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Daniel Humm & Will Guidara food innovators

Article, courtesy of Wall Street Journal Magazine

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Text: Howie Kahn - Photos: Benoit Linero, Sylvain LewisFrancesco Tonelli - Video: Nomades

The duo behind Eleven Madison Park and the NoMad, known for artfully fusing the front and back of the house, expands with two new NoMads and a fast-casual start-up.

howie kahn, wall street journal magazine, november 2016

DANIEL HUMM AND WILL Guidara are standing on a terrace overlooking central Paris, drinking rosé. It’s a steamy summer evening, and they have flown here from New York for a pair of meetings to help plan an upcoming expansion of their operations—three new restaurant and hotel projects that will stretch their holdings both geographically and conceptually. The first sit-down, with Antoine Ricardou, the 43-year-old founder and creative director of the brand-identity firm be-poles, hired to advise on the look and feel of everything from the colors of matchbooks to the lettering on menus and “Do Not Disturb” signs, is scheduled around an aperitif and meant to be casual.


Ricardou pours some wine and begins by showing Humm, a 40-year-old three-Michelin-star chef, and Guidara, his 36-year-old restaurateur partner, around the office’s lush ninth-floor garden. Carrot and tomato plants line the perimeter of be-poles’s veranda, which boasts a commanding view of the Centre Pompidou across the street. Sacré-Cœur, in the distance, is a tiny, golden monument. As Guidara takes in one structure after another, he wonders aloud to Humm about the difficulty of building things that will age gracefully.

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Humm and Guidara, whose flagship property, Eleven Madison Park, currently ranks No. 3 on San Pellegrino’s list of the world’s best restaurants, started working with Ricardou in 2011. The Sydell Group, a hotel development firm, had recruited the duo to run food and beverage operations in a new property called the NoMad, just five blocks from EMP. Sydell founder and CEO Andrew Zobler describes the project as a risk—a luxury hotel in a neighborhood that was, at the time, best known for the sale of counterfeit watches and handbags. He had been searching for the right collaborators for more than a year.

A luxury hotel in a neighborhood that was, at the time, best known for the sale of counterfeit watches and handbags.

 

“We were being very picky,” he says. “We tried interviewing everyone who was already famous, but nobody seemed more capable of the extraordinary than these guys.” Zobler had so much faith in Humm and Guidara that he gave his hotel and its restaurant the same name. “My PR guy thought that was a big mistake,” Zobler says. “Restaurants close all the time. But I knew this one wouldn’t. It actually ended up being the best opening I’ve ever seen.”

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The NoMad Cookbook

Even as minority stakeholders in the brand, Humm and Guidara have become the de facto faces of the NoMad. “They’ve been very important to the hotel’s design and personality,” Zobler says. Not only does the NoMad hold its own Michelin star, but nearly five years into its existence it maintains a feeling of being an otherworldly escape. Beyond the dining room and its now famous whole-chicken preparation-the bird clutching what looks like a wedding bouquet and resembling an old master painting come to life-magic shows take place regularly in a salon upstairs.

Magic shows take place regularly in a salon upstairs.

 


“Will loves magic and wanted to bring in that performance,” says Zobler. “I was dubious.” Not anymore. The shows are perpetually sold out, often with celebrities like Kanye West and Kim Kardashian in the audience. Beyoncé recently celebrated her 35th birthday with a party on the NoMad rooftop.

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Cavatelli, clams with parsley and chili

Jimmy Fallon frequents both the NoMad, where he attends the magic show (the resident magician, Dan White, has appeared on The Tonight Show), and EMP, where he has joked around in the kitchen with Humm and added Guidara to his roster of impersonations. (Guidara called the impression “alarmingly accurate” after posting it on Instagram in May.) Expansion of the NoMad brand became the goal soon after the New York location opened its doors. “We looked in London for a long time,” Zobler says. But deals in downtown Los Angeles and on the Las Vegas Strip ultimately closed first.

 

“You’ll have a pool!” Ricardou exclaims, moving Humm and Guidara toward his crop of zucchini, the honey-colored sun now low in the Parisian sky. The L.A. edition of the NoMad, set to open in 2017 in the Giannini building, home to Bank of Italy in the 1920s and currently undergoing an extensive renovation, will feature a rooftop eatery by its pool.

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Brand deployments for the NoMad & Eleven Madison Park

At the Vegas location, a boutique property attached to a larger Park MGM hotel, opening in late 2018, the pool and environs will be inspired by the Majorelle Garden in Morocco. Earlier in the day, Humm and Guidara were considering what type of food pairs best with swimming. “Fries are key,” Humm decided. “Club sandwiches,” Guidara added, “done our way.”

