There was a moment last year, as COVID-19 brought the entire planet to a standstill, when the chef and owner of one of the world's most renowned and expensive restaurants thought he might lose everything.
Daniel Humm's restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, has three Michelin stars and had recently topped the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. But like so many other less famous restaurants during the pandemic, it had to lay off all its employees, was struggling to pay its vendors and was facing the once-unthinkable prospect of filing for bankruptcy.
"At times I thought, well, if we're going bankrupt with Eleven Madison Park, maybe that's the end of a chapter," Humm told CNN in an interview in August. "I actually got to the place where I was comfortable with that idea. I mean, you have to."
Humm came to find the idea liberating, he said. Like many others before him he had previously concluded the food system required less meat consumption to be sustainable long-term. So if he might lose the restaurant anyway, why not take a chance?
That thinking laid the groundwork for a decision that shocked the food world: In early May, Humm announced that when Eleven Madison park reopened the following month it would go completely plant-based. (The only exception, he said at the time, would be cow's milk as an add-on for coffee or tea.)
The menu — which includes items like a vegan caviar service made from tonburi, roasted eggplant with coriander and sesame tofu with squash — is all served with the signature flair and detail that Eleven Madison Park is known for.
But the move comes with significant risks. By going meatless, Humm is potentially shrinking his customer base to a smaller niche of diners. And those diners currently have cheaper options among other vegan or vegan-friendly fine-dining establishments in New York.
Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy, for example, has been creating plant-based fine dining since 2008, with a tasting menu that runs for $130 per person including wine. Daniel Boulud opened his "vegetable-forward and seafood centric" restaurant Le Pavillon earlier this year, and a six-course vegetarian tasting menu is $155.
Humm, however, didn't cut the price when cutting the meat. EMP's prix-fixe menu is still $335 per person — more if you add wine to the tab.
Reputation matters a lot for a restaurant like EMP, which is in a tier that relies on staying buzzy. In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was the kind of restaurant people traveled thousands of miles for after working hard to cinch a notoriously difficult reservation. Since the reopening diners have largely been New Yorkers, but that is unlikely to be the case long-term once travel picks up again. The question is whether the new menu can keep up the appeal and the hype that's critical to EMP's survival.
The reviews so far — including a scathing piece from the New York Times' Pete Wells
The early reviews of the new EMP have largely not been positive. Some have even been downright scathing.
"This $1,000 dinner for two is not going to change the world. It is not a redefining of luxury, or anything close to it," Eater's Ryan Sutton wrote in September. "Omnivores have long been seeking out accessible yet ambitious vegetarian and vegan fare, and Humm, based on a mid-August meal, doesn't yet appear to fully possess the palate, acumen, or cultural awareness to successfully manipulate vegetables or, when necessary, to let them speak for themselves."
New York Times critic Pete Wells' review last month went viral for its withering lines, including one about an EMP beet tasting like "a cross between lemon Pledge and a burning joint." Beyond his problems with the food itself, Wells also pointed out that people who have environmental concerns about meat may not have much reason to celebrate EMP's move.
"People tend to think of factory farms and feedlots when they hear about meat and sustainability. But Eleven Madison Park didn't buy industrial pork for its compressed brick of suckling pig. As the servers were always reminding you in the old days, the pork, eggs, cheese and other animal products came from small, independent regional farms...If every restaurant that supports sustainable local agriculture followed Mr. Humm's new path, those small farms would be in deep trouble," he wrote.
And, importantly, he noted that through the end of this year, EMP still offers a meat option for customers who book a private dining room, a "metaphor for Manhattan, where there's always a higher level of luxury, a secret room where the rich eat roasted tenderloin while everybody else gets an eggplant canoe."
Wells did note that EMP has a history of correcting itself, however: "Each time the restaurant has overhauled itself — the cryptic grid menu, the magic tricks at the table, the themed New York City menu — it has gone overboard, then pulled back to a less extreme place," he said, adding that "its talent for overcoming its own missteps was one reason I gave it four stars in its last review in The New York Times, in 2015."
A spokesperson for EMP would not comment on Wells' and Sutton's critiques, noting it is restaurant policy to not comment on reviews. The spokesperson confirmed the restaurant's decision to offer meat in the private room in a statement.
"It is an incredible undertaking to reopen a restaurant, especially in the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic, and it took the entirety of our staff's focus and efforts to execute this at the level Eleven Madison Park operates," the statement said. "Our intention was always to transition the private dining room to be fully plant-based as well. In early September, we made the decision to remove the last remaining animal products from the private dining room menus by January 1, 2022."
Taking a cue from Tesla
Others say Humm deserves some credit for his decision to go meatless.
"The problem is [Humm's] going plant-based creates a narrative of novelty and freshness and vision on his part when there have already been chefs going in this direction who haven't gotten this attention," Alicia Kennedy, a writer who has written extensively about vegan and vegetarian food, told CNN.
Still, Humm's move has significance because of his place in the industry — similar to how a top luxury fashion designer refusing to use leather or fur still has meaning even now, Kennedy said.
"If Daniel Humm making this choice has influence on chefs who look up to him ... then it is serving a really good purpose," Kennedy said. If it trickles down even further, to neighborhood suburban spots, that's even better, she said.
As for Humm, he said he felt EMP could do with food what Tesla accomplished with cars.
"It was only really until Tesla created an electric luxury car that they made it sexy," he said. "They made it luxurious. They made it beautiful. And so it took that for the whole world to change. And I thought of having this similar responsibility of this restaurant that we actually were in a very unique position. Most restaurants don't have the luxury to make that kind of risky move."
That doesn't address the question of whether a meatless menu will keep people coming through EMP's doors in the long run. But Humm said in August that the wait list was massive, with "15,000 table requests at one time."
Reservations for Eleven Madison Park have continued to sell out the morning they are released, a spokesperson said. Since it reopened, the restaurant has been serving roughly the same number of tables as it did prior to the pandemic, but in total, it's serving far fewer people: It's now open for dinner only six nights a week, and before, it served dinner nightly and lunch three times a week. When asked to elaborate on other metrics like sales and profitability, the spokesperson said EMP does not share financial information.
Humm, as ever, is focused on the food. And he has remained optimistic that a vegan EMP can be successful.
"I think it's the best cooking we've ever done," Humm said. "By a long shot."