We Went to Coney Island With Will Guidara and Daniel Humm, Here's What Happened
“It's clear that I've won. Now I want to invest in you.” So says restaurateur Will Guidara to his business partner, chef Daniel Humm, who’s having a hell of a time tossing darts at a wall of Technicolor balloons. Guidara has had better luck the last few rounds, and he demonstrates the proper way to hold a dart—fingers pinched, firm and sure, just behind the sharp tip. Humm fires again. No dice. And again. Nope. A carnival worker steps in and rearranges the dart in the chef’s hand. “You’ve got to shoot it like an Englishman,” he says, whatever that means. Humm adjusts his stance and we all lean in to watch. We hold our breath. We wait for the pop.
In his professional life, far from the pressures of this carnival game, Humm’s aim is more reliably true. He and Guidara are golden boys of the American restaurant scene, darlings of industry awards and regulars at the top of every list a food-world obsessive would care about. Most significantly, their fine-dining jewel, Eleven Madison Park, claimed the No. 1 spot in the 2017 World’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings (EMP’s fifth year in the top five), adding to its haul of accolades and critics’ stars. The duo is building a New York City empire that already includes a collection of rococo bars and dining rooms inside The NoMad Hotel and their first fast-casual space, Made Nice, which debuted this past spring, offering everyday interpretations of favorite Humm dishes, from a pork shoulder grain bowl to milk-and-honey soft serve.
And there’s much more to come. For starters, Guidara and Humm will reopen EMP this fall after extensive renovations by architect Brad Cloepfil. In addition to designing custom furnishings, Cloepfil will restore the grand Art Deco space’s elegant symmetry, while the kitchen will be refurbished with top-of-the-line equipment. This is the first significant update to the restaurant since Humm and Guidara purchased it from their former boss, hospitality king Danny Meyer, in 2011. And it’s a symbolic rebirth as much as a literal one. To coincide with the reopening, they are publishing Eleven Madison Park: The Next Chapter, a limited-edition, two-volume book of recipes and stories that was partly inspired by Codex Seraphinianus, Luigi Serafini’s surreal encyclopedia of an imaginary realm. Then later this fall they will step outside the New York market for the first time, when they unveil The NoMad LA. Occupying an ornate 1923 building in downtown Los Angeles, the restaurant will have the same opulence of the Manhattan original but with a lighter touch. It’s a major moment for the twosome, who, faced with the weight of extraordinary expectations, continue to raise the bar for themselves. “What we have to focus on now is bigger than the restaurants,” says Guidara. “What we want to build is a really good company, a really good place to work.”
But first, there are those damn balloon darts.
Humm and Guidara have agreed to take a rare day off for a visit to Coney Island, the historic amusement district on the Brooklyn waterfront. The area is about an hour subway ride from their Manhattan flagship, but it’s worlds away. In a borough known for its hip hauteur, Coney Island is a holdout of old-school authenticity—all blinking lights and rickety coasters and ramshackle boardwalk snack stands. It feels like an appropriate choice for two men who have made their names toeing the line between high and low influences, and reimagining iconic NYC foods in a fine-dining format. In fact, Humm and Guidara wrote the book on the subject—well, a book, called I Love New York, a compendium of recipes drawing on regional ingredients and riffs on classic local dishes (there’s even an extravagant hot dog with black truffles).
So it seems natural to start our day at the original 1916 location of Nathan’s: a late-morning breakfast of hot dogs, corn dogs, onion rings, crinkle-cut fries and Cokes guzzled on the sidewalk beneath the neon sign. Afterward, we head down the block to stock up on sweets at Williams Candy. We leave with gleaming, sugar-lacquered apples and great puffs of pink and blue cotton candy, eaten by the sticky fistful as we amble toward the boardwalk. Guidara chews a candy necklace. “We’re all going to get serious tummy aches,” he says. “But that’s OK—that’s part of it.”
Beer will probably make things worse, but we pop into Ruby’s, an old Coney Island dive, for a round anyway. Guidara says he’s keeping an eye out for Skee-Ball, the classic arcade game. Turns out he’s not just a casual player, but a champion, with his own team operating out of a friend’s bar. He’s the same way about Ping-Pong; he keeps a table in the office, and stages a tournament for employees he calls the Flatiron Open.
Spend any time with Guidara and Humm, and a pattern starts to emerge. They have a way of channeling their interests to fuel ideas and ambitions. Both admire the democratic spirit of street artist Shepard Fairey, and his work helped inspire them to create Made Nice, where the food is accessible and the room is wrapped in a Fairey mural. Their shared taste for chicken Parm led to Mamma Guidara’s, the special Sunday menu of Italian-American red-sauce dishes served on checkered tablecloths at The NoMad.
Maybe it’s this ability to elevate the ordinary—to bring a sense of playfulness into a white tablecloth context—that makes Humm and Guidara so compelling. It’s part of what makes them fun to hang out with. At Ruby’s we sip crisp lagers and chat with fellow day drinkers. A sun-parched blonde visiting from Atlantic City sputters her tongue when Humm tells her he’s from Switzerland. “That was the first time I’ve gotten a fart noise,” he muses. Afterward, we pop into a surf shop for bathing suits so the guys can take an impromptu dip in the Atlantic. “We have to get something we would never wear in any other situation, ever,” says Guidara, flipping through a rack of fluorescent trunks. They change into their new suits and we head to the beach. Racing across the warm sand squealing, we leap into the cold Atlantic, a sweet and guileless moment with a pair of pros who are rarely caught off guard.
Back on the boardwalk, we take a spin around the Wonder Wheel. We pause at the top, 150 feet up, looking out over the park-goers and the hustlers, the faint smell of fried clams hanging in the air, the sounds of Brooklyn patois mixing with Slavic music warbling out of a tinny speaker. “This is why I love New York—it never ceases to surprise and delight,” Guidara says. “Every day has the potential to be an adventure.”
As the late-afternoon sun zaps the last of the salt water from our clothes, the two begin noticing the time. They need to get back to Manhattan. On top of everything else in this moment of growth and change, they have new offices to settle into, a summer pop-up restaurant in East Hampton to oversee and an annual TED-like hospitality forum known as the Welcome Conference to cohost. But there’s still time for a last round of darts. With a little patience Humm pops a balloon. Finally. They celebrate the small victory and turn to leave, laughing. For this duo, there are bigger prizes to come.
On the Horizon
Eleven Madison Park: Guidara and Humm tapped Brad Cloepfil, head of Allied Works Architecture and a regular at EMP, to oversee a down-to-the-studs renovation of their flagship. The restaurant will reopen this fall with refreshed decor and an upgraded kitchen, where Humm will cook on a custom Molteni stove.
The NoMad LA: Humm will serve a few favorites from the Manhattan original—including the luxe seafood plateau—at this West Coast location. The duo’s first project outside New York will also feature poolside service on the roof.
The NoMad Las Vegas: Another outpost of the New York hotel and restaurant is planned for Sin City in 2018. The project will occupy 20 floors above the Park MGM.
Financial District Restaurant: Details are still sparse on Humm and Guidara’s forthcoming downtown Manhattan project, but they’re planning a more casual experience for the massive space, expected to debut sometime in 2018.
425 Park Avenue Restaurant: Guidara and Humm are projecting a 2019 opening for their as-yet-unnamed, über-upscale restaurant inside this Norman Foster–designed office tower.