I have to change to stay the same.
Willem de Kooning
“You know, sometimes it’s not easy to share the spotlight, I worked really hard and now I have to share it!” From any other chef in the industry this line would come across as cocky, bullish and arrogant, but when it’s Daniel Humm referring to his long term business partner Will Guidara, you know there’s more to follow. “But, I’ve learned to leave my ego outside and, honestly, I couldn't be here without him.”
The New York-based duo are standing – a little dazed, a lot shocked and very much elated – after just finding out that their restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, is number one on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “When we started, the restaurant was a brasserie and we decided we were going to make it into one of the best restaurants in the world, today it feels surreal that this actually happened,” smiles Humm.
The pair crushed some tough competition to claim the coveted title of World’s Best Restaurant. Massimo Bottura and his Osteria Francescana restaurant in Italy sat strongly in first, while the Roca brothers’ El Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Spain looked comfortable in second. Many questioned whether a restaurant from the US could feasibly stand strong against such European powerhouses, but, after starting out on the list seven years ago in 50th position, the most charismatic duo in fine dining finally climbed to the top.
And it all seems to have happened at a perfect, almost poetic moment. It’s exactly 11-years since Humm and Guidara started working together, and the beauty of this full circle is not lost on them. “The fact this happened in our 11th year together is kind of magical,” says Humm. However, anyone who has seen how the duo operate one of the slickest restaurant setups in the industry would be forgiven for thinking they had planned it to happen this way all along. “Eleven is a number that has been big for us, we got three Michelin stars on 11.11, it’s kind of the magic number.”
“It was so overwhelming that I was sort of numb,” says Guidara as he relives the exact moment he realised they would take the number one spot. “It wasn’t until we got upstairs and had a moment together, and Daniel said to me, ‘Hey, this is real’, that it all sunk in. We believe so much in what we are trying to do together, and I think the thing that makes us unique is just that: it’s done together. For this to happen it means that people agree with the approach we are taking – that feels really good.”
The approach Guidara refers to is one of the only true 50/50 partnerships in the restaurant industry today. It comes from a systematic breaking down of barriers between kitchen and front-of-house, a breakdown that allows for one off experiences to be tailored for diners between a kitchen firing out three Michelin star food and a dining room delivering unparalleled service. It’s no coincidence that the duo picked up the first ever Hospitality award presented during the 2016 ceremony.
With three Michelin stars, a four-star review from Pete Wells in his last New York Times critique of the restaurant, and now the top spot on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the pair would be forgiven for taking a breather, relaxing and doing anything but rock the boat. But that’s the last thing on their minds, they’ve just signed a new 20-year lease at the restaurant and in July will close for three months to, as Guidara puts it, “rip everything out and start over”.
“There are these moments when you just know that you have to change, it just feels like the right time,” explains Guidara. “Signing this new lease, it’s almost like it’s the end of a chapter and it’s time to begin a new one. If we are going to be there for another 20 years, we can think of the short term and try to ride out what we have as long as possible, or we can say, no, now it’s time to reinvest. We want to be as good as we possibly can, for as many of those years as humanly possible.”
The decor of Eleven Madison Park is the one part of the business that’s remained untouched since the pair decided to buy out the previous owner Danny Meyer back in 2011. “We have evolved the experience so many times, we have never had the ability to evolve the space in which we serve in... When something like this happens you just want to dig deeper, push harder and see how much more you can try to accomplish. We do not see tonight as being the end of anything.”