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Always Keep the Guests in Mind, Says Daniel Humm

After leaving school at 14, this Swiss chef returns to the academe with a wealth of experience—Michelin star included

Photo by Francesco Tonelli

The pivotal moment that cemented Daniel Humm’s culinary career is a memory he paints vividly. Even at age 12, having grown up in a brood of food aficionados, dining in renowned restaurants wasn’t a special-occasion kind of thing but more like a routine.

“It was a three-Michelin star restaurant. One of the best restaurants at the time,” he recalls the life-changing experience. “I was there with my parents and we ate in the middle of the kitchen. I saw all these chefs with big toques preparing food, and that was the moment for me, the instance when I wanted to pursue this.” By “this,” he means cooking, something he has become quite good at as proven by Eleven Madison Park, the highest-ranked American restaurant on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.

“I remember what the chef served. It was not on the menu, but he made spaghetti with tomatoes and lobster for me.” It was a dish that blew his mind, but what left a lasting mark was that the chef went the extra mile to cater not just to him alone but also to everybody else in the restaurant. “I think that was really beautiful because sometimes, restaurants—great restaurants—are so fixated on what they want to do, they forget to have the guest in mind. And I think that was a great lesson.”

It had such an impact on young Humm that he not only carries the memory to date but translates it on his own terms. “We have a person working in our restaurant and her title is the dreamweaver. Her job is just to make people’s nights very special. We believe in customizing the experience for people and we’ve done so much.” In a way, booking a table at famed Eleven Madison is the culinary version of, say, getting married or giving birth to a firstborn: it’s momentous and one for keeps.

“I gave a lecture at Harvard University last year and for some reason, that was very special to me, because I left school when I was 14 to pursue this career. And, now, so many years later, to give a lecture at one of the greatest schools in the world, that was truly special for me.” 

For instance, “someone is in New York only for two days and maybe it just comes up in the conversation, and he says, ‘I wish I were to have this pizza, but we don’t have time.’ How amazing would it be if, like an hour later, in the middle of their meal, the taste of that pizza shows up. I think these are the things that really make a dining experience different.” In a not-so-obvious way, the staff extracts information by way of eavesdropping or checking your profile on social media, and makes magic out of it, surprising the customers when they least expect it. The thoughtful act doesn’t happen for every guest, he admits. “If you come in once or twice and we start to have a relationship with you, we try to take the experience a little bit further.” 

Humm might have not ended up being the architect his father had hoped for him to be, but his knack for design and structure definitely plays its part in what he does now as he builds a strong and unique foundation upon which his restaurant strongly and stably stands: food and service like no other. As a result, it has won him multiple accolades: Michelin stars, high restaurant ratings, praise from the New York Times, and a James Beard award. These do nothing but prove what many people have known all along: that Humm always impresses.

Of all the recognition he has received, though, what is closest to his heart isn’t born out of comparison or competition, nor something he cooked. “I gave a lecture at Harvard University last year and for some reason, that was very special to me, because I left school when I was 14 to pursue this career. And, now, so many years later, to give a lecture at one of the greatest schools in the world, that was truly special for me.” 

Running a commendable fine dining restaurant is no extraordinary feat. It’s not rare for school dropouts to become big time, either. But what’s truly noteworthy is to be able to make a statement like that in Eleven Madison, where the dining experience can be very personal.

Oftentimes, fine dining has the tendency to put guests in a rather stiff and square situation. Not the Park, though, as Humm takes hospitality to another level.

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