Chef Daniel Humm Of Eleven Madison Park Chats With Us About India, Plant-Based Food And More

Chef and owner at Eleven Madison Park, Humm has made history more than twice with his numero uno fine dine in Manhattan, New York. On a visit to India for a collaborative menu with Mumbai’s award-winning restaurant, Masque, he tells us about touring through Kashmir and why he’s convinced that the future of food is plant-based

Between learning to love dosa in 2018 to ravishing a home-style Kashmiri meal in 2023, veteran chef Daniel Humm has found a certain fondness for India. “It is an incredibly special place,” says the Swiss-origin restaurateur, who is at the helm of Eleven Madison Park (EMP) — New York’s big league fine-dine that held the #No1 Ranking on World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017; made waves by becoming the first plant-based diner to have 3 Michelin stars; and has had enough accolades to his name for one to lose count. 

When he writes to us, he is touring Kashmir — heaven on earth, haven for culinarians — with the team at Masque (ranked #no16 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023) as part of a sourcing trip. It is the precursor to a one-of-a-kind collaboration between the Manhattan institution and the award-winning, Mumbai-based dining landmark, where Humm’s signatures will be reinterpreted through an Indian lens and fused with Masque’s Head Chef, Varun Totlani’s sensibilities for a special, limited-edition menu. 

Totlani, who interestingly staged at EMP in 2015 for a day, remembers his experience with great alacrity. “I was working with the prep team on different tasks. It was one of the best kitchens to be in and work in — not just in terms of the experience, but also the way it’s built and designed, and the sheer scale of it. I had the opportunity to taste a few of the dishes — their signature duck, and a pork dish (this was before they turned plant-based, of course),” he quips, referencing Humm’s big 2021 announcement, where he decided to reopen the establishment after the pandemic with a meatless menu. This sent shockwaves through the F&B industry across the world because Humm and his team had risen to fame at the behest of dishes like suckling pig and sea urchin and lavender glazed duck. To then, reinvent themselves as a wholly plant-based diner and retain the 3 stars awarded to them by Michelin was nothing short of an extraordinary feat. But more importantly, it was gutsy. 

The menu with Masque too, will be plant-based — no questions asked. But it is the sharing of the “language of food together” that excites Humm the most. In it, he sees the opportunity to explore the “diversity and regionality of India’s cuisines” as he weaves his way through the valley dropping by Srinagar’s much-loved boutique property, Nadis Hotel; making pit-stops for Nepali and Dogri food; visiting a local cheesemaker for a taste of Kashmir’s indigenous cheese; kalari, and ferrying through Dal Lake’s vegetable market at the crack of dawn. 

High on innumerable cups of kahwa, Humm feels humbled to be able to learn from “communities whose culture has been closely intertwined with plant-based cuisine for centuries” as he becomes one with the complex, diverse and sometimes, indescribable fabric of India’s culinary repertoire.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Please tell me a little bit about how this collaboration came together — what about working with Masque, the trip to Uttarakhand, and serving a plant-based menu to a group of people (who are likely to resist/question it) excited you?

We are impressed with how Chef Varun and Masque’s team bridge food cultures with their innovative approach. Their menu pushes boundaries, while also celebrating and uplifting traditional cooking and local produce. This was one of the many reasons that we wanted to collaborate with them. So much of what we eat is part of our identity, and my wish is that people will open their minds to creating new traditions for a better future. 

In New York and the USA, by and large, Indian food is having its moment. A cuisine that was always deemed spicy, often reductively perceived as ‘curry cuisine’ is having its moment in the sun globally. Your thoughts? 

I think it is amazing, and these chefs and cuisines deserve this recognition. There are cultures around the world that have been creating beautiful and flavourful food for centuries, especially plant-based cooking, and I love to see the wide breadth of dishes that are getting recognised — being showcased in both traditional and non-traditional formats. 

What was the hardest thing for you and your team to learn when you moved from an all-inclusive menu at the height of your restaurant’s fame to shifting to a completely plant-based menu?

We are two years into this new chapter, and the learning has been immense. We had to shift the existing mindset and liberate ourselves from the formulaic approach of how a traditional fine dining meal unveils, where vegetables are often seasonal condiments to the fish and meat. There is a classical, expected progression of courses: small bites, raw fish, foie gras, crustaceans, and meat. Today, we can look at vegetables without restrictions and truly create a dish from the ground up.

Has it been a challenge to convince people that a menu that features no meat, no lavish ingredients like caviar or foie gras, is as good, if not better? How has EMP helped shape the public discourse internationally on super-premium vegetarian/vegan cuisine? 

As we have gone down this path, we are confident in letting the flavours of the ingredients shine for themselves and conceiving a dish that is both beautiful and delicious. There is so much room for creativity, surprise, and, ultimately, to create magic. One of the greatest compliments that we can receive is someone simply saying that they enjoyed a great meal with us. That is what we do — to provide a memorable dining experience for everyone, from those who are vegan in their everyday life to those who have never experienced a fully plant-based meal.

Do you think going 100% plant-based is the answer for the future of food? And how does that play out in a country like India, where meat is an affordable source of protein for the economically and socially backward classes?

I believe that the future of food is to look closely at what we are consuming. We need to reduce the amount of meat that we are eating; it is not sustainable or necessary — the amount that individuals are consuming right now. To people, it may seem daunting; if you feel that it has to be all nothing. In order to drive change… it’s about progress, not perfection. It’s hard to change if we focus on perfection. Simply incorporating one plant-based meal at a time is making a difference. 

Are there any Indian techniques, ingredients, or facets of our food that you rely on or use at EMP? Tell me more…

We don’t currently use any specific traditional Indian techniques in the kitchen, but we very often use spices and flavours from the region. On our last trip to India, we were very inspired by the technique of making dosas. When we returned to America, we brainstormed on how to incorporate a dosa into the menu. Being the restaurant that we are, we are fortunate enough to have many people who work with us from around the world. And many of the international cooks we have worked with now and in the past have come from India. We were able to adapt one of the cook’s family’s recipes into a dosa recipe for the restaurant to use for a past menu. It is remarkable to show one’s stories and family in this way. 

The perception of chefs and food is changing. For better or worse, food is the new ‘music’. I mean, now, it’s cool to be a chef. From pop culture to movies and shows — it’s everywhere. As a first-mover, insider, and pioneer of the F&B industry, what is your take on this phenomenon? 

These chefs and cooking-inspired movies and TV shows are exaggerated to entertain. I’ve watched some myself, and it is amusing. 

Image Credits – Instagram/danielhumm

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