Keep Calm and Make it Nice

After dining at Humm's and Guidara's table, among the speakers in Milan, nothing will ever be the same

30-01-2015
Daniel Humm (38) and Will Guidara (34), respective

Daniel Humm (38) and Will Guidara (34), respectively chef and director at Eleven Madison Park in New York, 3 Michelin stars and 4 stars according to the New York Times. Their success, says Ryan King, is based on a very unique harmony between kitchen and dining room. The two of them will give a speech in Milan on Monday 9th February at 10.45 (photo credits thenomadhotel.com)

«It’s up to you Ryan, you can either stay here and finish the meal or you can take the surprise…». I’m standing inside the kitchen of chef Daniel Humm at Eleven Madison Park (EMP) in New York as my host asks the question. I have no idea what to do, it’s a highly irregular proposal. Normally I come for dinner, take my pics, send a tweet and eat - eat, eat, eat. The restaurants differ but the format is usually the same, however, just five courses in to my meal at EMP, I’m being asked if I want to risk it and bail on the next five. I haven’t even had the Carrot tartar yet, or dessert, but they’re offering me something unseen, unknown and unheard - «ok», I say, «give me the surprise».

Taking the surprise is a bit like a gameshow explosion where the whole set changes as soon as the contestant picks the winning box. I’m immediately whisked out of the kitchen, away from my last sip of liquid nitrogen whiskey cocktail, my jacket is handed to me and Billy, my host for the evening, is standing at the door. «You took the surprise?», he nods, «good choice». And that’s it, we’re out of the door. Just half way into one of America’s most famous tasting menus and I’ve somehow chosen ‘surprise’ and walked away from course six, I wonder what it might have been - the Honey roasted duck with lavender, the deli inspired platter, perhaps it was the carrot tartar? I hope the surprise is good I tell Billy who is still smiling, «We’re nearly there».

He’s right. In just minutes I’m walking up to the entrance of NoMad - another great New York restaurant, owned, like EMP, by Daniel Humm and co-owner Will Guidara. «Mr King», the lady on reception says, «how was your Whiskey cocktail?» I’m still trying to work out how she knows my last drink, at a restaurant 10 minutes walk away, when I’m ushered inside the busy wooden bar of NoMad. This is where Billy sadly explains he has to leave, handing me over to my new host and apologising for the fact he must go back to EMP. I don’t care Billy, I’m super relaxed, send me anywhere mate, I’m like one of those babies being passed from aunt to aunt at Christmas. «Follow me, sir, we’ll show you to the kitchen».

Will and Daniel also runs NoMad hotel nearby EMP, 1170 Broadway & 28th street (photo credits thenomadhotel.com)

Will and Daniel also runs NoMad hotel nearby EMP, 1170 Broadway & 28th street (photo credits thenomadhotel.com)

From kitchen to kitchen in under 20 minutes, I’m now sat at a perfectly laid table inside NoMad as the head chef talks me through some of the dishes. Billy says his final goodbye, you can tell he wants to stay, like he genuinely wants to enjoy me enjoying my surprise, maybe more than I want to enjoy it myself. Great.

After plates in the kitchen, a tour of the bar, library and numerous staff introducing themselves, each knowing my name, I’m led upstairs to enjoy some music. I’m shell shocked, I can’t quite take in everything that’s happened, just how smooth it’s been and how welcome I feel. Staff I met earlier in the evening pop back to ask how I am, what was my favourite course? Do I need anything? It’s genuine, warm and loving - I don’t want to leave, ever.

I’m sat reflecting over this feeling with a cocktail and petit four when a hand slaps me on the back, it’s Will Guidara. «How was it?», I immediately begin explaining how amazing it’s been and like he’s been waiting for the moment all night, as if he wrote the gag before I even arrived, «I’m happy», he says readying himself for the punchline, «I just wanted to show you how superior my country is compared to yours».

I laugh hard with Will, he’s obviously joking but he’s also right, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, in mine or any other country in the world. Ok, I’m a guest invited by the owners, I’m also a food journalist, I’m under no illusions the team went out of their way to give me a great night but they’re famous for these acts, with all of their guests - not just pale food journos from overseas. I honestly think they’re the same with everyone who enters their world.

The staff at Eleven Madison Park in a photo taken in February 2013 by Nathan Rawlinson: "Keep calm and make it nice" is written on their t-shirts

The staff at Eleven Madison Park in a photo taken in February 2013 by Nathan Rawlinson: "Keep calm and make it nice" is written on their t-shirts

Humm backs this up, explaining: «They treat every night like the Super Bowl, each night is the most important night of service». I don’t know exactly why, perhaps because I’ve watched it happen with my own eyes, but I have to believe him as he recounts stories of staff teaching guests how to saber wine or help then plan special celebrations. Guidara remembers, «Like the time a newly engaged couple joined us for dinner and they were visiting from out of town. They had been talking to their captain and sommelier about how they had really wanted to sled in Central Park after a big snow storm that had hit us. We promptly went out, bought them one of those classic wood and red metal sleds, stencilled in the Eleven Madison Park logo and presented it to the couple at the end of the meal with a massive bow tied around it. They were nearly in tears with excitement».

The pair are unique in the industry, not because service is important to them, it’s important in all great restaurants, but because their relationship and their restaurants set the ultimate example of what can happen when equal emphasis is placed on food and hospitality. Humm says «Service is just as important as having delicious food - deliciousness and graciousness, they operate in tandem and we need them both at a high level in order to be the restaurant that we want to be». It’s simple restaurant 101 but so many places forget it, so many customers don’t consider it and - I hold my own hands up - so many journalists don’t write about.

It’s actually an important balance that needs to be addressed, especially if the service side of restaurants is ever going to catch up with the kitchen. «It used to be that the maître d’ would garner the attention and then there was a shift when the chef became the centre of attention, says Humm, «It’s harder to take photos of good service, to put into words how a service experience can be – it’s much easier to say something is delicious or post a photo of it online with a recipe. The lack of exposure has really compromised the level of service in restaurants today, the standards of excellence that used to be a part of dining out are harder and harder to find».

Since 2014, Will Guidara is also the founder of the Welcome Conference, an annual forum totally dedicated to service and hospitality (photo from twitter)

Since 2014, Will Guidara is also the founder of the Welcome Conference, an annual forum totally dedicated to service and hospitality (photo from twitter)

This is just one of the reasons that Guidara co-founded the Welcome Conference, a hospitality forum aimed at changing the balance between kitchen and front of house. «Over the past decade there has been an exciting cultural renaissance in the food industry. A community has been built with chefs around the world all sharing ideas, developing relationships, and raising standards of the industry. That type of revolution has not emerged in the dining room world and the Welcome Conference is an idea to help develop that community».

Really great hospitality leaves you with an alien feeling, that’s how rare it is. It’s this rounded feeling of fullness you would never obtain from food, not even a hundred plates. Nothing to do with how your glass is placed, how the server wipes your crumbs or folds the napkin when you visit the toilet - that’s part of it but it’s more than this. It’s that warm cuddly feeling you associate with your Nan, the utter relaxation you have with your friends, the final click between the shoulder blades when you trust you can fully relax. Not many places can give you this warmth.

For EMP and NoMad it seems to start with the great friendship formed between Humm and Guidara - a unique marriage between kitchen and dining room. «We’re one big family», says Humm, referring on at least two occasions to the ‘commitment’ him and Will have made to each other. It’s like a real marriage and, just like any great couple in a loving relationship, they can also finish each other’s sentences, Will chips in: «We have a rule that we never leave the restaurant upset with one another. We know that the restaurant is only as good as our relationship».


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