World Chefs: Humm's high-end bet bucks casual dining trend

Posted at 08/01/2012 10:25 AM | Updated as of 08/01/2012 10:26 AM

NEW YORK - Swiss-born chef Daniel Humm is having a dream year.

His New York City restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, has three Michelin stars and in April was named one of the 10 best restaurants in the world on the S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna list produced by Britain's Restaurant Magazine.

A month later, the James Beard Foundation awarded him the title of outstanding US chef.

But when he took over as head chef of the fine-dining, European-inspired restaurant in 2006 the then 29-year-old chef was going against the trend at a time when food trucks, gastro pubs and tapas bars were gaining popularity.

Humm, who was born in Strengelbach, Switzerland, spoke to Reuters about his success and passion for cooking.

Q: With the awards and success, do they validate your choice of becoming a chef rather than an architect like your father?

A: "Of course, it's nice to be recognized, especially with the James Beard award because it's voted by your peers. But what really validates that my choice is that after 22 years of cooking, (is that) I'm anxious to come to work because I really love cooking. That's the biggest validation for me."

Q: In your first cookbook published last year, you wrote about forging an identity for Eleven Madison Park. What do you mean?

A: "We want to be much more unique. We really want to have a real point of view. We list the 15 to 16 ingredients in our menu because I have never seen it done before. And I truly believe it's the best way of dining between having some choice while still at the same time to have surprises."

Q: Does Eleven Madison Park have a signature dish a first-time diner must order?

A: "We have a signature dish which is the whole roasted duck in lavender honey. The dish is not on the menu but we always have it. But really a restaurant like ours is not one that has signature dishes. We actually try to stay away from it even if people fall in love with the dish. Eleven Madison has to keep evolving. It's the nature of the restaurant really since its inception. Before our time, it has evolved and always changed. It's almost like in fashion, you know in fashion every season there is a little change."

Q: What is the state of fine-dining in the United States? Eleven Madison features most aspects of traditional fine-dining, bucking the casual trend fueled partly by the successful restaurants of your contemporaries such as David Chang and Caesar Ramirez.

A: "I admire them both a lot. Eating at their restaurants you could feel their personalities. That's why I love those restaurants. We went completely against the grain. We went into it during the time of a recession. We put a lot of money into this big restaurant and we went full-on fine dining at a time when people wanted to do things more casual and have a fine-dining restaurant to be much, much smaller.

"I do believe in fine dining. We are busy and people love what we do, so those are signs that there is a place for it."

Q: You come across as a laid-back, happy person. Are you the same way in the kitchen?

A: "I am very content for sure. I like to have a quiet kitchen. I don't like a lot of noise. I don't believe in motivation by fear and screaming and yelling. That's not me. I like to have a good time. I like to tell a joke. If you have the right people, you don't need to yell at them."

Radicchio Salad with Mozzarella, Mango, and Basil (serves 8)

Basil oil

  • 4 cups basil leaves
  • 1 1/2 cups grapeseed oil

Combine the basil and oil in a blender and blend thoroughly on high speed. Transfer the mixture to a medium saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking vigorously, until the oil reaches 220°F. Chill the oil over ice and then strain through a coffee filter.

Lemon vinaigrette

  • 1 1/2 cups lemon oil
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • In a mixing bowl, whisk together the lemon oil and lemon juice. Season with the salt.

2 heads radicchio tardivo

2 mangoes, peeled and sliced into thin wedges (32 wedges total)

3 tablespoons Lemon Vinaigrette

8 buffalo mozzarella, 2 ounces each

1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper

1 1/2 teaspoons fleur de sel

64 small basil leaves

3 teaspoons Basil Oil

Cut off the bottom of the radicchio and reserve the tips. They should be about 3 to 4 inches long, and you should have 112 pieces total. Place the radicchio in a mixing bowl with the mango wedges and dress with the lemon vinaigrette. Place a buffalo mozzarella in the center of a plate and season it with a pinch of black pepper and a pinch of fleur de sel. Arrange 4 mango wedges and 14 leaves radicchio on the plate and garnish with 8 sprigs basil. Spoon 1 teaspoon basil oil on the salad. Repeat with the remaining ingredients, to serve 8.