Interview: Daniel Humm
The first months of being a vegan restaurant; tell us how it is!
We underestimated the power of Eleven Madison Park going plant-based, from both a culinary perspective but also from the perspective of our business operations. When we made the decision earlier this year to eliminate animal products from our menu, we were so laser focused on reopening the restaurant that we didn’t fully recognize what going plant-based would mean.
We strongly believe that the future is plant-based. It’s a daunting task; my team and I are essentially learning an entirely new language.
It’s been a beautiful journey overall, but it’s been a challenging one as well.
What was the reason for the change; does it have to do with sustainability mainly, or the fact that you want renewal, challenge yourself?
Like so many others, the pandemic was a moment of pause and reflection for me. When we closed our doors in March 2020, there were many moments when I wasn’t sure whether we’d ever be able to reopen them. The impact of the pandemic on the restaurant industry in particular has been devastating.
During that time, it was impossible to ignore how broken the food system has become and how our heavy reliance on animal-based products is damaging our planet. As I considered what Eleven Madison Park would look like after the pandemic, it was clear that we couldn’t reopen the same restaurant. This pushed me to embrace a plant-based menu.
But showcasing fruits and vegetables isn’t the only way we’ve changed. During the pandemic I also spent a lot of time thinking about food insecurity and worked closely with non-profit Rethink Food to help feed underserved communities. Today, every dinner purchased at Eleven Madison Park allows us to provide meals to our neighbors in New York City who are battling food insecurity. This food is being distributed by the Eleven Madison Truck, which is operated by our team in partnership with Rethink Food. We’ve created a circular ecosystem where our guests, our team, and our suppliers all participate.
Did you have to make changes in the staff; or is this the same as before? (In the kitchen and front of house)
We’ve made huge investments in research and development to create plant-based menus that are every bit as delicious as our previous menus. We knew it was absolutely critical that no matter the ingredients, every dish had to live up to some of my favorites from the past.
In addition to our kitchen staff, today we have a robust fermentation program that allows us to achieve new flavors. Delving into fermentation has made me appreciate another incredibly important ingredient: Time. We also have our own farm where we’re working intimately with the team there to grow specific produce that our kitchen team can use in unique ways.
It’s a relationship that I never could have imagined prior to going plant-based, and it makes working with the ingredients so much more special.
Waiting list of 15 000; is that true? And if – has this something to do with your new approach or is this standard – business as usual – for EMP?
We’ve been lucky that reservations at Eleven Madison Park have always been popular, but the energy that our plant-based menu has brought with it is magical. Our teams are energized by the creativity and innovation and our guests can feel that excitement.
Every night our dining room is full with tables excited to discover what we’ve created; the experience is euphoric.
When one of the most famous restaurants in the world, makes such a clear sustainable ark, what does that mean for the industry?
Going plant-based, of course, was an incredible risk for Eleven Madison Park. Many of the courses that defined us and made us who we are today had animal products. But change and evolution are also qualities that define who we are.
We recognize that our success has given us a voice in the restaurant industry and how we use that voice is of tremendous consequence. We hope that by showing the world how magical and delicious a
plant-based meal can be, other restaurants will be empowered to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their own menus. We’re not anti-meat. We’re pro-planet.
Will the new direction of EMP change the clientele of the restaurant; younger, vegetarians etc? Or is it the same as before? What do you think in long term?
When I speak to guests, I’m struck by how many tell me that they eat predominantly plant-based diets. So many people have come to the same conclusion we have, that the future of food is plant-based. I can’t tell you how many times a guest at the end of their meal tells me that they didn’t miss the fish or meat.
At the end of the day, a meal at Eleven Madison Park is delicious, beautiful, creative and intentional, meat or no meat.
What do you miss from the fish- and meat period? Or is it too early to say?
The reality is that the world of food has changed. I would love to serve caviar and cook duck forever, but I see how their quality has deteriorated since I began my career years ago. They’re not the same. Food has always been my language, but for me, as the quality of some ingredients has changed, fish and meat just aren’t the right words to use anymore.
Cooking with only fruits and vegetables has also been freeing in a way I completely underestimated. We don’t feel obligated to start our meal with caviar and end with butter-poached lobster and steak. We’re completely rewriting the definition of luxury and charting new territory for the heights of plant-based fine dining.
And we’re only just scratching the surface; there’s so much more for us to discover.
Cow milk for cappuccino and honey for tea, is that the only non-vegan ingredients in the kitchen?
Yes. The reality is that we haven’t found a non-dairy alternative that is as delicious as milk in a cappuccino. So, we kept it on the menu. The creativity within the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park is unparalleled, and I truly believe our creativity is better focused on innovations in plant-based fine dining rather than developing a delicious non-dairy milk.
What’s the biggest challenge for you personally with the new plant-based approach?
At first, eliminating all animal products felt limiting. But as time has progressed, it’s actually become freeing. No longer are we bound by the constraints of a traditional fine dining menu, but instead we’re rewriting the script.