How Contemporary Art Transformed the World’s Best Chef
Bold gestures, the principles of minimalism, and a Picasso painting powered Daniel Humm to the culinary industry's highest ranks.
By Nate Storey
Portraits by Ogata
November 29, 2017
Daniel Humm might be trying to kill me. Or maybe himself? I’m not quite sure, but he has stopped his BMW in the middle of a Hudson Valley highway interchange on a fall afternoon, provoking a maelstrom of horn-blasting, bird-flipping drivers. “They can go around!” he says, laughing, as he sets the in-dash navigation to Manhattan after our day trip to the Dia: Beacon museum. The mob of motorists is growing angrier. “They’re really pissed,” he says with a mix of amusement and escalating concern as he peers into the rearview mirror. As I joke about the potential headlines if this were to go the wrong way, he throws the car in drive, lurching across the road and onto the highway with the gusto of a Formula One driver. Know this about Humm, he has a flair for audacity.
Humm, for the uninitiated, is the Swiss-born chef behind a trio of New York City culinary establishments: the Michelin three-starred Eleven Madison Park (EMP), current titleholder of World’s Best Restaurant (only the second American kitchen ever to earn the designation; Thomas Keller’s French Laundry was the first, in 2004); The Nomad, inside the fashionable eponymous hotel, which will expand to L.A., Las Vegas, and London in the coming years; the Shepard Fairey–muraled Made Nice, a fast-casual concept; and a forthcoming restaurant at the Norman Foster–designed 425 Park building in Midtown. Occupying a soaring art deco space in Manhattan’s landmark Metropolitan Life Building, across from Madison Square Park, EMP has been a fixture of the fine dining circuit since prolific restaurateur Danny Meyer opened it in 1998. Humm joined in 2006, at the same time as Will Guidara, master of front-of-house ceremonies, and the two would go on to buy the restaurant outright from Meyer in 2011. From the jump, the duo set out to defang the tasting-menu experience with an unfussy environment and playful flourishes such as tableside magic tricks and a roaming cocktail cart. Humm and Guidara’s bond and steadfast determination guided EMP through many evolutions—with varying results—culminating that night in April when their names were called at the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne, at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards.
To understand how Humm arrived at this moment, a direct line can be drawn 15 years back to his time at Campton Place, an upscale, Emily Post kind of restaurant in San Francisco that has proven to be a springboard for rising chefs. (Alums include Laurent Manrique and Todd Humphries, among others.) At the time, Humm was trying to prove himself, like many chefs of that era, by flaunting an arsenal of grandiose techniques and compositions, encasing pig’s trotter in gelée, dolloping intricate foams on any protein he could procure. Then, one day, an encounter with Picasso’s 1945 “Bull,” a series of 11 lithographs that depict the animal in various stages of deconstruction, changed the trajectory of Humm’s career. The message of the piece—the simplest incarnation of the bull is its most powerful—led him to rethink everything he believed about food, down to the essence of what’s simply good. He began shedding the extravagant flavor profiles and sundry ingredients, developing a monomaniacal devotion to the art of taking away, cresting on a movement that is increasingly de rigueur. “It’s so much harder, and it takes years and years of experience until you find the confidence to do it. The gesture becomes much stronger. Ninety percent of what goes into the dish [the customer] doesn’t see,” he says of his process. The application of this ethos can be seen in the four tasting menus he conceives with his team every year, each one an emotional, narrative-driven representation of the current season.
The son of an architect, Humm was exposed to creative disciplines from an early age. Now, contemporary art has become the guiding light behind everything he does. It’s also what he turns to in periods of turmoil. Shortly before winning the World’s Best award, EMP announced it would shutter for a four-month renovation by architect Brad Cloepfil, founder of the Portland- and New York–based firm Allied Works Architecture. In April, Humm unveiled a final retrospective tasting menu of greatest hits, then said goodbye to the old space with a bacchanalian closing party complete with cocktail menus graffitied on the walls and roving, fried-chicken-wielding hordes dancing to a DJ set by Questlove that lasted until sunrise. It was the blowout of a lifetime. But Humm’s hangover would last all summer. “You spend all your energy getting there, and when you [arrive] it’s just kind of a void.”
I recall a conversation I had with Humm over lunch a couple of weeks after the award was announced. I told him he was nuts: What chef would ever close their restaurant, even temporarily, after such an illustrious designation and lose out on the opportunity to cash in? He was sitting on a gold mine, a PR dream, a career-defining moment. “I don’t know, but it’s kind of badass when you think about it,” he told me, chuckling.
The laughs, and the high of the award, would fade. With the hiatus looming, he was left to face a horrifying reality: For four months, he would have nothing to do. Many factors have contributed to what he calls the unhappiest year of his life. Humm hasn’t taken too well to celebrity. He’s wary of people’s intentions and unrelenting praise. He hasn’t enjoyed the loss of anonymity; encounters with awkward and sometimes ill-intentioned strangers, everywhere from the airport to coffee shops, have not come naturally, nor has the spate of meetings appearing on his calendar day after day. But most of all, it’s been the departure from the kitchen at EMP that’s caused him the most anguish. The award was an anticlimax.
