The Tastemakers: Daniel Humm and Will GuidaraJuly 13, 2018
“It was a bit nerve-wracking, yet it was also an opportunity that may never come around again, so I took it,” recalls Daniel Humm, the Swiss-bred, award-winning chef who 12 years ago boldly left the comforts of his San Francisco life and a prime post at Campton Place to lead the kitchen of Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park in New York. If he hadn’t made that cross-country leap into the unknown, he may not have met the restaurant’s soon-to-be GM, Will Guidara.
Although he loved cooking meals with his mother, acquainting himself with numerous local farms and purveyors, Humm initially dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist (he even competed with the Junior Swiss National Team). Burnt out on that lifestyle, he turned to his second love, food, working in some of the finest restaurants in Switzerland before heading to San Francisco in 2003. In contrast, the Hudson Valley, New York-reared Guidara always knew he wanted to study hospitality at Cornell University, seduced by restaurants as a child because of his father, who held top positions at the likes of Wolfgang Puck Food Company (at 16, Guidara was a Spago busboy) and Restaurant Associates. After working for Meyer (one of his “great” mentors) at Tabla and the MoMA eateries, he begrudgingly went to Eleven Madison Park. “The deal I made with Danny was that I’d go for a year, and then I’d get to go to Shake Shack. I didn’t want to be in fine dining.”
That was more than a decade ago. Today, Humm and Guidara’s company Make It Nice (named after the first words Humm learned after moving to the U.S.), encompassing the flagship Eleven Madison Park (which they bought from Meyer in 2011), two NoMads in collaboration with hotel company Sydell Group, and the fast-casual concept Made Nice, is a remarkable, synergistic blend of vision, admiration, trust, and friendship. “It took some talking and some [wine], but ultimately we hit it off and found a lot of common ground and intentions with what we wanted Eleven Madison Park to be,” explains Humm of his first meeting with Guidara. “We wanted to create a restaurant that didn’t reflect my upbringing of chef-first restaurants, or his that were dining room-first restaurants. We wanted a place driven by both sides of the wall, where we could collaborate and lead together.”
That perspective has pushed Eleven Madison Park into another realm. By uniting imaginative but never pretentious tasting menus with a playful and engaging devotion to service, the two ambitious entrepreneurs transcended their goal to evolve Meyer’s brasserie into “the 4-Star restaurant for our generation,” as Guidara describes it, transforming Eleven Madison Park into one of the world’s most important restaurants and clamored-for reservations. “We want it to be a world full of magic, creativity, and pursuit in the dining room as well as in the kitchen, where we support one another and care for one another and hopefully we do the same for our guests,” says Guidara. Fresh off the heels of a renovation from Allied Works, with Humm’s dream kitchen and a dining room spruced up by works from artists including Rita Ackermann and Daniel Turner (“It’s meant to be more timeless and reflect our style and personality today,” Humm says), it continues to be a showcase for food that he says is delicious, beautiful, intentional, and creative.
Fine dining isn’t the only thing they have reinvented. A chance to “help change a neighborhood and bring back the idea of the grand hotel that had faded,” says Humm, was why he and Guidara were inspired to join forces with the Sydell Group on the New York NoMad that opened in 2012. It was also a time, Guidara adds, when hotel restaurants were considered less than thrilling (and a restaurant with the same name as the hotel was unheard of): “One of the things we’ve accomplished is flipping the script on that.” The wildly successful NoMad hotels (the second recently opened in Downtown Los Angeles) give the duo the chance to bring their experimental, charming style to a larger swath of diners—a more accessible interpretation of the Eleven Madison Park experience.
They’ll take on Las Vegas next, with a NoMad set to arrive at the Park MGM by the end of the year. It’s the next evolution for the humble, seemingly unstoppable pair. “We know that we would not be anywhere near as good individually as we are together,” Guidara say.