Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Daniel Humm

Chef Daniel Humm shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.December 2009

Chef Daniel Humm is the executive chef of Eleven Madison Park, which earned four stars from the New York Times in August 2009. He arrived at the restaurant in 2006, after spending three years as executive chef of Campton Place in San Francisco, where he garnered four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle and was one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2005. He quickly elevated Eleven Madison Park to a three-star restaurant and became a Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux. The James Beard Foundation twice nominated him for a rising star chef award while he was at Campton Place, and once while at Eleven Madison Park. Chef Humm earned his first Michelin star in his late teens, as executive chef of Gasthaus zum Gupf in his native Switzerland, after working at the acclaimed Le Pont de Brent. The Main Course sat down with him in his grand dining room.

You had four stars at Campton Place in San Francisco. What does it mean for you to have four stars in New York?
New York is the big league. It was hard to leave a four-star chef position to come here and run a two-star restaurant. When we finally got it back, I definitely was relieved. The reason to come to New York was that there are always people who doubt that you’re really that good. When we got four stars in San Francisco, a lot of people said, ‘Oh, San Francisco is so small. It’s not New York.’ In my head I said, well, let me show you. New York is the biggest food city in the world, I think, next to Paris. It is such an important city for chefs. So if you can make it here, a lot of people will recognize you on a national and even international scale.

What do you do once you have four stars?
Four stars is not just something you get. It’s not like winning a gold medal, where you have it to keep. It’s a real commitment; it really just begins when you get four stars. You’ve got to push really hard to maintain that level. If we are at the same level next time we get reviewed, in four or five years, we’re not going to get the four stars again. Four stars means that you’ve always got to be at the top, and you’ve constantly got to rise to the top because you’re not just going to stay there. The top becomes higher also. It’s exciting to be recognized, but it’s a big commitment. So I really don’t think about it too much. I just pursue that. I want to work in a place where everybody’s on the same page and everybody wants to have that. That’s really it.

When you were first reviewed here, you got three stars. What has changed, if anything, in the way you cook or in the restaurant?
The restaurant has kept on evolving. And it still does. Even since the review, I think we’ve gotten better in certain areas. We’re just constantly improving. Getting three stars was great for us. But we still changed so many things. We almost remodeled the entire restaurant. We started doing more tableside service. We added just a lot of layers to the service and to how we do things.

And your cooking?
The cooking is always evolving. Every year you have the same ingredients, but every year you want to add something new or do things in a different way. It’s constantly growing. One thing that’s very important for me now more than ever, is less is more. We really get the best quality ingredients that we can get our hands on, and then not do too much with them. We let the ingredients shine. If there are few things on a plate, you really think about every ingredient. Does it need to be there? Does it make the dish better if it’s there? If the answer is yes, then leave it. If the answer is no, take it away. If the answer is not sure, take it away. Every ingredient needs to be impactful on the dish. I think that is the cuisine of my future; that is what I want to get much more focused on, strip it down. Don’t do unnecessary things just to show off, like chefs sometimes do. How complicated can a dish be? It’s not about that. It’s not about to show off or how many different techniques I can do on one plate. For me, it’s about the ingredients and how I can best showcase them.

You’re interested in technology as well, right?
Yes, I am. But when I use technology, I try to use it in a way that is very subtle. We use it in a way where people don’t realize it’s there. A lot of these techniques, they’re not to show off; they are to make things better. And if they do make things better, then do it. If you know molecular gastronomy, you might see a few things; if you don’t know it, in my opinion, you should enjoy the food just as much, and you shouldn’t think that anything is weird or different. I think that’s when it’s done best.

You say less is more. Is that how you would define your culinary philosophy?
I would define it as just really focusing on ingredients. Don’t overdo it. I sometimes say in the kitchen that if it’s too hard to make it nice, it’s not nice. If it’s too hard, then don’t do it. Sometimes we come up with dishes that are great but then are so hard to pull off –it’s not the harder it is to pull off the dish, the better it is. That’s just not the case. Everything that we do is labor intensive, but we do it in a way that is manageable and that is maybe done before service. Then when it comes to service, it’s just something that’s very consistent and something that’s seasoned properly. There aren’t ten different things on the plate, each one seasoned and cooked a little differently. I think you’re missing the point if you do that.

Were you thinking that way 10 years ago, or is that you becoming more experienced?
More experienced and more confident I think. In the beginning, you want to prove yourself, you want to show all the techniques you learned, and you want to show that in one meal. As you get more experience and more confidence, you realize that you don’t need to do that.

