “We’re really stoked to bring our craft and what we’ve learned to more people.”
Made Nice will, of course, involve some of the classic Humm-Guidara hospitality touches, such as take-home surprises and uplifting messages, but diners will have to wait until September to see how that plays out. The pair are also opening a second NoMad in Los Angeles at the end of 2017 and in Las Vegas in 2018, and finally an as-yet-unnamed fine dining restaurant on New York’s Park Avenue in 2019.
Humm and Guidara describe their food in one word as ‘delicious’ and their hospitality as ‘gracious’. Little touches like the Cheez-Its allow them to keep changing and evolving a meal over the course of the night, without sticking too close to the rule book.
“From the absence of creativity comes atrophy,” says Guidara. “If we just had to serve the same menu every day and not be creative, I couldn’t do that. That’s where the hospitality is. It’s not about serving the experience to someone, it’s about creating the experience with someone. We both have the best time when we’re given a little morsel and we have an opportunity to do something fun. That’s when we feel the most energised.”