Daniel Humm & Will Guidara

Daniel Humm and Will Guidara of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, caught up with Total Food Service to discuss their beginnings in foodservice and the vision they have for the future of their restaurant.

How did you guys meet?
We met briefly at the Union Square Hospitality Group GM/Chef meetings that were held monthly, though we didn’t really spend too much time together until we were discussing the idea of working together at EMP. Daniel was already the Chef, and when it came time to look for a new GM, he asked about me. We had a great dinner at Crispo on West 14th street, talked about our mutual aspirations and decided to give it a go.

Will, you studied at Cornell, what impact did that have on your career?
It was an incredible experience; I wanted to attend the university since I was a little kid, having grown up in a restaurant family. My father, Frank Guidara, is a life long restaurateur and my biggest mentor. What I learned most was how to learn – while I don’t remember exactly what I learned, the education I received has made me much more capable in learning new things in the years since. I also developed a bunch of incredible relationships, personal and professional, that I still benefit from today.

Photo © Franceso Tonelli
How did the opportunity come along for you guys to buy the restaurant from Danny Meyer?
We were talking for a long time about what our future would hold. We wanted to be entrepreneurs, but did not want to leave EMP behind as we had invested so much of ourselves in it over the last six years. What makes Danny so incredible is that he always puts the restaurants first, and at a certain point, after months of conversation, we all realized that what was best for the restaurant and its employees was for us to buy it. It’s an amazing place, bigger than any one or two people, and we intend to take great care of. And, if all goes well, we hope to pass it down to one or two of our protégés some day, so that they can carry on its legacy.

What impact had Danny had on your careers?
Significant, he is a mentor, a friend, a father figure. We love him. He taught us about many things, but most importantly about the importance of culture, and finding language to define it. In our business, providing a great experience requires so many people- as he says, it is a team sport, and the key to success lies in effectively leading your team to greatness, not just be great yourself. As a part of his company, he always gave his people language to define where we were collectively going, and it made it so much easier to get there. Union Square Hospitality Group’s culture is amazing, and it inspired us to create a miniature version here at the restaurant, one that we hope to perpetuate in the years to come.

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How does your vision for the restaurant differ from Danny’s?
I think we are very aligned philosophically.

The City seems to be busier than ever? Why?
Well, the holidays are upon us that always help, beyond that we struggle to totally understand it. We just try to focus on the world within our walls, to make it the kind of place where you can celebrate something fantastic that is happening in your life, or forget about your struggles for a few hours. The world is a crazy place; we try to make EMP into an oasis.

How do you build your menu?
Our menu is definitely dictated by the seasons and by the availability at the greenmarket. I stay in touch with local farmers to know what’s coming up, and I’m always trying to think ahead. I’m constantly looking forward to the seasons within each season that can be very short and that features one great ingredient for just a few weeks. The beauty of our menu is that the format allows us to adapt from one day to the next. If we find a small amount of an amazing product, we can feature it on a dish for just a few days.

Your desserts have received much notoriety, what makes them special?We approach our desserts with the same sensibilities as our savory food. I’ve been working with Angela Pinkerton for the last six years to find the style that complements the rest of the meal. In a multicourse menu, it’s important that the dessert is not overwhelming and that there is always a balance between sweetness, acidity, and saltiness. As with our savory dishes, we’re constantly playing with flavors that people are familiar with and that we know work well together.

What’s your approach to the wine and spirit segments of your business?
We care about it in its entirety. Many restaurants of our caliber focus only on wine, whereas we try to focus on all beverage categories, and have very skilled and knowledgeable people in charge of each. Our wine program is run by one of the youngest Master Sommeliers, Dustin Wilson, and we just received the Wine Spectator Grand Award for it. Our cocktail program is run by Leo Robitschek, who just won the award for the best restaurant bar in the world. Our beer program is one of the best, and is headed up by the incredibly talented Kirk Kelewae, who has collaborated with many of the great American breweries in the last four years. Even coffee and tea are very important to us; we are passionate about all these things.

Photo © Franceso Tonelli

What is your approach to building a team?
First and foremost, to find good people that you want to spend time with. We are here a lot, and we need to like the people we are surrounded by.There are also four things that are non-negotiable in our minds. We want people who are genuinely hospitable, who have a drive towards excellence, who are always looking to learn, and who are inherently passionate.

With such dependence on quality are you able to assure consistency and yet still negotiate the right price points with your distributors? Do you go out to bid every week on every item?
I think it’s about balancing the very expensive ingredients with the less expensive ones. We take a big picture approach as opposed to micromanaging every dish, so the more expensive dishes balance out with the ones that are less so. Because we’re more concerned with quality than with price, we’re constantly looking to source the absolute best ingredients regardless of how much they cost. We’ve been working with some farmers for years now and we have a wonderful personal relationship with them. That assures us that we’re getting the best price on the best ingredients.

Any vision for new technology like menus or wine lists on Ipads?
Not here, doesn’t feel right.

Chef, what’s your approach to the equipment in your kitchen? Do you use a dealer and/or consultant?
We always work with the companies directly instead of using a dealer or consultant.

What about the front of the house?
No, we take it case by case.

Photo © Franceso Tonelli

Any kind of green or sustainability agenda?
We don’t look at it as an agenda, but with everything we do; we try to do it with sustainability in mind. We source as much as possible locally, filter our water rather than using bottled water, etc. We use sustainability consultants to review our engineering systems, etc. The hotel we are working on building right now is LEED certified. We take it seriously, in spite of that fact that we don’t brand ourselves as such.

What is your goal for the book? TV show on the horizon?We want to make sure as many people as possible see and read the book. It is an important thing for us, the one vessel through which we have been able to memorialize the last five years at the restaurant. See, restaurants too often exist only in people’s memories, this enables us to truly capture in a tangible way this moment in time at EMP.

Crystal ball…’Vegas?..Atlantic City?..South Beach?
No, no, no. At least not any time soon. EMP will always be a significant focus, and with NoMad opening early next year, we have enough on our plates for now. We will keep you posted.