Whether you’re a banker or a baker, getting to the top requires more than hard work. It takes talent, singular dedication and an almost fanatical devotion to your craft. It requires the constant pursuit of perfection. It means refusing to settle for anything that isn’t exactly as it should be. There is arguably no better embodiment of this attitude than in the borderline maniacal demagoguery that populates the world’s great kitchens.
Thanks to famous faces like Gordon Ramsay, we’ve all become accustomed to the idea of the extremely shouty and highly demanding head chef. However, as illuminating as Hell’s Kitchen has undoubtedly been, there’s more than a hint of theatre about the entire exercise. No real restaurant would work with staff who are permanently wetting themselves and a chef who looks like he might explode. This begs the question, what does the inside of the world’s best restaurant actually look like?
Eleven Madison Park has been on the dining scene for more than 20 years. Originally opened in 1998 by the restaurateur and food mogul Daniel Meyer, the kitchen first made its name as a middle-tier brasserie, serving a New York take on French comfort food to Flatiron district locals. Its reputation, and its success, were mixed. This changed with the arrival of kitchen and front-of-house duo Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, who in 2006 began a mission to turn the restaurant into one of the best eateries in the world. They have never looked back.
Since the new approach and mission statement were introduced, the restaurant has undergone a dramatic transformation. Over the next 10 years, a series of interviews, awards and insights, culminating in a new Netflix documentary, have provided an incredible insight into just what is required to drag a restaurant from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of global cooking. As the restaurant began to attract attention, accolades, and then international recognition, so too have Humm and Guidara had to adapt, become even more obsessive and even more determined. Even at a brief glance, it’s obvious it is not a path for everyone.
In 2007, Eleven Madison Park began to see the effects of the new duo’s presence. Then-New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni upgraded the restaurant from two to three stars. This inspired the pair to press owner Daniel Meyer for more money, to be spent on new equipment and a drastic overhaul of the dining space. As John Colapinto wrote in a 2012 article, “They needed new service uniforms, better china and glasses, and various pieces of expensive kitchen equipment, including a Pacojet for frozen purées and a Hold-o-mat slow-cooking oven.” They also decided to reduce capacity in the dining room, to alleviate pressure on the kitchen and ensure that absolutely everything that went through the doors was perfect. The project cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
These drastic changes meant that, when the financial crash hit in 2008, the newly established top-end eatery was facing serious financial difficulty. In a badly weakened economy, persuading guests to spend several hundred of their hard earned dollars on a tasting menu is far from straightforward. Looking back, it’s clear that it was the restaurant’s determination to be the best that saw it survive as other competitors faded from view. Even though they “don’t think it made a dollar” in 2008 and 2009, Humm and Guidara were rewarded for their exceptional approach with their elusive fourth star from restaurant critic Frank Bruni in 2009. As Guidara said to The New Yorker, “We have been full ever since.”
Four stars from the New York Times is one thing. International acclaim is a different ballgame, again. Allegedly “inspired by Miles Davis’ willingness to reinvent himself,” according to Colapinto’s article, the pair set about introducing dramatic new policies that would see them climb the ranks of the world’s best restaurants. Front of house staff were taught to be omnipotent when greeting guests, often spending hours stalking Facebook profiles so that they could recognise who was arriving instantaneously. An ex-manager told New York Magazine that “it took 10 months to learn how to pour water” to an acceptable standard. These are considerations above and beyond what happens in your average bistro.
The kitchen was and is, unsurprisingly, just as demanding. Humm conducts a team of 75 staff, who almost match the number of guests in the restaurant at any given time. Taking inspiration from other top restaurants who embrace the idea of doing things a little differently, diners are invited into a special viewing area to observe the pass and watch exquisite plates crafted right in front of their eyes. As the experience continued to evolve, guests could leave the meal with anything from a jar of custom-made granola to a handwritten cheque. Since 2012, Eleven Madison Park hasn’t left the world’s top 10 restaurants. It took the top spot in 2017.
After finally reaching the summit, it might have been easy for the kitchen to sit back on some well-earned laurels. Instead, they decided to do something even more radical. Rather than reap the benefits of a number one ranking, Eleven Madison Park closed its doors for a major revamp of the dining room and kitchen, a project featured in new Netflix series “7 Days Out”. Beyond cosmetic changes, the documentary includes anecdotes of the continually refined and scrutinised operation - epitomised by Humm taking his entire team on a run before service, followed by a trip to the barbers for a hand shave on opening night. More than a decade after they revolutionised the business, it’s more obvious than ever that he and Guidara remain hungry for more.
Here, a paired tasting menu for two will now set you back $1,100. However, more than anything, what the story of Eleven Madison Park tells us is that being the best is about much more than being good at what you do. It’s about interest in reinvention and growth, as well as a refusal to let standards slip. It’s about considering every aspect of the business, whatever it may be, as integral to the success of the whole. This is as true for anything as it is for food. A restaurant like Eleven Madison Park provides the template. Anyone who wants to give it a go now knows what they must deliver.