How are you as a teacher in the kitchen?
I try to talk to the cooks a lot. Showing them techniques is one thing, and I do that, too. But I talk to them about the philosophy of cooking. I hope to leave an impression on them. One of the biggest mistakes a lot of young chefs make, in my opinion, is to jump around too much. They spend six months in one place, six months in another, and then their résumé shows that they worked there and there and there. Yes, they worked there six months, but they didn’t really understand the philosophy of any of those people. It’s not seeing all these different dishes from all these different chefs that’s going to make you a great chef; it’s having a philosophy and really pursuing it, because you can’t be everybody. I admire many chefs and love things that they do, but I can’t be them. I’ve got to be me. That’s important for young cooks to realize, to listen to their own voice. And of course, learn the techniques. But then as far as creativity goes, they should listen to their own voice and see what they want to do.

How long do you suggest that someone stay in your kitchen, for example?
Three years is a good time. In the beginning we had a lot of turnover because it was a very different restaurant. For the last three years, we have had very little turnover.

How would you describe your kitchen to someone interested in working in it?
It’s a classic setup of a French kitchen. It has all of the classic stations, like saucier and garde manger. Cooks here really learn how to cook. They learn how to braise, they learn how to poach, they learn how to do many of these important techniques. No matter what style of food you’re going to call your own as a chef, you don’t get around if you don’t know how to poach a fish—no matter what flavor you want to serve it with. You’ve got to learn the fundamentals of cooking. I try to still do a lot of those because we are chefs. People say we’re artists, which I think is true to a certain degree, but it’s about the craft and repetition—we’re repeating a lot of the same things on a daily basis. That’s what cooking is. You don’t get around that. On many days I do the same things, and on every station it’s like that. Every station has its own routines: making the sauce, cutting the vegetables, butchering the fish. It doesn’t really change too much. Somebody who is young in this career really needs to think about that, because if you’re not excited about repeating your tasks, you’re in the wrong business. We sometimes have people who work for three weeks at a station and then they’ve done everything once and say, ‘Okay, chef, I want to work at another station because I’ve seen this now.’ Well, that’s right; you’re going to see everything you learn many more times in your life. If you don’t like that, it’s a real problem. Working in a kitchen is all about repetition.

Is that what for you makes it craft and not art?
Yes.

As an executive chef, you’re in a creative director role, in a sense. Do you still have that routine yourself?
Yes, absolutely. For me it’s very important, because it keeps me connected, as I do so many things beyond cooking, like interviews and events, now. I got into this because I love to cook.

Why did you become a chef?
I love the environment of a kitchen. I grew up with great food. My mom still cooks two meals a day for everybody who’s at home. At my parents’ house the action is always in the kitchen. That’s the place where you want to be. When I go home, I spend more time in the kitchen than anywhere, not just cooking but sitting, while someone else might be cooking. I worked in restaurants during school, during the holiday breaks, and I just knew that it was for me. I knew that I loved it.

What does your Swiss heritage bring to your cooking?
Switzerland doesn’t really change that much. It is not really affected by everything that’s going on in the world, by how styles have changed so much. They don’t really care about any of that. I actually think that’s a really great thing, because they just stay true to what they have in the country, to what they have been doing for so long. In the long run, they don’t really go with the trends. Cuisine is very fashionable; styles, techniques, and flavors change. For two years something is the coolest thing in the world and every chef does it, and then two years later nobody wants to do it anymore and then something new comes. In Switzerland they do their thing. It’s interesting that even in countries where cooking is more fashionable, like Spain, I believe that at the end of the day they still come back to the basics, to tradition.

Does that mean you’re more grounded in tradition than fashion?
Definitely, yes.

Do you feel that pull against change in your own style?
I like to be very open as far as seeing what’s out there, what other people do, and take in as much influence in as I can. But at the end of the day, I’m more of a traditionalist. It takes a lot for me to really change direction. But I do at least try to hear as much; in Switzerland they don’t even want to hear it.

Why did you come to the US?
I wanted to learn English. I was only 24 years old when I came to San Francisco to be the chef of Campton Place. When I started, I realized that this was a much bigger field than I thought. And so I just gave my best to succeed. The offer fell in my lap. I never really wanted to leave Switzerland. Their hotel was approaching me, and they gave me a good offer to come. And so I said why not. I thought it would be for a year or two.

And now you’ve changed cities, you got married, you’ve got four stars. Are you here for good?
Yes. I love New York. You never know what happens in the future, but I really love New York.

Could you go back to being a chef in Switzerland at this point?
I wouldn’t want to. Two years ago, the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, which was a very anticipated opening, one of the biggest openings in Europe ever—I think they spent $800 million to renovate—tried pretty hard to get me to be the chef there. That was probably the biggest opportunity to ever go back there to be a chef, and I didn’t want to do it. So I don’t know why I would now.

You’re 32, but you’ve been doing cooking for 19 years. Do you ever think that at 40 you might say, ‘That’s it, I’m going to be a travel agent”?
No. I love it. I love this business.

Are you actually cooking every day?
Yes, six days a week, lunch and dinner. Sometimes if I have a lot of stuff going on, I’m going to spend some time in the office because there is office work that needs to be done. And sometimes I might not work lunch in the kitchen. But most of the time I’m here in the kitchen. I want to be here. I feel that there is nowhere I’m more needed than here.

