Daniel Humm used to walk on the other side of the street, peering past the Aston Martins and Bentleys parked outside Claridge’s to sneak a glimpse inside one of London’s most iconic hotels.
He would trek more than an hour into Mayfair from where he was living and enter the five-star hotel via the employee entrance, never once stepping foot inside a world of the rich and famous.
That was when Humm was 15 and was working in Claridge’s kitchen one dark, dreary winter in the early 90s.
His first foray into the culinary world revolved around cutting and buttering bread for afternoon tea, then adding slices of cucumber and a piece of salmon and. Over and over again.
Now Humm has come full circle.
Almost three decades after unintentionally starting his cooking career in the basement of the same building, he has returned to Claridge’s. But this time is very different.
This time he owns the fine dining restaurant, Davies and Brook, inside the luxury hotel, which opened late last year to universal acclaim.
He is no longer the teenage boy chasing a cycling dream; he is one of the best chefs on the planet; the man behind world-renowned New York institution, Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant that rose to No. 1 in the world in 2017 and has received three Michelin Stars every year since 2011.
“It’s really a project that’s extremely gratifying and something I’m extremely proud of. It is a beautiful full circle story,” Humm tells Man of Style via zoom while sitting inside an empty Eleven Madison Park this week.
“When I was 15 years old, I worked in that kitchen having and making no money. My work was just cutting the bread but I enjoyed it – I always enjoyed working – but at this time I was pursuing a career as a professional cyclist. In the off-season I would find work in restaurants because that was the only place I’d find a job.
“I always looked inside Claridge’s and it seemed like such an unknown world; something of a mystery world, but I had a fascination with these grand hotels around the world. I don’t know why but it fascinated me, especially Claridge’s because it has centuries of history. Kings and queens and politicians and so many important people have stayed there.
“All these years later – 30 years later – to have my own restaurant there I have to pinch myself. It is definitely a proud feeling.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the world in March and dramatically altered the fine dining landscape, potentially forever, Humm had already made significant changes to his life in 2019.
Humm and long-time business partner, Will Guidara, stunned the restaurant world when they announced they were going separate ways last July, ending a partnership that had seen them become a force to be reckoned with for the best part of 15 years.
For so long they appeared like the perfect marriage from afar, but all good things must come to an end. Just like Tom Brady ending his career at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after winning six Super Bowls with legendary head coach Bill Belichick in New England.
Humm bought out Guidara’s shares in the restaurant that put them on the map – Eleven Madison Park – as well as the Nomad and the other restaurants in their Make It Nice group.
“I think it was just time. It was time to go our separate ways. We had an incredible journey,” Humm explains from across the Atlantic Ocean while sitting opposite me in a pale grey knit.
“We both had journeys before we came together for this and we had an incredible run together. We grew up together. We spent our 20s together and our 30s and eventually we had to see that we didn’t see eye to eye in the way that we wanted to grow and the interests that we both had. I think that we came to the conclusion for us to continue to be successful it was time to end our professional journey together.
“In the last few years, I’ve made a few decisions to simplify my life a little bit. I’m very proud of what we did with the Nomad Hotel, but it started to take on a growth that wasn’t purely my control, so I felt like I had to step away from it.
“The older I’m getting – with everything in my life, with the people I surround myself with, the activities I do, the things I buy, the work we do – I’m looking for there to be much more meaning in it. I think personal meaning makes life much more beautiful.
“I really have a focus on Eleven Madison Park and New York has become a home to me. It is a special place. Everything else I want to put my mind and my effort to should be of equal importance and that’s why Davies and Brook made so much sense to me. As much as I have become a New Yorker, I am still very much European and I do very much need Europe in my life as well. I think London is such an incredible city, probably the greatest city in all of Europe, and Claridge’s is one of the grandest hotels of all grand hotels, the fact that I’ve worked there all those years back, it was a no brainer for me and something I’m passionate about.”
Humm has been away from home for nearly twenty years now. He first emerged on the gastronomy radar when he turned Gasthaud zum Gupf – a small country restaurant in the Swiss alps not far from the Liechtenstein, Austrian and German borders – into a destination that wealthy customers flew helicopters to come and eat at.
