Eleven Madison Park’s most iconic dishes — including the honey lavender duck, a torchon of foie gras served with maple syrup, and deconstructed milk-and-honey dessert course — will not be making a return when NYC’s top fine dining restaurant reopens for the first time since the pandemic crippled the city’s restaurant scene. After weeks of rumors swirling on social media and in food-obsessed circles, chef-owner Daniel Humm’s three Michelin-starred restaurant confirmed with National Public Radio this morning that it’s coming back on June 10 — with a 100 percent vegan menu.
EMP is reopening after the restaurant faced possible bankruptcy (Humm hinted to Bloomberg early on during the pandemic that the restaurant may never come back). But the fact that Humm, who has said in the past that his diet is 90 percent vegetarian, is transforming the acclaimed establishment inside the Met-Life Building into a vegan restaurant is unprecedented. No other white tablecloth restaurant of the same caliber in the city serves a menu that’s completely meat free, and of the 132 restaurants worldwide with three Michelin stars, none are vegan.
Humm pointed to the pandemic as big reason he decided to make the change, according to the latest episode of the How I Built This podcast with NPR’s Guy Raz. “And the way we have sourced our food, the way we’re consuming our food, the way we eat meat, it is not sustainable. And that is not an opinion. This is just a fact,” Humm said. “So we decided that our restaurant will be 100 percent plant-based.”
The details of the new menu are still forthcoming, but it will cost $335 per customer (including gratuity), according to a restaurant spokesperson. Eater has reached out to EMP and Humm for more details.
There have been indications before today that the Swiss-born chef may drop meat from EMP’s menu. In an interview with the Financial Times published in March 2020, months after the opening of his London Restaurant Davies and Brook, Humm was asked whether he thought the future of restaurants lied in veganism. “Yes, it’s an absolute yes,” said Humm, who also acknowledged the challenges of operating a vegan restaurant. “I have thought about going completely vegetarian in the restaurant but it’s a risk — and it’s not just my life that depends on this. Main courses cost £40 [that’s roughly $55 U.S. dollars] on average. Could you charge that for a dish of broccoli? Probably not.”
While EMP’s prominence has amplified the significance of its decision to go meatless to the national and international stage, it is not the first award-winning restaurant to do so. In 2019, Dominique Crenn took off all meat — seafood is still an option —at her San Francisco restaurants. The “vegetable whisperer” Alain Passard’s restaurant L’Arpège in Paris stopped serving meat in 2001 (though he did bring it back in smaller amounts) and has long been a bucket list restaurant for fine dining aficionados. More recently, Michelin gave one star to Ona, a restaurant near Bordeaux, in January of this year and it became the first fully vegan restaurant to receive a star in France.
In New York, chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy has been cooking vegetable-focused menus for the past 13 years. Back in 2008, she opened a closet-sized restaurant in the East Village before moving her business to a larger space in the Lower East Side. For many years, and even at times today, she says people haven’t given her cooking the same respect given to chefs that cook with meat.
“I wasn’t often considered as serious of a chef,” Cohen says. “People would say ‘It’s not real food. It’s just for vegans or vegetarians.”
While she welcomes Humm’s move to expand the public’s notion of what a vegan meal can be, she also hopes “it isn’t just a trend” because as she puts it, “It’s a lot more work and a lot more customer expectation. Having done this for most of my entire career, you have to really want to do it. You’re running a very different kind of restaurant with lots of different expectations built in.”
Humm and company have been tight-lipped about EMP’s sweeping menu changes, even to its suppliers.
“It’s a complete surprise,” says Ariane Daguin, the owner and CEO of D’Artagnan, which has supplied EMP with chicken, ducks, foie gras, and beef. “If the goal of the restaurant is to make people happy for a couple of hours, you have to come out with tremendously good food. To not have any meat in there, it’s like the painter who doesn’t have all the colors on his palette.”
Eater contacted a half dozen suppliers that have worked with EMP and none knew about the menu shift. “They tend to be secretive about stuff,” says Zaid Kurdieh, an owner of Norwich Meadows Farms, who has supplied produce for the restaurant. “But that does not surprise me due to what I’ve been seeing in the industry.”
The demand for vegan and vegetarian menus has been evident during the pandemic. Some of the most successful restaurant openings — Xilonen, Fat Choy, and Cadence — in New York during the pandemic have been places where the kitchen focuses on meatless cooking. Whether it’s a trend or not, vegan dining clearly gained momentum in the past year.
“I admire the boldness of the move,” Daguin tells Eater. “But deep down, I don’t think it will last. Dan Barber, Charlie Trotter, Alain Ducasse….all tried and then eventually reintroduced meat and fish proteins.”
Constant changes have been a common theme at EMP since restaurateur Danny Meyer brought Humm to EMP in 2006 as the head chef. Rave reviews started coming in shortly afterward, and by 2011, Humm and Will Guidara, who handled front-of-house operations, bought the restaurant from Meyer. The restaurant had long stopped serving classic brasserie fare under Humm and as he modernized the menu — several times — the stars racked up, including multiple four-star reviews from the New York Times and in 2017, the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list gave EMP top billing.
The restaurant’s evolution also dovetailed with how Humm started getting media attention for more than just his cooking. As EMP became known as the best restaurant in the world, Humm also started getting coverage the same year for running the New York City Marathon, and even his penchant for collecting art.
In 2019, Humm and Guidara formally severed their business partnership. In January 2020, Humm split from the Sydell Group, the boutique hotel operator chain —where his famous foie-gras stuffed roast chicken at the Nomad restaurant became perhaps the city’s most acclaimed poultry dish. Within months, the pandemic shut down EMP and most of the 200 staffers were let go. Humm also sued Sydell for $2 million, claiming the company owed him payments.
But Humm says the pandemic was a turning point. In April of last year, the celebrated restaurant turned into a commissary kitchen in a partnership with Rethink, a NYC-based food nonprofit, and has served one million meals since. The two parties also recently debuted a food truck, and Humm noted that a portion from all meals sold at the restaurant will go toward the Rethink partnership.
Before the pandemic, a meal for two people at EMP easily cost more than $1,000. Humm says his work with Rethink forced him to think more about the role of food in the world, from the juxtaposition between fine dining and issues of food insecurity, to his cooking’s impact on the environment.
During the pandemic, EMP also launched a to-go menu, where for $275 or so, New Yorkers could feast on the famed roast chicken dinner at home. It’s not clear whether that will still be available for takeout once EMP reopens.
“I believe that if the meal is delicious, we don’t need to worry about it. I think people will buy into it,” Humm told NPR. “I think if we want to really push the envelope, this is the place where we have to do it.”
- NYC’s Top Fine-Dining Restaurant Is Debuting a Food Truck to Feed New Yorkers in Need [ENY]
- Eleven Madison Park Reopens as Nonprofit Commissary Kitchen [Eater NY]
- Acclaimed Chef Daniel Humm Sues Nomad Hotel Operators for Nearly $2M [ENY]
- Eleven Madison Park Unveils Its Rebooted Space Sunday [Eater NY]
- The Split Between Eleven Madison Park’s Will Guidara and Daniel Humm Marks the End of an Era They Epitomized [Eater NY]
- A New Wave of Vegan Restaurants Highlights a Hunger for Change During the Pandemic [ENY]
Update, 11:22 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from chef Amanda Cohen and details from Humm’s participation in a Clubhouse conversation hosted by NPR’s Guy Raz on Monday evening.