Daniel Humm, chef/proprietor of 11 Madison Park, made news recently when he revealed that the restaurant will feature an entirely vegan menu when it reopens on June 10.
11 Madison Park isn’t just another restaurant. It holds the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars as well as four from The New York Times, and it has been named the world’s best restaurant on the annual 50 Best list. It has been honored with a Wine Spectator Grand Award every year since 2011 and has received James Beard awards in seven categories.
Humm’s decision echoes the path of another world-famous chef, Alain Passard, who stunned the culinary world twenty years ago by announcing that his Paris restaurant, L’Arpège, would henceforth be vegetarian. While Passard has been widely praised for his poetic touch with produce, the experiment didn’t last: he has gradually brought meat and fish back into his kitchen, although in smaller quantities than before.
What was Humm’s motivation? He contends that climate change and the environment played a large part in his decision. “The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways,” he recently observed, and he is on record claiming that humanity is on a collision course with its practices of animal production and ocean fishing. Boredom was also apparently a motivating factor, since he told Bloomberg in an interview that “I didn’t want to do the same thing for another 20 years.”
One thing that won’t change on June 10 is the price of dining at 11 Madison Park. The tab will still be $335 per person, inclusive of service but not wine. This price tag should intensify the pressure on Humm, not to mention the challenges of operating in the current market. While it’s true that Americans are more health-conscious and climate-savvy than ever before, has that awareness fully filtered into the upper echelon of diners who are willing and able to pay? More importantly, how will the vegan menu affect expense-account dining—can Humm count on both the host and his or her clients being willing to go meatless? There’s also the issue of that award-winning wine cellar, with its 5,000 selections and 22,000 bottles. Will someone want to pair a 1982 Château Latour with a dish of braised cauliflower?
Examining Humm’s actions during the pandemic year may provide a clue to his thinking. He turned 11 Madison Park into a commissary kitchen, producing 3,000 meals daily for New York City’s needy and homeless. He was also unsure about reopening the restaurant in its previous form and publicly questioned the social value of the high-end dining experience he was providing. While his achievements at 11 Madison Park were the culinary equivalent of conquering Mount Everest, perhaps Humm is just searching for his next mountain to climb.
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture, as well as three novels. His latest release, Impeachment, is now available on Amazon.