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The journey of an artist and his singular vision

Are Chefs artists?

I first asked this question five years ago. Then, as now, the question emerged out of a conversation with Daniel Humm.


If you are a foodie, you will know who Humm is. Swiss by birth, a New Yorker by choice, he is the greatest chef in America. His Eleven Madison Park has been rated the best restaurant in the world, he has been awarded four stars (the highest accolade) by The New York Times and Eleven Madison Park has held three Michelin stars for over a dozen years.


   Humm is a prodigy. He started in the business at 14, won his first Michelin star in his 20s and then became the only chef in the world to have his restaurant go from one star to three without the intervening stage of two stars.


   That Humm is a great chef is not in dispute. But is he an artist?


   He says no, he sees himself as a craftsman and is too modest to call what he does art.


   And yet, I think he is an artist.


   Some of it has to do with how important art is to him. When he was a small boy, his parents took him to a museum in Paris. When the young Daniel saw Monet’s Water Lilies series, something happened to him. He stopped in front of the paintings and wept. Today he says, “I don’t know if I was crying because I was happy or because I was sad. I just couldn’t stop. There was an emotional impact that I did not fully understand.”


   From that day on, art became an obsession. Imagination became his defining characteristic. Asked by his teacher to draw a picture of his house, he found that the sheet of paper provided was too small to contain the images he saw in his head. He asked for a bigger sheet of paper. When the teacher said no, he defiantly continued to paint outside the paper and on the desk itself.


   As you might expect Daniel got into trouble. He was sent to the principal who upbraided him and then complained to his parents. Eventually, they sent him to see a therapist.


   It was the therapist who recognised that Daniel had to find a way of expressing the pictures he saw in his head and gave him the biggest sheets of paper available. Able at last to convey to paper, what he saw in his imagination, the young Daniel finally found contentment.


   Eventually, he dropped out of school at 14 and ended up working in hotel and restaurant kitchens. He was brilliant and so precise in his cooking that he rose up quickly till he migrated to America and found fame and success in San Francisco.


   He was headhunted by Danny Meyer, then the King of New York’s restaurant scene, and installed at Eleven Madison Park, (EMP) a brasserie -type place that Daniel turned around, creating his own style of relaxed fine dining: relaxed in the dining room but precise and painstaking in the kitchen. The Michelin stars followed. And eventually Daniel and his partner bought the restaurant from Meyer.


   But his artistic vision never left him. He was taken with a series of paintings that Picasso created called the Bull series. The series began with a bull but as it went on, Picasso kept deleting elements of the bull till the final painting was just a few lines. Yet such was Picasso’s genius that those two or three lines still looked like a bull.


   It served as an inspiration for Humm’s cooking. Could he strip each dish to its essential elements and yet preserve what it was that made the dish special?


   After he had won EMP its third star, Humm created a dish of celery root poached inside a pig’s bladder. The pig bladder poach is a traditional French way of cooking. But it was usually used to poach chicken. Nobody had used it for a celery root or any other vegetables before. Humm served the celery root on a simple plate with a little black truffle. There were no starches, vegetables or any of the things that chefs feel obliged to put on plates. The celery root spoke for itself.


 "Very few chefs fit my definition of artist. Heston Blumenthal does. He finds new ways to cook what he sees in his imagination no matter how crazy it sounds."

   It was Humm’s culinary version of the final painting in the Picasso series: you served the essence of the dish in the simplest form possible.


   EMP already had three stars and would, within a year, be rated the world’s best restaurant, but for Daniel, that one dish was the start of a new journey.


   Like a painter who had painted beautiful still lifes and portraits for decades and then suddenly abandoned them for something more abstract, Daniel changed the style of his food to reduce it to its essence.


   He had no need to do this. He ran the world’s best restaurant which was also massively profitable. It was not a commercial decision. It was not a culinary decision. It was — whichever way you look at it — an artistic decision.


   It’s hard to define an artist in an era where hairdressers and advertising people call themselves artists but to me the difference between an artist and a craftsman is that while a craftsman merely imposes form on a medium (canvas, wood, stone etc) an artist has a unique way of seeing and the work he creates is distinguished not just by its craftsmanship but by the imagination it represents.


   Very few chefs fit my definition of artist. Heston Blumenthal does. He finds new ways to cook what he sees in his imagination no matter how crazy it sounds. In the process he has transformed gastronomy.


   Gaggan Anand is an artist. He doesn’t just tweak existing dishes to create his own; he imagines dishes that are so breathtaking in their conception that nobody has thought of them before.


   Artists remain true to their vision. Gaggan would rather go broke (and he nearly has once) than compromise. Heston has walked away from day-to-day cooking at his restaurants to turn the things he sees in his head into dishes that are masterpieces of imagination. And like Heston and Gaggan artists can be awkward fellows who fight with partners and do things that make no commercial sense.


   Daniel did something like that when the celery root marked a complete change of direction. And then, two years ago, at the lowest point in his career, he did it again.


   At that stage Humm had already taken a series of decisions that he might not have taken if he had known that the Pandemic was coming. He had rejected plans to build a restaurant empire, to open in Las Vegas, to start a burger chain etc. He had bought out his longtime business partner and sold the other restaurants they had created together. (Such as the three successful NoMads.)


   But the Pandemic hit EMP, his one surviving restaurant, badly. It shut during the lockdown and losses mounted. (According to one estimate: 15 million dollars). When the Pandemic wound down Humm finally had the opportunity to make up the losses and to ride the post-Pandemic spending boom.


   To the horror of his collaborators, he announced that he would go in a different direction entirely: he would throw all animal products off his menu and go plant-based.


   He was told he was mad. He needed to make money, not drive away customers with some fad menu. But not only was it not a fad (there are sound reasons for serving plant-based cuisine) it was also the food that Daniel saw in his imagination. He now had no interest in cooking the food that had made him famous.


   So EMP opened with a plant-based menu to some outright hostility. Against the odds, Daniel made it work. The bookings piled up. Michelin give it three stars again. And such great chefs as Alain Ducasse loved the food and wanted to collaborate with Humm.


   Daniel now travels the world telling people how good plant-based dishes can be. He was in Mumbai, where I had a Culinary Culture Conversation on stage at Masque with him — he was being hosted by Aditi and Aditya Dugar who own Masque and was cooking with Varun Totlani the restaurant’s gifted chef.


   Is Daniel making more money than he would have if he was still serving meat and fish? No, he isn’t. Does he care? Not really. As long as he can pay his staff, he is happy. He hasn’t taken a salary himself from the company for three years.


   So, you tell me: is this the story of a craftsman? Or a chef?


   Or is it the journey of an artist and his singular vision?


   I think the answer is fairly obvious.




  • Gautam 28 Nov 2023

    I made a mistake. I just submitted a comment for your latest article talking about a collaboration between Rene Redzepi and Varun Totlani. Sorry, I was actually misremembering this - A collaboraiton between Totlani and Daniel Humm. Humm and Varun actually traveled to Kashmir for it and there was an article in the Conde Nast traveler website about it.

    I'd love if you could get us more details about this.

  • Upnworld 17 Sep 2023

    Superb article ! Reminiscent of the Netflix series on Alain Passard and Troisgros. Humm rocks, although he'd have had Passard's shoulders to lean on when he went plant-based. India of course will ask him to hold our beer when it comes to the plant-based ethos !

Posted On: 08 Sep 2023 03:45 PM
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