Magical Every Time with Chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park
Every year since 2013, Eleven Madison Park has been named the top restaurant in North America by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. Chef Daniel Humm, his partner Will Guidara and their entire team have created a restaurant that goes far beyond impeccable food and stellar service—they exemplify gracious hospitality. Inspired by their travels, fellow chefs and attention to the tiniest nuances in conversations and behavior, this team’s goal is to create a magical experience for every guest, every time. In addition to Eleven Madison Park, they have expanded their footprint to a carefully selected handful of locations – their NoMad restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles, the EMP Summer House in The Hamptons and EMP Winter House in Aspen. They took a moment to chat with Ann Hill, Aspire Lifestyles’ Director of Dining, about what drives them, how it feels to be where they are today and the simple pleasure of the sound of a happy, bustling dining room.
Aspire Lifestyles: The two of you have done great things for philanthropy and culinary awareness. Having achieved the #1 spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017, was there any trepidation about ‘what’s next’ after winning? Although you’ve been in the top five for many years, once you achieved the #1 position did it inspire new goals that you may not have set if you hadn’t otherwise reached this pinnacle of achievement?
Will Guidara: Being awarded the number one restaurant in the world was, well, pretty crazy. I mean, you can never truly prepare yourself for getting an honor like that and it took some time to settle in. But we’re not the type of people that want to let an award define us, so once we come down from that high it’s onto the next thing, whether that’s a menu launch, training new hires, or working on a new project. We’re driven by our passion for what we do, not by the desire to win awards or top charts, granted it feels great and we love how it rewards the team, but that’s not why we do what we do.
Aspire Lifestyles: You’re involved with different pop-ups and other projects on a local and global level. Please tell us more.
Chef Daniel Humm: We love creating magical experiences for people, thinking outside the box, and looking at ways to collaborate as a team and with others. Sometimes that means getting out of our comfort zone, or out of our restaurants! Back in 2012 we swapped restaurants with Alinea in Chicago, a pop-up called 21st Century Limited, named after the old train line from New York to Chicago. It was so challenging, but it built remarkable team chemistry, and really pushed the boundaries of what a pop-up could be. From there we’ve done other pop-ups around the world, some more elaborate than others, and a couple lasting seasons – like our East Hampton pop-up, EMP Summer House, and upcoming pop-up in Aspen, EMP Winter House. We can never replicate Eleven Madison Park, we don’t want to, but we can bring some of that magic through food, drinks and hospitality to other places and create new memorable experiences for guests.
Aspire Lifestyles: You have trained your team to be ‘Dreamweavers’, to pick up on nuances of conversations in order to surprise your guests in the most personal way possible. How do you come up with these ideas in a moment’s notice and can you tell us about some of them?
Will Guidara: Guests come to our restaurant for so many reasons and they give us hours of their day which puts a lot of trust in us. We always look for ways to enhance an experience, to make a guest more relaxed, and create bonds so people feel like they are just joining us in our home. The ‘dreamweaving’ moments truly are special and something I’m really proud of because we’re able to tune into our guests, learn about them, and really be dialed into what they say (or don’t say). It’s also collaborative and takes the communication of our whole team to come up with something special. Maybe it’s turning our private dining room into a hockey rink, serving up a New York slice of pizza to someone that’s run out of time to get one on their trip, or create a Central Park sledding moment for children that have never seen snow. And at the end of the day, it refuels us too because we also get so much pleasure out of making people happy.
Aspire Lifestyles: What progress have you seen over the span of your career so far? What would you like to see happen, and how are you becoming part of that evolution?
Chef Daniel Humm: I’ve been fortunate enough to see how collaboration between a kitchen and dining room can really lead to great things, to better experiences, and to a more connected team. Part of that is just recognizing the importance of hospitality. It can be just as, if not more, important as the food. I’d like to see more restaurants realize that.
Aspire Lifestyles: What is the most important value in cooking that you teach and stress to your kitchen team?
Chef Daniel Humm: Patience – a rushed job, or an overly eager cook is one that’ll be careless or not take the time to do it properly.
Aspire Lifestyles: What has been your most memorable food destination (city/country, and why?
Will Guidara: I’ve been traveling a lot to Los Angeles lately because we opened a NoMad there, and every time, I leave more and more impressed by the food scene. From taco trucks to fine dining, and then casual all day spots, it’s really a city that knows food and is extremely vibrant and exciting right now.
Aspire Lifestyles: What is your thought on bloggers and diners on social media vs. established restaurant critics?
Will Guidara: Any person who writes about us, regardless of the platform, took the time to dine with us and tell us how they felt, and we always appreciate the feedback. That’s how we learn and evolve.
Aspire Lifestyles: What has been the most interesting ingredients, techniques or dishes that you have experienced while traveling and how have they inspired your cooking?
Chef Daniel Humm: My trip to India was very inspiring, creatively, professionally and personally. Tasting new ingredients and seeing new techniques was very inspiring and actually led me to create a dosa (Note: dosa is an Indian crepe) for the new summer menu at Eleven Madison Park.
Aspire Lifestyles: Which musician or band would you like to cook for in a casual, private setting to chat, eat and maybe hear some of their music?
Will Guidara: The Rolling Stones.
Aspire Lifestyles: Do non-chef family and friends ever invite you to their home for dinner and cook for YOU?
Chef Daniel Humm: Yes, of course! It’s always wonderful to have someone prepare a meal for you in their home.
Aspire Lifestyles: Which restaurant, hotel, person or place has most inspired your sense of hospitality?
Will Guidara: We have always admired Claridge’s sense of hospitality. It’s a place that has been around for over two hundred years, and their hospitality just gets better and better.
Aspire Lifestyles: People come to your restaurant for special occasions that become life moments. For you, it’s your day to day job description. What constitutes a really great day at work for you and can you tell us about any that stand out?
Will Guidara: We have the gift of creating these moments that people will remember for the rest of their lives. Each night we have over guests giving themselves the grace to receive our hospitality, and to be able to be a part of that is amazing. We treat each service as if it’s our Super Bowl. Often I go in the corner of the dining room and I take a deep breath, close my eyes and listen to the sounds of the restaurant. It’s one of the most exhilarating feelings because the sound is so joyful. This moment, every day, is what stands out.
Aspire Lifestyles: One evening you get to take five chefs (present or past) to dinner at any restaurant in the world. Which chefs do you bring along with you and where do you take them (aside from your own restaurant)? Why those chefs and why that restaurant?
Chef Daniel Humm: Gérard Rabaey, Michel Bras, Daniel Boulud, Paul Bocuse, Yannick Alleno
Aspire Lifestyles: How has your placement on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list changed your lives?
Chef Daniel Humm: We always relish the present then ask ourselves what’s next, whether or not we are receiving accolades. We appreciate the award and being recognized with the leaders of this industry, but we always want to evolve – evolution is in our DNA.