After spending a lifetime relentlessly pursuing this goal, and finally reaching the pinnacle of his career, it seemed the ultimate paradox that he would have to embrace the spirit of the “Bull” again—to erase everything and build something new.
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“So, yesterday I heard about this artist. I forget the name, but he built a floor on top of the floor in a gallery. People would come in to a white space—there’s nothing else there, and he is underneath, masturbating,” Humm tells me, referencing Vito Acconci’s 1972 performance piece “Seedbed,” as he drives us to Dia: Beacon, a contemporary-art center in New York’s Hudson Valley. “That’s the piece. But the idea of art can be anything, you know?” Humm often finishes sentences like this, as if to confirm he’s with like-minded company. “There’s a piece where someone shot the artist in the arm, and that’s the piece.”
I ask if Humm considers food an art form. Though he had just sidled up to an expansive definition of art that includes masturbation and gun violence, he insists he’s not an artist and nor is his cooking art, though he admits to some similarities. It’s more of a craft, in his view, a distinction he clarifies by noting a key difference between the two. “Art shouldn’t be for the audience. But I cook for the guests,” he says. “There are chefs who consider themselves artists and have disappeared because they cooked for themselves. I never thought like that. Cooking is a skill.”
Many food critics, EMP regulars, and, yes, artists have disagreed. The objet d’art quality to Humm’s dishes, the choreographed plating and storytelling, the morsels of color that pop against the vast white space on the plate—the comparisons make themselves. But any discussion about whether or not Humm crosses into realms beyond gastronomy sort of misses the point. It is contemporary art that has crossed over into his world.
Upon arriving at Dia: Beacon, situated in a former 1929 Nabisco factory on the banks of the Hudson River roughly 70 miles from New York City, Humm and I spend the afternoon drifting around the raw, high-ceilinged exhibition space, which showcases site-specific installations by towering figures of contemporary art including Michael Heizer, Agnes Martin, and Robert Irwin. If he ever decides to hang up his chef’s whites, Humm would make a fine docent. Every piece we come upon unlocks a reservoir of insight into the artists and their works: Louise Bourgeois became a recluse in her final years, he informs me, as we stand in front of her hulking bronze-and-steel spider, which Bourgeois envisioned as her protector; in the room displaying Richard Serra’s curvaceous “Torqued Ellipses” (1996), Humm walks me through the fabrication particulars as the late afternoon sun beams on the oxidized metal sculptures.
Certain themes arise when Humm reflects on his inspirations. There are the artists and pieces that influence his abstraction on the plate, defined by four essential qualities that every dish at EMP must have: deliciousness, beauty, creativity, and intent. Picasso’s “Bull” is where his metamorphosis began, but Robert Ryman currently exerts the most sway over his cooking. Most famously, in Ryman’s series of white works, the painter plays with a diversity of textures and materials without deviating from that palette. Without the distraction of colors, the subtle details become more pronounced.
Humm also has a keen interest in gestures. “This work exists as a recipe,” he tells me as we squint, inches from the symmetrical, trace-thin lines in Sol LeWitt’s “Drawing Series Composite” (1968). “He never installs his own work—he just wrote instructions so if someone buys a piece, they also buy the instructions. The entire value of the piece is in the certificate—if you lose that, it’s worth nothing.” Humm has a fierce admiration for LeWitt. He counts LeWitt’s daughter as a close friend; one of the artist’s drawings now decorates the walls in the private dining room.
We arrive at Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara’s “Today,” a series of nearly 3,000 black storage boxes painted with the dates on which they were produced, a chronicle of the artist’s travels over four decades. Kawara spent up to seven hours on each one; if it wasn’t completed before the day was over, it was discarded. The art lies in the story, the process is the piece. Humm nourishes his progressive thinking contemplating these kinds of abstract notions. He remembers a particular trip to the Guggenheim, in 2005, to see a Lucio Fontana exhibition that left him scratching his head. “[At first] I didn’t understand it,’ he says of one of the canvases, which was ripped with a single slit through the center. “I went and did a lot of reading and [realized that] he basically made the painting three-dimensional. Usually the canvas is just the stage for the work. He made the canvas the art piece.”
These meditations inform Humm’s artistic proclivities, which at times veer into the metaphysical. “It’s like the masturbating artist. It gives me ideas like cooking a dish close to the guest, but not in front of them, and maybe they never get to eat it. Or maybe they smell it, or maybe it’s about the sound that it makes. My mind just keeps blowing open thinking about new things.”
Two connected, oval-shaped spaces inside the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris are home to Claude Monet’s monumental “Water Lilies” paintings, a series of compositions that immerse visitors in a chronological journey from a pond’s morning reflections of the sky to a nighttime scene of weeping willows. “It’s really fucking incredible, a huge, huge painting. The first room is kind of what you’d expect, but the second room is almost like weather. There’s a little mist, a little fog. I don’t even know if that’s fully true, but it’s how I experience it,” Humm says. Monet was the first artist he was drawn to, at age 12. He compares the emotional manipulation of scale to Rita Ackermann’s chalkboard paintings, one of which is now the showpiece presiding over the dining room at the newly reopened Eleven Madison Park. “I’m fascinated with them—they’re big and remind me of the feeling I get with the ‘Water Lilies.’”
