11:11 — an “angel number,” if you will — is an important number for many, and perhaps no one feels its seemingly mystical impact more keenly than Daniel Humm. Not only has his Flatiron District restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, earned 3 Michelin stars for the past 11 years — the first time actually being in 2011 — but precisely 11 years later, it sailed into uncharted territory by becoming the only vegan restaurant in the world to receive the Michelin Guide’s highest honor.
“Eleven is definitely my number. For me, it’s a reminder that there’s a new door to always open, no matter how impossible it might seem,” the 45-year-old Swiss-born chef announces.
That door officially opened three weeks prior to our October Zoom chat, and for all intents and purposes, Humm is still reeling from receiving this previously unthinkable accolade.
“I never thought we would get three stars — never in a million years. I thought it was impossible. But then I started thinking about the number 11, and how we received our first 3 Michelin stars 11 years ago. I definitely paused and was like, Well, wouldn’t that be something.”
It’s “something” alright — something that the highly decorated Humm declares to be the greatest achievement of his career. That’s a big statement for a man who received his first Michelin star at age 24, and another 14 times since. (He received his first star for Eleven Madison Park in 2010, then purchased the restaurant from restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group the following year.)
“To create something that no one else has ever done before is incredible, and I don’t know when I’ll have another opportunity like this again,” he admits, noting that “having that excitement after all these years is the most incredible part of all. The energy and motivation here is electric.”
As it happens, his decision to transform Eleven Madison Park’s menu into a meat-free domain was the best he could have possibly made, for a plethora of reasons. First and foremost, in creating something new, he got his joy of cooking back. Prior to deciding to go vegan, he had been suffering from success fatigue — professional burnout. Essentially, Humm was bored.
“Honestly, when I was at the height of — if you want to say my ‘critical acclaim’ — number one in the world, there wasn’t an award I didn’t receive. But actually, I didn’t feel all that happy because I was being pulled in so many different directions. Everyone wanted me to open restaurants in different places. So many things pulled me away from the work that I really wanted to do that, when the pandemic hit, [my world] became just about cooking again. I became aware that my language is food, that this language can speak loudly, that it’s a meaningful language.”
He wanted to use this love language to do something more, and with New York restaurants completely shuttered in 2020, in collaboration with Rethink Food (a nonprofit aimed at creating a more equitable, sustainable food system), he transformed Eleven Madison Park into an extremely elevated commissary, making sure the restaurant’s essential purpose — to feed — remained intact. “I decided to go down this path after the pandemic. We fed — and are still feeding — people in need. In cooking for people that are food insecure, I reconnected with food in a whole new way, [and] after it became clear that Eleven Madison Park would reopen, I made a commitment to myself that I would use this language for good, and that things would have to change. Our food system is broken, and so professionally, I felt obligated to speak up. But [I also wanted to] create the future, to use my energy to bring magic to plant-based dining, to make it beautiful and exciting, and so I made a conscious decision [to change things up],” he says. (The title of his fourth cookbook, Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter, though released in 2019, was especially indicative of this shift.)
And though for Humm it felt like a necessary evolution, it was also an incredibly bold move that sent distress signals around the world. Up until 2021, his establishment was known to highlight the crème de la crème of “luxury” ingredients, offering guests far and wide a seasonal, 8- to 10-course tasting menu that drew inspiration from local culture and history. Foods such as caviar, lobster, and Kobe beef were — literally and metaphorically — always on the table at the restaurant, which had not only appeared on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list nine times but was also a six-time James Beard honoree. In fact, in 2017, Eleven Madison Park had the singular distinction of being named the best restaurant in the world. That Humm would mess with this kind of perfection was mind-boggling to many; his worldwide acolytes were truly baffled by his decision.