One of those regular customers eventually convinced him to pack up his life and move to San Francisco where a San Francisco Chronicle review referred to him as a ‘miracle worker’ after he transformed Campton Place into the most sought after restaurant in California.
Within three years he entered the majors when restauranteur extraordinaire Danny Meyer lured Humm to New York to reignite Eleven Madison Park, eight years after the restaurant opened in 1998.
Humm and Guidara bought out Meyer – who has since turned a burger spot in Union Square into a billion-dollar business, Shake Shack – in 2011 and turned Manhattan’s most coveted reservation into America’s most prized restaurant. Forget Hamilton, Eleven Madison Park has been the hottest ticket in Manhattan since they received a four-star review in the New York Times eleven years ago.
But for most of his adolescence, this wasn’t the path Humm dreamt about. Cycling was his true love. It was the reason why he left school at just 14.
Humm was one of the best in Switzerland, always finishing amongst the top ten and sometimes in the top five. But he knew the likelihood of making a livelihood from the sport was slipping from his grasp when a life-changing accident happened at the national championships when he was 21.
He doesn’t remember much about the crash in Lenzerheide other than bombing down a very steep downhill. He was airlifted to hospital with a punctured lung, broken ribs and a broken arm and spent the next six months in bed.
For as long as he could remember, all he wanted was a career as a bike racer. But as he lay in the hospital, he realised he wanted to channel his passion for cycling into cooking. Talk about sliding doors.
“I left school when I was 14 to join a professional racing team’s junior program and I just raced. At the time of the crash I’d been racing for nine years and I had this accident and I felt that I could never become the best in the world. Even on my best days there were always three or four guys who could always beat me. The accident made me realise how limited the career is and then what do you do afterwards? Work in a bike shop?” he recalls while struggling to fit much of his six foot four-inch frame into my MacBook Air screen.
“My dad didn’t support my decision to leave school at 14 and he said, ‘Hey, if you do this, you’re on your own, I’m not going to support you’. I moved out from home, had no money, I made a few Swiss Francs a year but not much to live and that’s why I worked in kitchens. I always felt comfortable in kitchens and started falling in love with it, even though it was just to get a paycheck.
“When I was in the hospital, in my head I was thinking: if I can’t become the best cyclist in the world, I’m going to become the best chef in the world. We had some really good chefs in Switzerland at that point, two and three-star Michelin restaurants. I decided I was going to work there and become the best chef in the world.”
Unlike tennis or golf, cycling is an unforgiving sport. It involves combating early mornings in the freezing cold, involving long stretches of just you and your bike, and a fastidious focus on everything you eat and drink and how you recover.
That lessons he learned in the saddle put Humm on a path to becoming the best chef on the planet. Something he achieved in April 2017 when the World’s 50 Best awards were held inside the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. But instead of feeling overjoyed by achieving a long-awaited goal, Humm felt nothing.
“The reality of the moment when I became number one, you reach the mountain top and the view isn’t as great as you dreamt of,” he said.
“I always understood it working my way to that place: there is no number one restaurant in the world, how can you judge that? But as an athlete, I wanted to understand the rules and if this is the game, I want to win it. Becoming number one became this carrot in front of us for our whole team that was very easy to explain. It is very easy to show them we are number twenty and we want to become number one and therefore we need to work harder, be more precise and all these things. And it worked. It is amazing the progress we were able to make using that carrot as a tool to coach the team and for it to be an inspiration.
“I always knew that it was a carrot. But when I was walking on to that stage to receive the award, even in that moment already, I realised that wasn’t my happiness moment. One of the first questions receiving the award was, ‘What are you going to do now?’ That was a question I couldn’t answer to myself or to my team.
“In the last four years I’ve done a lot of soul searching; I did a two-month trip in India and been really trying to figure out what’s next. I think it’s twofold: One, if I look at myself in the world of chefs, when I look at Ferran Adria and how he has been able to make us explore techniques we’ve never seen before and made us use techniques that are used in industries to create toothpaste or something like that; that was revolutionary and I think that changed all of us chefs. When I look at Rene Redzepi and how he has made us look at ingredients in a different way, looking back to more beginnings when we were foraging and using things we haven’t used in a long time and giving these ingredients a heavy importance.