This is a big operation. What say do you have over the restaurant’s running?
The restaurant is run by Will [Guidara], who is the general manager, and by me. The two of us make any decision there is. Danny [Meyer] has been really hands-off, because that’s the type of leaders we are. We appreciate because we wouldn’t want to work in a place where we need to ask our boss for everything. It wouldn’t work. Danny is very good in knowing that if he tells us what to do, we’re not going to be here very long. He helps with big decisions. We want to get him involved because he’s been doing this for a long time, and his opinion is really great. But we actually picked these pillows, and we actually custom-designed these chairs. We had a hand in creating everything you see here.

What are some of the benefits of being part of an operation like Union Square Hospitality Group?
The talent that works in this company is incredible. All the chefs are on a pretty high level, same with the GMs. To work in the same company, with them, is very inspiring.

Eleven Madison Park is 11 years old. How do you see it evolving in the next decade?
I think that the restaurant deserves to be one of the top restaurants in the world. We started off well, and we now have four stars. That kind of puts us in the top league. But I hope that we can really keep growing. Over time, we will become bigger. If something is there for a long time on a very high level, it becomes a bigger name naturally—like Le Bernardin. So I hope we can establish ourselves to be a name just as big.

What do you look for in a prospective cook?
I look for somebody who can commit to certain amounts of time, like two or three years. I definitely check that they didn’t jump around so much. I don’t really care as much about the name of the places where they’ve worked. Yes, if somebody worked two years at Per Se, two years at Jean Georges, and two years at Daniel, yes, of course, that’s great. But you’re not going to get these résumés very often. Honestly, the quality of the résumés I see is very poor. It’s frightening. Out of 100 résumés, we have one that’s good for us. And that one doesn’t have all these top restaurants in there. That one maybe has a good, solid restaurant where they spent two or three years. That for me becomes a good résumé.

It sounds like a commitment is really what you are looking for.
That’s the biggest thing. Then I want to meet the person. I want to talk to him and see if they fit with our team, if their personality is a match. I look for people skills, too: Are they humble? Are they respectful? Are they friendly? It matters to me because I spend all day here. I want to surround myself with nice people.

Humble, respectful, and friendly—are those characteristics of yours as well then?
That’s what I try to be. No matter what success you might have or what you might have seen already, you should approach everything in a humble way.

If you’ve had a really bad day, what’s the negative trait of character that you might demonstrate in the kitchen?
I yell sometimes. It’s not really about having a good or a bad day. What makes me upset is if somebody makes a mistake, knows that they made a mistake, and tries to hide it. That is against everybody who works here. It’s not against me—it’s against everything we do. We have 150 people working in the restaurant. Most of them pour their hearts into this place. We care so much. If somebody makes a mistake and tries to hide it and it ends up or would end up on a table, then that really, really makes me upset. If somebody makes a mistake, that’s fine. They just say, ‘I made a mistake; what can we do?’ There are always solutions, and everybody makes mistakes. But you need to realize when you make a mistake, then be mature enough to stand up and say it.

What’s a word of advice you would give someone looking to get into cooking today?
The only reason why you should get into it is because you love cooking. It’s not because you want to become a famous chef; it’s not because you want to hang out with chefs; it’s not because you want to be part of the restaurant industry. The only reason needs to be that you love to cook, love the craft of cooking. If that’s the case, then you should do it, because it can open so many doors. Even if in 20 years you’re still a line cook, at least you love to cook, so you’re going to be happy in this business no matter what. Don’t plan your chef career before you love to cook.

Do you see that as a big issue? It seems to be a common complaint among chefs.
It’s all over. [Aspiring cooks] don’t know what the job entails. If they don’t know that, then I don’t think they really like to cook. They want to be chefs and have all the success that a chef can have, but they don’t love to cook. Being on the Food Network is a different career. I don’t really know about that too much, but that’s a different talent; that’s a different type of career. If you want to be a successful chef, like Thomas Keller, like Daniel Boulud—they all love to cook, guaranteed. They love to cook, they’ve mastered it, and they’re really good at it. And then they have other talents, too; that’s why they are as big as they are. But the first one is cooking. If it doesn’t come out of that, it’s not going to work.

These other talents, are they talents that you had when you started your career or talents that you’ve developed as you went along?
I think that I developed them as I went along. You’ve got to be a person whom people like. You’ve got to be a person who is really inspiring because you need to inspire your team. You’ve got to have a really clear vision, and you need to have the endurance and the drive to really pursue that one vision. You’ve got to be smart—there are so many choices you need to make. You’ve got to be smart about your career, too. There is always a better job that pays more money, at any level that you are. You’ve got to be smart and say, well, it may be better just for right now, but is this going to be better for me five years from now? There is a lot of temptation in this business, and you’ve got to be strong enough to not fall for it too much.