The pool and environs will be inspired by the Majorelle Garden in Morocco.

 

Fries and sandwiches will not be a part of the menu at Made Nice, Humm and Guidara’s first foray into fast-casual fare, opening this month in Manhattan on the same block as the NoMad. The restaurant, Humm says, will serve 10 dishes costing between $11 and $15 each but will nevertheless reflect the precise seasoning, layered flavoring and exacting technique he is known for. “Made Nice is a much cheaper restaurant for us,” Humm says, “but it’s still about the recipes.”

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The Made Nice carry-out bags

Humm wanders away from the garden tour and parks himself at a picnic table near a poster display of Ricardou’s designs for Made Nice’s packaging and merchandise (a T-shirt, a hat). Additional items pictured include menus and water bottles, one for still and one for sparkling, and a proposal for recipe cards to distribute to customers. Made Nice intends to be transparent not just about ingredients, but about preparations, too. Humm begins scrutinizing a mock-up of the white carry-out bags, prominently stamped with the Made Nice logo in black. “It’s not there, man,” he says, shaking his head.

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Summer beans, glazed with pumpernickel and garlic

ALTHOUGH HUMM IS OUTWARDLY more serious and Guidara more playful, they often reverse roles; balancing those traits has been a defining part of their relationship from the start. The two men met a decade ago, joining the staff at Eleven Madison Park within a few months of each other. Humm was hired away from a hotel restaurant, Campton Place, in San Francisco in January 2006 by Eleven Madison’s then-owner, Danny Meyer, after a long process of interviewing and courtship. (“Eight months,” says Humm.) The chef had never visited New York City, having moved to the West Coast directly from Switzerland.

Humm quit school at 14 to take a job in a kitchen.


Humm grew up in a small village not far from Zurich. Milk came from a cow there, not a processing facility, he says. Much to his architect father’s chagrin, Humm quit school at 14 to take a job in a kitchen, mostly to finance his passion for competing as a professional mountain biker. At 17, he and his girlfriend, a runway model, had a daughter, Justine. At 20, Humm crashed his bike so hard in a downhill event at a Swiss championship that he had to be airlifted to a hospital. Realizing he’d gone as far as he could as a racer, he eventually turned to cooking full time. “What inspired me at first,” Humm says, “was that it could be competitive.”

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The NoMad Cocktail Book

Meyer hired Humm to spearhead a major transformation, changing the program from French fries served in cones to destination dining. Guidara came on board when Humm’s original general manager at the restaurant wasn’t working out. “Danny asked me who I wanted to bring in,” Humm recalls, “and I remembered this guy from our monthly corporate meetings.” These sessions, held at the offices of Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, included chefs and managers from Meyer’s other restaurants, including Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Café.

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Clams, baked with bacon and garlic

A recent graduate of Cornell’s hospitality program, Guidara was then heading Meyer’s casual concessions at the Museum of Modern Art on floors two and five. He had grown up in the restaurant business, watching his father, Frank, run the show as the president of the restaurants division of Restaurant Associates and then the president of the Wolfgang Puck Food Company, CEO of Au Bon Pain and CEO of Pizzeria Uno. For much of his childhood, Guidara’s mother suffered from brain cancer and a related paralysis. She was wheelchair-bound. His father’s restaurants emphasized the importance of hospitality. “The way we were received as a family was always so natural, comforting and lovely,” he recalls. “It made me more sensitive to making sure that no matter what you’re coming in with, we’ll make it nice for you.”

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Lobster, poached with snap peas and morels

Having worked for his father as a young man and watching his companies grow, Guidara was less interested in fine dining. He hoped to join the team at a Meyer-owned upstart called Shake Shack. “Will was sometimes really annoying in these meetings,” Humm recalls. “I was like, ‘Why is this guy still talking and asking all these questions?’ But his passion for the business was so obvious that I became interested.” Meyer suggested the two men have a meal, one-on-one. They arranged to meet at Crispo, an Italian place on 14th Street where they figured nobody from the company would see them. “We ate pasta, drank a lot, went to the bar next door and had beers,” Guidara says. “We stayed out until 3 a.m.”

“It takes a lot more than a chef to make a restaurant great.”


The pair discovered they had a mutual desire to run a restaurant where the profits and the power dynamic would be split equally between the front and the back of the house. “We both didn’t understand why everything was always only about the chef,” Guidara says. “It takes a lot more than a chef to make a restaurant great.” By the end of the night, Humm and Guidara had shaken hands. “It was like, ‘Let’s do this!’ ” Guidara says. Reflecting on the significance of their partnership, he adds, “Daniel’s willingness to give me a voice changed my path. He’s the guy with a Michelin-three-star background in Switzerland. I’m the guy from the cafe at MoMA and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. And he asked for me.”

