Flying solo: Daniel Humm previews his London opening, Davies and Brook

Joe Lutrario - 09/12/2019

The chef-owner of Eleven Madison Park – part of the Best of the Best group of restaurants that have previously topped The World’s 50 Best list – opens his first overseas restaurant in iconic UK hotel Claridge’s today (December 9). After a protracted delay and a mid-year break-up with Will Guidara, Humm promises it will have been worth the wait

Daniel Humm and Claridge’s go way back. Aged just 15, the now world-famous Swiss chef toiled in the bowels of the London hotel peeling tomatoes, chopping veg for mirepoix and cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches to form perfect little triangles. 

Not far short of three decades later, Humm – whose New York flagship Eleven Madison Park (EMP) was voted The World’s Best Restaurant, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, in 2017 – opens in the iconic Mayfair destination in the space previously home to Simon Rogan’s Fera and Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s.

For Humm – tall with a wiry, athletic build and a calm, thoughtful manner – this project is something of a homecoming. A competitive cyclist in his youth on the Swiss Junior Team, his stint at Claridge’s in the early 90s was more about funding his next season than learning to become a great chef, but it wasn’t long before he fell in love with kitchens. 

“I love these big hotels. There’s so much history,” says Humm. “The rigid structure of the brigade system also appealed to me. Coming from cycling, which is very regimented too, it made sense. It felt like a team sport. I guess it is.” 

His professional journey included further training stints in Europe prior to building his reputation on the US West Coast, and then being hand-picked by legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer to revive the then-ailing Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan in 2006.

Humm pictured in front of Claridge's

Davies and Brook, named after the intersection of the two streets that Claridge’s corners, is among the most high-stakes London restaurant openings of recent memory. With the opening originally slated for last summer, Claridge’s flagship dining room has lain fallow for nearly a year. It has been refurbished with the lavishness and precision that befits one of the world’s most famous hotels joining forces with one of the world’s most famous chefs.

The restaurant is accessed through a grander entrance than Fera, which guests entered via a rather incongruous speakeasy-style door. Brad Cloepfil, the American behind the jaw-dropping 2017 overhaul of EMP, has designed the dining room. The space is contemporary while referencing Claridge’s classicism with glowing walls, Irish cast crystal colonnades, banquettes shod in velvet and leather in warm silver and terracotta tones and dramatic lighting that ‘accentuates every angle of the room’.

Davies and Brook boasts 85 covers in the main restaurant, a bar area for about 20 and a 12-cover private dining room. The Davies Street frontage of the restaurant has been opened up by removing the frosting from the windows and adding some tables for drinkers on a narrow outdoor terrace. 

Just like the New York restaurant, the bar is a key feature of the space, positioned to the front of the room directly opposite the kitchen. It adds a buzz to the room, helping soften those hard edges of formality that a five-star hotel setting can generate  The dining room will feature artwork personally selected by Humm, in this case a striking 40-part photographic installation by Roni Horn, depicting the hills of southern Iceland.

Dialling back the menu

Humm actually came within a hair’s breadth of opening at Claridge’s some six years ago as Ramsay’s 12-year tenure came to an end. The chef and then business partner Guidara were regular visitors to London when The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards were held in the city each year, prior to moving around the world.

“We came very close to having a deal. In fact, if I’m honest, we basically had a deal. But at the last minute I got cold feet,” says Humm a little sheepishly. “I had to make a phone call and say, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t do it’. The next year I came back and saw Fera. I regretted it because the room looked incredible. But it was the correct decision. I wasn’t ready seven years ago.”

Winter vegetables with mushroom broth at Davies and Brook

The success of EMP in the intervening years backs up Humm’s assessment. The New York restaurants was rapidly climbing the World’s 50 Best list at that point and the distraction of a transatlantic venture could well have prevented it reaching the top spot. But the stars have now aligned: as a former No.1, EMP is now elevated beyond the annual 50 Best list to be part of the Best of the Best hall of fame. Added to that, Rogan’s tenure at Claridge’s came to an end earlier than planned.

Davies and Brook, open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner, offers a £145 per head tasting menu alongside a three or four-course à la carte menu, priced at £72 and £98 respectively. The tasting menu has roughly the same structure as that of the tasting menu-only EMP, with seven courses plus several extras. Luxury elements include caviar served with butternut squash, smoked shellfish and naan.

Humm’s tasting menus used to be 14-plus courses long, but over the years he has dialled back on the number of dishes. “Personally, I now don’t enjoy a meal that long. It’s just too much,” he says, relating it to a kind of sensory overload. “I was in Paris the other day and
went to two art galleries. I thought about going to a third but didn’t because I knew I would
not be able to take anything else in.”

The greater focus on à la carte represents a departure for Humm. “If you want, you can have a meal here in an hour and a half, rather than the three or four hours it takes in New York,” says Humm. 

Humm’s food is memorable and distinctive, but not as ground-breaking as some of the restaurants that have topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, including El Bulli, Noma and The Fat Duck. Modern French with some avant-garde elements is combined with contemporary American influences and Swiss precision to create plates of food with a refined, classic aesthetic. 