When Humm approached Ackermann about creating one of the three major artworks for the new restaurant, he asked if it was possible to take Stephen Hannock’s painting of Madison Square Park from the old space and erase it. The inspiration for the concept came from Robert Rauschenberg, who tested the limits of gestural art by wiping away a de Kooning drawing—with the artist’s blessing—until there was nothing left but a few pencil marks on a piece of paper. “He erased a masterpiece, which is pretty cool,” Humm says. “It’s a very important work.” Ackermann reinterpreted that idea, redrawing the Hannock piece in chalk, then erasing it 36 times until nothing remained but dusty white plumes that inspire childhood schoolhouse memories. “If you approach the making of the new with respect for the past, things turn out elemental, honest, and emotional,” Ackermann says. Adds Humm: “It’s not done as disrespectful—it’s like a new beginning. Chalkboard is like this medium of learning, creation, and remembering, but then also moving on. There’s no way to trace it back, no evidence. It’s gone.”
The symbolism of the three commissions for the new EMP is intentional. “Changing direction, going over the past to be in the present, and erasing for a new beginning,” he says of the overarching themes. Ackermann’s chalkboard represents the latter. “It’s not negative—it’s part of the process. You have to break it to move on, you have to turn it upside down. We have this beautiful piece for the hors d’oeuvres, and that’s the right way to start a meal. But in three years, if you come back and that’s still how the meal starts, it’s over.”
The piece by Daniel Turner, who caught Humm’s eye when he dissolved an entire cafeteria into particle form and stained the floor at Berlin’s König gallery with the remains in 2016, made an actual bridge from past to present: Turner used a massive cauldron, perched over a blazing fire, to melt EMP’s stove, pots and pans, and other kitchen equipment into a 1,000-pound, 16-foot-long step that patrons use to enter the new dining room. “The process of transformation is very important to me and similar to what Daniel’s doing in his cooking,” Turner says. “It’s very much in line with him as a person, someone who is always pushing his own craft forward. He’s not comfortable staying the same.”
For her contribution, fellow Swiss native Olympia Scarry took an original 1920s geometric glass structure and reoriented it above the entrance. Scarry worked in tandem with the glassmaker who fabricated Sigmar Polke’s stained-glass windows in Zurich’s Grossmünster church, developing an entirely new technique to produce the 22 nude-colored glass panels, which appear to have the texture of skin, and change pigments depending on the viewer’s vantage. Humm traveled numerous times to Zurich, where the piece was fabricated, to collaborate with Scarry. “He thinks like an artist,” she says. “He very much thinks about composition, about colors, about textures in his work. What he creates is only what he creates in his mind, then he executes.”
Maybe Humm finds beauty in reinvention because his passion is creating. Artists pour their souls into a project and when it’s finished, they move on to the next one. Humm’s attraction to the process—so evident in his art tastes—drives his thirst for perpetual change.
“This whole project, working with the artists, following the process, and seeing it come to life has really given me a lot of gratification,” Humm says. “It’s been so crucial for me. I don’t know how to say it in the right words, but the culinary world, like every world, blew me up. It’s the journey, and then you get there, and you’re like the God of that world. And then, eventually, they’re going to want to take you down, and that’s just the reality. The art world has been such an inspiration, because it’s safe ground. Being respected among artists gives me another thing to stand on, somehow. Another thing to be inspired by. And I know that there’s more to me, you know, than just restaurants.”
It’s an unseasonably warm October night and EMP’s reopening is in full swing. Miles Davis is flowing through the speakers, as it always is. Questlove is at a table on the upper level. Brad Cloepfil and his wife are tucked away at a corner table eating truffle chestnuts and mini sweet-potato tarts. “It’s not a reduction, it’s a maximization of flavor!” Cloepfil declares about the new menu, possibly Humm’s most minimalist to date. (For one dish, a wedge of red cabbage is deconstructed and braised, then reassembled with layers of foie gras; another is a lone roasted morsel of kabocha squash with nothing but a dribble of bacon and seaweed broth.) Guidara is working the room of friends and regulars while his wife, Christina Tosi, the chef-owner of the beloved Milk Bar, is posted beneath the gold-leaf ceiling in the lounge. Scarry and Ackermann are in the house. Humm is effervescent as he directs the dinner service from his podium in the kitchen like a conductor leading an orchestra. His year of discontent seems so far away now. “I wouldn’t change it, but in a way, not that much changed,” he says of the frenetic road from the award to opening night. “Or, a lot has changed with it, but maybe not the way you envisioned the change to be. The change just became more demanding, but you would expect you’re at the finish line. I’m not at the finish line. But a finish line.”