“When I look at these two chefs, I ask myself what can I contribute? It goes back to my fascination with restaurants going back to these grand hotels and a love for tradition and the ceremony and the love for the art of hospitality and service and the art for cuisine and great ingredients, of course. I think my contribution is making sure we can keep fine dining approachable and as accessible as possible, that quality doesn’t mean pretentiousness
“There was a reason why I would only walk from the other side of the street at Claridge’s and wouldn’t look inside, because there was this feeling that was intimidating. Fine dining or some of these hotels were intimidating. I think fine dinging has struggled over the last few years, especially attracting a younger audience. My feeling is I want to celebrate this art; I want to modernise it; I want to make it contemporary and as approachable as possible; I want to make sure it never feels pretentious. There is something that has always bothered me about accessibility at these prices, but I’ve come to terms with these things. To celebrate quality and craftmanship it comes at a price, there is no way around it. This is my art and I love to work with an incredible team in an incredible kitchen with incredible tools and ingredients and that comes at a cost.”
Society might not acknowledge this fully, but Humm is an artist. Fine dining might not be music, painting or sculpture, but Humm pushes the envelope on what can be achieved in his field, just like Adria did at elBulli in Catalonia and what Redzepi is doing at Noma in Copenhagen.
Humm is searching for meaning and has discovered it amid the COVID-19 crisis, transforming Eleven Madison Park into a commissary kitchen and partnering with Rethink Food, a nonprofit organisation that uses food waste from restaurants and grocery stores to make meals for soup kitchens around New York.
Where once 150 ducks hung in a custom-designed dry-aging refrigerator for 14 days before being transformed into the famous roast duck dish glazed with honey and lavender, now sits a room full of cardboard boxes ready to be filled with spaghetti Bolognese and focaccia.
“I didn’t really know if it was the right thing to do, but it has given me an incredible gift. We’ve started producing 3000 meals a day out of Eleven Madison Park. We’ve been doing that for the last seven months and we will continue to do it until we reopen the doors. It is one way we can give back,” he said.
“I feel this has given me so much more meaning, and I feel that before I wanted to make it accessible to more. Today I feel I can use my voice and my platform to give back. As devastating as it is right now – walking down the streets and seeing restaurants out of business forever, knowing that so many of my team are out of work or have changed careers, is devastating – I do see the silver lining coming out of the pandemic is we will have a higher purpose and that will fuel us and give us new energy. I feel grateful to be young enough to still have the next 25 years to really try to make a difference and move our industry.”
While indoor dining returned in the five boroughs of New York late last month, albeit, at just 25 per cent indoor capacity, Eleven Madison Park hasn’t reopened for service unlike Le Bernardin and Daniel. Humm doesn’t expect to reopen his pride and joy until midway through next year, more than 12 months on from the most recent service.
“I’m overall a pretty positive person and I have to be for my team, but there have been some really difficult moments. We have had no income for our company for myself for anyone and I don’t know when that’s going to change,” he said.
“I’ve made the decision to not bring Eleven Madison Park back until next May or June; I just don’t see how it will make sense any time sooner without having significant risk of a second shutdown, and we couldn’t financially afford that. It is cheaper to be closed and wait it out. But by the end of it, it will be fifteen months. It is unthinkable, it is pretty nuts.
“March 16 was the last day we were open. Every seat was packed at eleven Madison Park. We’ve never had an empty seat in eleven years. We just opened Davies and Brook with raving reviews and packed restaurant from the beginning on. Me as a chef I was truly on top of my game. It is hard to be at a higher point in your career; everything was going well; critically acclaimed, financially successful, amazing team around me; all these things and amazing projects in the world. And then it just stopped; it happened overnight.”
The music may have stopped in March, but it is starting to be played again if you listen close enough. Expect it to get louder in the new year. And when the time is right, don’t be surprised if the new anthem is even better than the original.