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The NoMad Food Truck, Los Angeles
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Within three years, Humm and Guidara’s Eleven Madison Park had earned a four-star review in the New York Times. They’d also started exploring the idea of leaving the restaurant and working for themselves. Humm and Guidara soon found a small space in Tribeca and came up with a concept for a 12-table establishment called Et Puis, French for and then. They had an investor lined up but ultimately decided to back away, realizing it wouldn’t be a sustainable endeavor.
When the NoMad opportunity arose, Humm and Guidara proposed to Meyer that they remain at EMP, where they could evolve their approach to fine dining while opening something more casual at a new hotel up the street. Meyer said no, arguing that he didn’t want to be both their partner and their competitor, but a week later he put a surprising offer on the table, asking Humm and Guidara if they wanted to buy him out. “The restaurant was really singing,” Meyer says. “Eleven Madison was theirs by that point. This was the obvious solution.”
“That never even crossed our minds,” says Humm. “So we had to figure out how to buy a restaurant,” says Guidara. Four months later, with a hefty bank loan and the backing of financier Noam Gottesman, Eleven Madison Park was theirs.

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“CAN WE PUSH back dinner?” Guidara asks. Now eight hours into a 48-hour design sojourn in Paris, the restaurateur senses that he and Humm and Ricardou are about to be lured down the rabbit hole of minutiae that Guidara says defines his job. Small choices made with care, he suggests, accumulate to make something grand and artful. “To be good at this,” Guidara later tells me, “I end up having four-hour-long conversations about things like how to pour beer. Techniques are developed and named. We role-play.” The beer talk concluded, he says, with the advent of a two-server maneuver the NoMad staff now calls “the mongoose.”


By now, Humm’s bag scrutiny has snowballed into a full-blown critique of Ricardou’s proposal. Having laid out a scheme for the new NoMads, too, Ricardou gamely produces a Pantone book of color samples as if to confirm he’d expected this. A protracted dialectic on shades of blue ensues. “Too light.” “Too dark.” “Not enough humor.” This color conversation, veering into related matters such as what feelings are evoked by various shades of red and purple and whether brown can be fun, continues through a 13-course, three-bottle-of-wine dinner at the restaurant Septime and into the next day, at a marathon meeting with the NoMad’s interior designer, Jacques Garcia. The stately Frenchman’s office on rue de Rivoli, with its heavy, sensual fabrics, ornate patterns, high ceilings and velvet-upholstered surfaces, looks much like the hotels he helps to create.

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Foie gras, torchon with tete de cochon, radishes, and nasturtium

“We would like to add a cage with real birds at the entrance,” one of Garcia’s designers chimes in about the Vegas property. Minutes later Guidara asks, “What about the bathrooms?” Humm finishes his question: “How do we make them special?” Ricardou later says that this kind of thought completion happens often. “They know when to let the other speak; they even finish each other’s sentences. It’s so natural. That doesn’t mean they don’t challenge each other or have different opinions.” Back at be-poles, Humm says, “I think we have to question everything.”


“I think you’re overdramatizing,” Guidara says. “A little bit.” “I’m wondering if these colors are boring,” Humm says, holding his ground. An hour later, Guidara comes around to see his partner’s point. He later admits that whoever cares the most tends to win the fight.

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A FEW WEEKS AFTER the Paris trip, I eat two meals at Eleven Madison Park on the same day. Humm, currently single, has just returned from a vacation in the South of France with his three daughters (the younger two, Colette and Vivienne, are 5 and 6; Guidara is their godfather). Guidara had just come back from his honeymoon, a road trip across America. In August, he married Momofuku Milk Bar creator and TV personality Christina Tosi, as part of a weekend-long celebration at a rented-out summer camp in upstate New York.


During the festivities, surrounded by restaurant-business friends (Brian and Mark Canlis from Seattle, Gabriel Stulman from Manhattan, Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti), Frank Guidara led a nature walk and lectured on leadership. David Chang suffered the humiliation of being the losing anchor at tug of war. As always, the mood was a mix of joy and sincerity. As Tosi and Guidara finally exchanged vows in a lashing rain, Humm stood at the altar next to them, holding an umbrella, beaming. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” Humm says.

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Will Guidara
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Artist Shepard Fairey (aka OBEY) executing his mural for Made Nice
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Daniel Humm

At my lunch at Eleven Madison, before previewing a few dishes from the Made Nice menu, all of which have been revised and tested over the course of the last year, Humm is eager to share that the carry-out-bag debate from Paris has been resolved. “We’re doing 16 different-color bags,” he says, “with recipes printed on each. The colors are inspired by the ingredients. They come from the food.”

