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Rustic Food at Its Peak

His restaurant food is the essence of elegance. Yet when New York City chef Daniel Humm makes a homecoming trip to Switzerland, he prepares simple, rustic dishes that evoke his childhood.

The veal dish that chef Daniel Humm (pronounced whom) makes at New York City’s Eleven Madison Park requires a kitchen staff of 60 to create. One cook poaches the tenderloin sous-vide for 45 minutes. Another prepares a morel stock and turns it into a sheet of jelly using agar agar. A third cook stamps out rounds of the jelly and passes them, with a tiny dice of fava beans, shallots and morels, to yet one more cook to assemble.

But when the 32-year-old Humm (an F&W Best New Chef 2005) goes home to Switzerland for vacation, he makes veal the way his mother might: by simply roasting it in the oven with garlic and marjoram. “The idea is the same as at the restaurant,” Humm said. “We’re still using great ingredients. But we don’t have 10 things on the plate.”

Humm prepared this stellar roast last summer on a trip to the mountains overlooking Lake Maggiore, near Switzerland’s Italian border. He, his girlfriend, Geneén Wright, and his 13-year-old daughter, Justine, were visiting their friends Peter Marty and Sophie Beyeler. Humm met Marty more than 15 years ago, while the two were working for the Swiss caterer Gamma. Marty went on to run his own Zurich catering company; Humm earned a Michelin star at age 24 at Gasthaus zum Gupf, about an hour from the city.

The friends stayed in touch—“Peter, he’s like my older brother,” Humm said—and they often meet up at Marty’s father’s country house, a renovated goat barn on a narrow, gently winding road with views of steep, forested mountains. There, they hike and hang out at swimming holes and make simple meals with local ingredients.

Switzerland’s traditional cooking is hearty Alpine, with lots of potatoes, cabbage, cheese and pork. But because the country is surrounded by France, Germany, Austria and Italy, the culinary accent changes from region to region. In the west, where French is spoken, are two of the world’s best expressions of gooey cheese: fondue and raclette. People in the German-speaking part eat rösti (potato pancakes) and käseschnitten (cheese sandwiches), while those in the southern, Italian-speaking area eat polenta alla Ticinese, made with the Parmesan-like cheese Sbrinz.

Daniel Humm

Herb-roasted veal and porcini risotto. Photo © James Merrell.

Humm and Marty prepared an Italian-Swiss meal. As they cooked, everyone snacked on open-face tomato-and-prosciutto sandwiches covered in melted Gruyère—fondue in sandwich form. “My mother used to make this when I worked late and couldn’t be home for dinner,” Humm said. “She used rohschinken, a dried ham. But there’s lots of prosciutto in this part of Switzerland.”

Humm was relaxed and happy in the mountain kitchen, but he’s not exactly a laid-back person. Growing up, he was equally intense about cooking and cycling. He began racing mountain bikes at age 10 and represented the Junior Swiss National Team as a teenager; by 14, he was also apprenticing as a cook. Eventually, he was cycling for four hours a day and cooking for 12. “I had to choose between the two,” he said. “In races, I was always in the top 10 but rarely in the top three.” So, at 20, he quit competitive cycling. “But it taught me a lot that I use in the restaurant. Cooking is an endurance sport.”

It was getting late, and everyone was hungry, but Humm was in a playful mood. He had Marty bring out a platter of carved marble figs to Justine. They looked so real, she was surprised when she took one and found it hard and heavy. She wasn’t pleased. To make her happy, he fixed a dish he knew she’d love, a salad of grilled apricots set on creamy rounds of goat cheese and topped with sharp arugula.

Finally, at 9:30, the group gathered on the terrace under a wisteria arbor to eat. It was still light, one of the long days of European summer when the sun never seems to set. The meal began with a tomato-anchovy salad in a garlicky cream sauce, followed by the veal roast with porcini risotto. “Switzerland has the best veal,” Humm said (the animals are exclusively milk-fed). Everyone tucked into the succulent meat, swirling sweet-tart tomatoes from the salad in the juices. For dessert, they ate scoops of mascarpone ice cream, which melted to form a lush sauce for warm roasted peaches.

The next morning, Marty brought the group to his favorite swimming spot on the Maggia River, near the green foothills of the Lepontine Alps. The water is icy, even in summer, so “swimming” means jumping in and out—fast—then sunning on the big rocks.

Daniel Humm

Swiss cheeses. Photo © James Merrell.

After taking a dip, Humm and Marty unpacked a salad of poached shrimp, melon and frisée in a citrusy dressing. There were also Swiss cheeses, including a mildly tangy Piora and a three-year-old Sbrinz from cheese monger Rolf Beeler. Beeler is famed for aging cheeses like the rare Alp Dräckloch, a lightly smoky cow’s-milk kind made only in summer. Humm adds it to the cheese plate at Eleven Madison Park when he can get it.

As everyone kicked back by the water, Humm explained that his parents had not been thrilled when he decided to become a chef. “They said, ‘Chefs work all the time. They don’t have families.’ I thought, I’ll show them.” Later in the trip, Humm proposed to Geneén in a meadow, surrounded by cows. They were married in January.

Jane Sigal is an F&W contributing editor who also writes for the New York Times. She lives in New York.

Published July 2009
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