When I walked through the heavy revolving door at Eleven Madison Park everyone assumed I was lost. Clad in a mix-and-match H&M ensemble to hide the fact that I don’t own clothes nice enough to eat at the best retaurant on earth, I told the hostess I was indeed there for dinner.
“Here?” she asked, as if maybe I was looking for Ruby Tuesday and got lost in the rush hour Midtown Manhattan mayhem.
She pressed her lips together into something of a smile, waiting for my response. For a moment, I felt like a stray that she might welcome with warm milk. When I told her that I was “with Marriott” it seemed to cleared up a lot for her. I was let in.
Here’s the secret: Marriott and Starwood have a reward system in which frequent-stay guests can cash in their points for high-end experiences — like dinner at Eleven Madison Park. So essentially, Marriott and Starwood members from all over the world can use their points to bid on a “free” dinner at the recently accredited “Best Restaurant in the World.” And while some members are New York locals, most come from out of town for the experience, meaning that the hostess could more easily make sense of my low-end get-up, thinking that perhaps, I too, was from out of town. For, if I were a local, I’d have to be pretty wealthy or well-connected, as reservations have been sold out for some time, and a dinner for one will cost you $295.
Alas, there I was, in an itchy half-rayon H&M mock neck top, being lead upstairs to the private event room, where I was to cash in my reward points for my first (and let’s be real, last) meal at the famed restaurant, while mingling with Marriott rewards members.
When the room got very quiet, I was surprised to see it was because a blanket of flirty awe had settled among us with the arrival of Chef Daniel Humm — the culinary world’s new Elvis Presley. The soft-spoken, gentle-postured giant stood still as members circled around him like a school of fish. Overheard from the other side of the room, where I was hiding from the chaos:
“Chef, will you take a picture with us? OK, now one without my husband — sorry hun.”
“Chef, can I put my arm around you? Yes? Great!”
“Chef, let’s take a picture for my new Facebook profile picture.”
With his head just grazing the low ceiling lights, the Chef Humm bent over patiently, as the swarm of middle-aged world travelers took turns taking out-of-focus iPhone pictures with him for social media. Specks of his personality and success poked out from his uniform — the sparkly bling of a giant wrist watch and the blaring swoosh a fresh pair of Nikes helped to reveal a man who has just acheived the sort of success few chefs dream of.
Finally, after storages became full, the photo opp died down, the guests retired to their seats and pressed their knees together tightly as Chef Humm waded to the center of the room to share a few words that would make this much more than a dinner for everyone who cashed in.
“When I started here, they were serving seafood towers and steak frites and seating 500 people a night.” But when Chef took over the kitchen in 2006, he brought with him a different concept for the restaurant: he wanted it to be the best, even if that meant changing literally everything.
“It was like trying to change a wheel on a train that’s moving at full speed,” he explained. “People would come here for steak frites and we would basically be taking the fries off their plate as they were eating them.”
Not literally, of course, but when Humm joined the Eleven Madison staff, he was dead set on removing french fries from the menu. Not because he has anything against them, just because he knew he could do better. The humble man from Switzerland — who came to the United States with two suitcases and no money — has indeed succeeded at “doing better.” Of the restaurants recent accolade he says “It still hasn’t sunken in. I understand that there’s no such thing as the best restaurant, but at the same time, there is this list.”
This last remark elicited celebratory applause throughout the room. And despite the fact that Chef Humm later admitted to me that he’s done so many interviews recently that his brain is scrambled and he’s running out of things to say, he said quite a bit. Giving everyone in the room more than they could swallow. Why? Because he loves the concept of people bidding all of their saved rewards points on having dinner with him.
“It’s always more fun to cook for people who are really excited about the experience. Being open to a meal is important — it allows the food to taste right. Mood affects the way we enjoy food.” And if the standing ovation he received for merely telling a snippet of his story was any indication of mood, the food was going to taste pretty f*cking good.