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.
Of course it was good. Blissfull. You don’t get the #1 Chef’s choice award, four stars from The New York Times, three stars in the Michelin guide, and James Beard award for serving over-hyped food.
Here’s what I’ll tell you about the restaurant:
- The plating was on par with current fine dining culinary trends, but while most fine dining plating techniques look like jungle gyms for worms, Eleven Madison’s plating served a necessary purpose — to make every bite, the perfect bite.
- The service is a perfectly flowing bit of choreography. Elegant, swift, unnoticeable. Throughout your dinner, your water will be refilled, your wine will be swapped out to match the current dish, your cutlery will be refreshed and your crumbs will be brushed away — but you won’t see any of it happen.
- The restaurant itself is void of personality without being bare. Neutral tones cover the walls, punctuated by framed blueprints of New York’s most famous skyscrapers. A classy touch that doesn’t call much more attention than a stock photo. A heavy silk table cloth will hug your legs, a warm flattering overhead light will make the yolk-used as a garnish sparkle and you’ll take off your coat not because you’re warm, but because the temperature is just right.
- People around you will say things like “I don’t want to rush it, because then it will be over” and “I never knew carrots could taste that good.” After empty dessert plates were cleared, the room slowed down. People were satiated. Full. Happy. The post-dinner conversations could be likened to post-coital chatter between two people who both definately came. Pleasure-filled grunts. Faint purrs. Whispers of “that was amazing” and “nothing compares”.
And then it was all over. I was back outside in my itchy, now stretched outfit, hailing a cab that would cut through any lasting airs of elegance I was holding onto with its intense body odor aroma. Eleven Madison Park is definitely an experience worth having. But just like anything, it’s fleeting. You’ll realize this when you fall back into yourself and make greasy eggs the next morning.
The good news is: The memories linger. And with a culuinary experience like this one, they’re sure to linger a long time.
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Milk & Honey "2010" When growing up, my mom and I would come together just before bed to make warm milk with honey. Over the years it became a moment for us to pause with each other, reflect, and talk about the events of the day – ultimately transitioning into a ritual that was so incredibly impactful, it became the inspiration behind one of the most popular desserts ever at Eleven Madison Park. Although it has evolved numerous times and sparked the NoMad’s version (as well as the soft serve at @made_nice )the original will always be this version, first served within these walls. #makeitnice #menuretrospective #elevenmadisonpark
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Asparagus “En Vessie” with Black Truffles "2015" For the first 20 years of my career all I did was adding things;more courses,more silverware,more ingredients,adding,adding,adding.Only about three years ago or so i was able to really start focusing on removing and I felt confident to do so. #makeitnice #elevenmadisonpark #menuretrospective
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Chocolate Palette with Peanut Butter and Popcorn Ice Cream "2008" This dessert has its origin before we had a pastry chef and I was overseeing all the deserts. Playing off classic (and delicious) flavors of chocolate and peanut butter we added a unique thing- popcorn ice cream. The saltiness played really nicely with the chocolate and peanut butter and this dessert was extremely popular. The palette was sort of a signature dessert and was also referenced in the Bruni 4 Star Review @nytfood #makeitnice #elevenmadisonpark #menuretrospective
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Prawn Roulade with Avocado and Yogurt "2007" During this chapter of EMP it was less about where the ingredients were from, and more about showcasing technique. The prawn roulade involved a very lengthy process that was extremely temperamental. Every step in developing this dish was crucial to its success. Because our revolutionary approach to crafting the roulade, it quickly became a signature on the menu early on and a crowd favorite. Its picture was included in our first New York Times four star review. #makeitnice #menuretrospective #elevenmadisonpark