The menu at EMP references the city’s culture and its culinary traditions (even if not as overtly as in previous incarnations). In London, Humm says he is drawing inspiration from the city’s culinary diversity. “For Londoners, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine is not exotic. We have taken inspiration from our travels. I spent some time in India recently. People can expect a menu that’s a bit more eclectic.”

Humm's signature honey and lavender glazed roast duck dish

Starters include crispy rice salad with citrus-marinated yellowtail and pickled white carrots, jicama and a herb pesto; tofu and king crab with black truffle dashi; and roasted beetroot with quinoa falafel, cumin and sheep’s milk yoghurt. Mains vary from black cod with miso and kohlrabi to beef short rib with endive and fermented mint. The menu won’t be big on EMP signatures, but it will feature its famed roast duck dish, which sees birds dry-aged in-house for 14 days then glazed with lavender and honey. 

A parting of ways

Humm is no stranger to the weight of expectation that comes with being considered one of the top chefs on the planet. However, this opening is heaped with extra pressure given it’s the first restaurant from Make It Nice pitched at a comparable level to EMP – and, significantly, marks the first he will open without Guidara at his side. 

The restaurant was conceived by Humm and Guidara in partnership. Yet one of the most storied US restaurant bromances ended abruptly this summer when the pair split, citing significant differences in their business and creative goals. 

This apparently affable divorce ended with Humm buying out his gregarious co-founder to take full control of Make It Nice which, in addition to its flagship, oversees F&B for upmarket US hotel group NoMad, as well as the fast-casual restaurant Made Nice in New York. The company also has a number of other projects in the works, including an unnamed high-rise fine dining restaurant in New York and a London NoMad that’s expected to open late next year.

Humm and Guidara met at EMP in 2006. Humm was a hot young chef new to New York, having recently attracted a four-star review from the San Francisco Chronicle for his cooking at Campton Place, putting the restaurant in a similar league to nearby The French Laundry. EMP was then owned by Meyer, who was running it as a brasserie serving up to 500 people a night. Meyer charged Humm and Guidara with elevating the offer – with its beautiful Art Deco design, huge windows and soaring ceiling, the space had potential – and the pair duly created one of the most forward-thinking and influential restaurants in the US and, ultimately, in the world.

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Central to their approach was a marriage of equals between kitchen and dining room, a rare thing in the restaurant world and at the time a largely new idea. In particular, Humm and Guidara popularised the idea of front and back of house working together to delight diners. The restaurant researched its customers’ likes and dislikes prior to them coming to dinner and also employed ‘dreamweavers’ with a specific remit to create magical personalised moments for individual guests or tables.

Having bought control of the restaurant from Meyer in 2011, the pair’s slick and artful fusion of front and back of house also allowed them to rethink tableside theatre. Their most famous concepts include a carrot tartare dish that involved a meat grinder affixed to the table and an after-dinner card trick where servers used sleight of hand to deliver each diner’s preferred choice of chocolate. “We paid a great deal of attention to every aspect of the restaurant,” says Humm, now 43 years of age. “Whether it was the cocktails or the tea program, we aimed to make it the very best in the world. That sounds obvious now, but it was kind of ground-breaking 10 years ago.” 

Redefining fine dining

With Guidara’s service ethos so intrinsic to the company’s success, it’s difficult to see his departure as anything other than a blow. But the show must go on and, as one would expect, a positive spin is being put on it.

“Very little has changed. It is the exact same team. It’s more about the direction of the company. It’s a new chapter, and a really exciting one. The team is super fired up about where we are heading,” says Humm. However, the chef is under no illusion that opening in London will be easy, especially without his long-term confidant by his side. “Some things get easier as you get more experienced. But with restaurants I get more and more nervous each time,” he admits. “At this level everything matters so much. What you say. What you do. I don’t get paralysed by it, but I certainly feel it. I just want to do a good job.”

A glimpse of the Davies and Brook dining room

To Humm’s credit, a considerable amount of Make It Nice’s resources are going into the project. Several of the company’s top people have been in London for the past year, including EMP’s former general manager Billy Peelle and its former chef de cuisine Dmitri Magi, an alumnus of Noma. Both have been with the group for about 10 years and will be stationed in London permanently, revising the same roles they had at EMP along with head bartender Pietro Collina (former bar director of The NoMad New York). 

Humm is now in London until Christmas to oversee the launch and will return in January, but long-term he will be concentrating on EMP and upcoming projects, leaving Magi as his trusted chef de cuisine.

“Davies and Brook is for sure a sibling of EMP. There’s a different vision behind it but we’re still striving for excellence and deliciousness. It’s for people to decide whether it’s at the same level,” says Humm. 

“In London, fine dining seems to be something people don’t want to hear. But I believe in the craft and the art of what we do. There is a place for tablecloths and beautiful china – it is our job to make it more accessible and current so our generation wants it. EMP played a big role in redefining fine dining. But there’s more to be done.” 

The original version of this interview was published in the December edition of the UK's Restaurant magazine. William Drew, 50 Best's Director of Content, contributed additional material to this article.

The Best of the Best group was created in 2019 and comprises all the venues that have topped the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants over its history. Members of the Best of the Best are no longer eligible to be voted in the annual lists.

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