 

In the build-up to their impending growth—from two restaurants to six (the last of which will open in 2019 inside a Norman Foster–designed skyscraper on Park Avenue and 56th Street), and from one hotel to three, all while moving operations to two additional states and more than doubling their workforce to 1,200 employees—there’s been much discussion, and anxiety, about retaining a feeling of intimacy within the company and continuing to translate that feeling into consistent, everyday service.

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Beets ribbons with fennel and rye

Humm, exploring a new notion for a chef of his stature, recognizes that the fast-casual customers at Made Nice will become like walking sandwich boards. “People will be moving around the city with these different-color bags that say ‘Tomato Water,’ or ‘Cucumber Vinaigrette.’ ” And then there’s the food itself: In one dish, slices of smoked salmon cover a bed of greens, dressed but still crisp. Dill-flecked egg, pickled onion and cubes of potato-rösti, a nod to Humm’s Swiss heritage, mingle with the fish. Another meal features a pressed square of confit pork with kale, wheat berries and quinoa. Multicolored carrots, sliced in circles like Yayoi Kusama polka dots, complete the plate. A cod fillet, served over braised fennel and crispy chickpeas, had been brined and seared so carefully it wouldn’t have been out of place, with different plating, at EMP.

Each new menu item has composition, execution and flavor firmly on its side.


“As long as Daniel and Will do what they do, cook how they cook and welcome people with their warmth, they’re going to be able to grow as much as they want,” says Daniel Boulud, chef-in-chief of his own culinary empire. Humm surveys the salmon, the pork and the cod. “People are going to freak over this, aren’t they?”

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MANY OF THE restaurants around the world that have earned the most attention over the past decade are ones that have created something remarkable as if out of thin air. Noma invented a new language for eating in Denmark. Pujol, in Mexico City, brought contemporary elegance to an age-old peasant cuisine. Magnus Nilsson, at Fäviken in rural Sweden, made a virtue of isolation, turning it into something chic. Ferran Adrià founded an entire gastronomic movement at El Bulli in tiny Roses, Spain. These chefs have made far-flung geography and emerging culinary capitals the lingua franca of modern dining. But making waves in New York City is a different proposition. Here the real estate is more expensive. The criticism more brash. The pressure enormous. The choices overwhelming. Cue the Sinatra.

...Eleven Madison Park has evolved into a singular experience.


Against the general crush of New York City dining, eating at Eleven Madison Park has evolved into a singular experience. The menu has gone through several incarnations since EMP first earned its four stars in 2009, with some innovations finding a better reception than others. There was a time when guests chose their courses from a 16-ingredient grid. More recently, the restaurant featured a style of service heavy on gamesmanship, with a card trick in the middle of each meal. Critics cried frippery even as they lauded the cuisine. But what exists now is a presentation that excels in its confidence and self-awareness, echoing Humm and Guidara’s personal growth as the restaurant’s leaders. Servers remain present and attentive without being overbearing. There’s a cool factor, too, but in a way that remains caring. “We want caring to be cool,” Guidara told me.

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Strawberry, with cucumbers and parmesan

A waiter named Mack stands at the table glazing two rhombuses of trout with a basting brush. I’ve already eaten charcuterie-like applewood-smoked watermelon and unpacked a picnic basket, complete with a tin of caviar and a bottled cocktail that blends champagne with an herbaceous tomato soda. The trout—boned, brined and cold-smoked—has been rolled over atop an Art Deco trolley. It wears a robe of kombu and is steamed, in full view, over hot rocks and seaweed broth.

The flavors of the dish complement the meticulously choreographed service and vice versa...


Mack continues to finesse the preparation and subtly works his way into the table’s conversation—a quick interjection of wit and wisdom—before leaving. The flavors of the dish complement the meticulously choreographed service and vice versa, embodying Humm and Guidara’s philosophy: the front of the house and the back in harmony. “It’s a thumbprint that’s unmistakably theirs,” says Meyer. “It’s strengthened by the alchemy, if not love, between the two of them.”


Toward the end of the meal, while Humm is busy in the kitchen, sending out more trout and more picnic baskets to other tables, Guidara stops by to chat. This late-summer menu had launched only a week before, he says. Plans for the fall menu were already underway. Guidara is thinking about the long view, too. “The problem of endless reinvention is tough,” he says. “You find yourself saying goodbye to so many things you’re just falling in love with.”

 

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Thank you Howie!

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