Will Guidara never wanted to be in fine dining. He found it boring, too stuffy. That was until he met chef Daniel Humm and was tasked with transforming the then Danny Meyer-owned Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan, which they subsequently took over, from a standard French brasserie into something all together more spectacular – a three Michelin star, World’s Best Restaurant. Now the restaurateur is one of its biggest cheerleaders.
“Fine dining is noble, it’s important,” he says when we meet at the Identita Golose congress in Milan. “We create magic ... fine dining at the end of the day is about creating a place where human beings can connect with other human beings. We all spend so much time on this [points to phone] that the beauty of human connection is really hard to come by. We want to create an environment where you and the people you’re with can actually engage as human beings in a way that perhaps you don’t get to do often enough.”
He always wanted to be in the dining room, never a chef – connecting with people renews him, he says. He hopes that the marriage of great food and a more relaxed, friendly, more fun dining room and service style at Eleven Madison Park, has helped loosen New York up a bit. They got rid of their dress code when they won four stars from The New York Times, for example, obviously buoyed. “I want to go out for an amazing meal, I don’t want to get dressed up for it. I don’t think anybody does anymore,” says Guidara. “Fine dining needs to evolve in such a way, as people’s tastes change, they still feel comfortable in those restaurants.”
Fine dining is also essential for the future of the industry, he says: “There’s been a general animosity towards fine dining from a lot of people for a long time, where everyone wants to celebrate all the casual restaurants that are serving good food. But if you look at all those restaurants, at least two thirds of their chefs come from fine dining – that’s where there is enough resources and time, the teams are big enough [so that] people can really learn the technique and the craft – on both sides of the wall.”
As General Manager, Guidara controls his side of the wall with an easy charm; however there is a “constant back and forth conversation” going on between kitchen and dining room. He and Humm fight a lot less than they used to, he says. “For a long time we didn’t realise how thin the wall was between our offices,” he laughs. “But we do not go to bed angry. Fighting isn’t even the right word anymore: its just disagreements. I think our relationship is the strongest it’s been right now.”
The pair has been spending a lot of time in California, in Los Angeles, where they’ve recently opened their second food and drinks space at a NoMad Hotel, after New York. Guidara raves about the food scene there: “I think in terms of legit, more formal fine dining options, there are more in New York, because I don’t think that’s what necessarily makes sense in LA. A lot of the Asian food, the Korean food in LA is insane, the sushi scene, or obviously Mexican food.” Their time in California may also have inspired them to embark on a serious social project, as many chefs and restaurants are doing of course. “Homelessness in LA is one thing we’re really passionate about,” he says. “It’s a real issue and we’ve found ourselves surrounded by a lot of people that seem to...” he trails off momentarily, looking for the right words “...have some really good roadmaps perhaps.”
When we speak, Guidara and the Make It Nice (he and Humm’s restaurant group) team are putting the finishing touches to the second season of the EMP Summer House down in the Hamptons, on Long Island. Originally a way to retain staff while the restaurant and kitchen underwent a much needed renovation – they still had the same kitchen from Meyer’s time – it was such a success that they’ve returned for second year, with guests treated to more casual fare than at Eleven Madison Park – think fried chicken, lobster rolls and braised beef rib tacos – and lashings of rosé. They’ll also be opening a winter pop-up in Aspen later in the year, which will become a year round, full time restaurant. “We’re going to hire from the outside,” he says. “It’s no longer just moving people from Eleven Madison Park.”
But this June all eyes will be focused on Guidara and Humm in Bilbao, when we’ll find out whether they’ve been able to retain the title of World’s Best Restaurant at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, the live stream of which you can watch on Fine Dining Lovers. “Accolades are intense,” says Guidara, “I’m so proud of our team for having earned them. I feel like in the last three years we’ve discovered who we are as a restaurant. I have two goals in my life: one is to create some best in class restaurants and the other is to remind the world that working in service is super cool and that there’s nobility in serving.”