Eleven Madison Park is known for producing some of the finest dishes in the world, from leek and shiso portobello mushroom to honeynut squash with Oma cheese. But today, as result of the coronavirus crisis, it’s operating more like, well, an operating room. Having traded his chef whites for scrubs, Daniel Humm and a team of former staffers are working 15-hour days making dishes like bolognese and braised beef for hospital workers and caretakers in New York City.
With the help of American Express and the nonprofit Rethink, 16 days after shutting down, one of the world’s best restaurants is back to feeding people. What’s more? They deliver.
The paid volunteers, which includes a mix of front- and back-of-house staff, arrive around 7 a.m. and are immediately sprayed, suited up, and given gloves and a mask. They have their temperatures taken, and then split into three work spaces—the main kitchen, the pastry kitchen, and the private dining space—where they start cooking around 2,000 meals, only to break hourly for a deep clean and for family meal. Eventually, what they make is picked up and delivered by partner CityMeals on Wheels to hospitals such as New-York Presbyterian and the Collective Fare at Brownsville Community Culinary Center.
Humm spoke to Food & Wine on day three of his new normal about why he did it, what the vibe on the line is like, and how it’s made him rethink cooking altogether.
How does it feel to be back in the kitchen?
Being in NYC is tough. We got hit really hard. But it feels good to be back at work with people I know and trust. My team. That feels positive. The cooking part feels good, too. I honestly couldn’t imagine doing anything else right now.
You closed on March 16 and reopened as a commissary on April 1. What were the days in between like?
The first few days it was just shock because we had to let part of our staff go and then all of our staff go because we realized it was impossible to pay them, so everything crumbled right in front of our eyes. Just literally within days, everything fell apart. Some restaurant friends started doing delivery and from what their experiences were, there were so many issues and questions. Like, “Is this even the right thing to do?” So I guess, for like three or four days, we didn’t do anything. We did a lot in the background, and I was exploring options in my head.
How did you come to this?
I started doing research about how soup kitchens operate and what it costs and how food gets packed up. I went to visit [a few] around NY and one morning I was in an Uber going to the Navy Yard where Rethink has a production kitchen. It was this grey morning, and the news was terrible, and my team was really scared. Then I got a message that my friend Floyd had passed away. Sitting in this car, I’m thinking to myself: “Why am I in this Uber? Is it even safe? Some of the people I trust most think this is a bad idea.” I was dropped off in this industrial area in Brooklyn, and there was nobody. I felt paralyzed. But then somehow I collected myself and just felt this was much bigger than any of us. Some people have the responsibility to make this moment better. I think, as a chef, I am able. I have relationships. I have the space. This is when the craft is the most important.
So then I said, “OK, if this is how I’m going to go down that’ll be it.” This city has given me everything. I could’ve bailed. I had plenty of ways to get out and watch from the sidelines. But that’s not what felt right to me. It’s just being human, honestly. It’s not that much of an achievement. But, definitely, cooking these meals is some of my proudest moments. There are people on the front lines who don’t have the choice to not go to work. So I thought, “OK, what can I do for them? What’s in front me?"
So what or who is in front of you?
We have 12 people working in three groups of three or four. We always cook a day ahead, so what we’re cooking today is what we’re delivering tomorrow. That’s good so it can be cooled and packaged properly. There are microwaves most places where the food goes so it can be heated up.
What sort of meals are you making? It must be pretty different from what you’re accustomed to cooking.
It is and it isn’t. It’s always about bringing people together and giving people pleasure through food, so it’s kind of the same thing in a way. But we’re just not physically together. And we’re doing 2,000 meals a day [not 100], but we can’t have 100 of this or 100 of that. We can’t cook 20 different meals in one day. We’ve done braised beef cheeks with brown rice and broccoli, pasta with bolognese and focaccia bread and salad, and chicken legs with couscous. It’s basically always a starch, a protein, and a vegetable. And it’s delicious.
Where are the ingredients coming from?
We’re working with farms and suppliers [like Baldor Specialty Foods]. Everyone is sitting on food right now, which is amazing because there are people who have no food. When our farms say, “I have a lot of this,” that’s what dictates the menu.
Under normal circumstances, you operate with a staff of 300. What’s it like to work with only 12?
I didn’t expect so little response. I thought, “Wow maybe we need people from outside the restaurant.” But now people are seeing what we’re doing and I think it’s inspiring others. They see that we’re taking precautions and it’s safe. Cleanliness is not new to us. We’ve been practicing this for years. But people are still scared. In the kitchen it feels quite safe. We are taking it all very seriously.
What do you hope comes out of this?
For me, it’s about bringing people back to work and giving food to people who need food. I also hope it inspires other chefs. Because most of us have the tools in front of us to help and it can be done and it can be done safely. I keep asking myself, “Why aren’t we doing this all the time?” We could be producing 100 meals everyday with not much more effort. And funding to fight hunger is actually available. We’re producing the meals at $5 or $6 a meal. So if every restaurant in NYC would get $500 a day to produce 100 meals, we would end hunger. Just think about how powerful that is. There’s enough food and enough people producing food and delivering all the time that we can end it. So that’s what I’m thinking now. My mind is going to places where it’s never really went. I hope that through all of this some amazing things will be born. That we can take them into normal life again.