Daniel Humm Is Fully Committed To Vegetables

In a photo he posted this week, Daniel Humm, the celebrated chef of Eleven Madison Park in New York City, looks joyfully into the camera. He squats in the middle of a barren greenhouse garden, conspicuously devoid of any vegetables, draped in a velvety cream-colored coat and flashing jazz hands lightly dusted in soil. A quick search reveals the chef’s jacket is Prada and worth almost three thousand dollars. His matching Prada shoes look fresh out of the box, lily-white like a freshly-pressed linen tablecloth. If these shoes have ever encountered top soil before, they certainly show no signs of it.

Although Humm’s expression is meant to convey the euphoria of being liberated from the tyranny of meat-based cooking, it’s easy to interpret his expression as a taunt directed at certain viewers, like me, who will spend eternity stuck behind the EMP paywall. Looking at the photo, I try not to be too cynical. Despite removing meat and meat products from his recipes, the price of a meal at Eleven Madison Park will remain at $335 per person—continuing the restaurant’s reign at or near the top of the list of most expensive meals in New York City. This does little to quell my cynicism. Most people could subscribe to an entire season of farm-fresh vegetables from their local CSA for the price of one plant-based meal in Chef Humm’s secret garden.

To no surprise, the food media almost immediately began doing cartwheels, praising Humm’s courage and vision. The enthusiasm seemed peculiar given the lack of fanfare when other chefs made similar announcements, like Dominique Crenn whose Michelin-starred restaurant Atelier Crenn went meatless two years earlier in 2019. (It continued to serve fish.) Vegan food has always been stigmatized, but upscale Vegan has been a non-starter. Despite the surging popularity of plant-based cuisine, of the 135 three-starred Michelin restaurants in the world, none are vegan.

The dearth of high-end Vegan restaurants makes it impossible to ignore the significance of Humm’s announcement. Rachel Sugar penned a sympathetic essay for Grub Street in which she praised the intrinsic value of Humm rejecting meat in a more pragmatic sense. She acknowledges that—as a white, male, fine-dining chef—he’s an easy target. “Anything that undermines the dominance of meat is good for the advancement of plant-based eating,” writes Sugar. Humm’s choice to present a menu of vegetables without discounting the price also makes a big statement.

What matters is the positioning of the new menu as equal to the old, meat-filled version: There is nothing lesser about vegetables, which at Eleven Madison Park will be every bit as rarified, as exclusive, as grotesquely inaccessible, as meat.

Rachel Sugar, Grub Street, May 5, 2021

In her article, Sugar wants to convince us that the benefits of Humm’s decision to go meatless will likely be felt further downstream. To focus solely on optics misses the broader impact of what his announcement could mean for Veganism in general.

Eleven Madison Park
The dining room at Eleven Madison Park

Korsha Wilson, a food writer and host of the A Hungry Society podcast, was less impressed by what she saw as virtue signaling. In a series of tweets, she pointed out that although Humm’s cooking will change, his affluent audience will not. Using phrases like “community, higher purpose and redefining luxury” amounts to “a repackaging of fine dining to fit the more “conscious” tastes of wealthy consumers after a year of social upheaval.”

Humm’s heart appears to be in the right place. But it doesn’t help his case that barrier to entry for dining at EMP is still so high. Had he introduced the plant-based menu with tiered pricing for prix fixe or a la carte dishes to make dining at EMP more accessible, the backlash might’ve been less vicious. A portion of the proceeds from EMP’s sales will fund charity work through his partnership with Rethink Food an NYC-based organization dedicated to ending hunger. Every meal purchased at EMP will fund five meals to feed the needy. During the pandemic, Humm and his staff have also prepared over a million meals for food insecure New Yorkers from inside the Met Life Building where EMP’s kitchen has been closed for over a year.

At the end of the day, the problem is that Daniel Humm is selling an agrarian fantasy to guests who can afford to make a pilgrimage to his Vegan Field of Dreams. If he builds it, they will come. This is what’s fundamentally wrong with fine dining in the first place. It’s founded on the exploitation of limited resources and cheap labor to provide wealthy people with so much abundance that they can justify spending more money on a single meal than one should ever cost. The puppetry of fine dining is predicated on this culinary sleight-of-hand. Why do you think captains at EMP used to perform table-side card tricks?

Humm wrote on Instagram that his decision was motivated by the fact that “the current food system is unsustainable.” But what’s sustainable about his guests spending as much money on an evening’s meal at Eleven Madison Park as most people do on their monthly rent? Or enough to feed an entire family for a week? Humm is not running a non-profit organization, and it seems disingenuous to behave as though he is.

In the near term, Humm’s decision may be a shot of adrenaline for the plant-based movement, but commoditizing Vegan food as haute cuisine and recasting Veganism as luxurious seems to violate many of its foundational principles. If Humm is successful, more chefs may follow his lead, but this will likely only lend prestige, not legitimacy.

Daniel Humm
Chef Humm before his plant-based epiphany

Praising Humm for his contributions to plant-based cooking is like praising Elon Musk for his contributions to renewable energy. Musk presents himself as innovator offering technological solutions to climate change, yet Tesla has invested billions in Bitcoin, which may turn out to be more destructive to the environment than the internal combustion engine. There is a cost to propping up false prophets like Musk. We end up overlooking the real heroes.

Shining a spotlight on Humm’s plant-based cooking shouldn’t come at the expense of others doing important work, especially in underprivileged communities. New York City has hundreds of Vegan restaurants and food non-profits like Urban Vegan Kitchen and Chilis on Wheels where BIPOC chefs and activists have been helping to make Vegan food more accessible for years. P.S. Kitchen, an immigrant-owned Vegan restaurant in Manhattan’s theater district, operates as a non-profit business that uses its proceeds to create jobs for incarcerated people and support criminal justice reform.

Other New York City restaurant groups, like the one owned by veteran restaurateur Ravi DeRossi, are going all-in on promoting a plant-based lifestyle. DeRossi’s company, Overthrow Hospitality, has recently opened three new Vegan concepts in NYC, all of which are helmed by chefs of color. The company also sponsors Vegan community fridges and mutual aid programs, including giving away free Vegan meals to anyone in need at Avant Garden. Media coverage of DeRossi’s decision to go plant-based company-wide paled in comparison to Humm’s.

Recognition helps, but it can only take these businesses so far. Vegan chefs need resources and investment, something that has proven elusive for chefs of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ entrepreneurs. If Humm manages to be successful with his revamp of EMP, this may bode well for the commercial prospects of Vegan fine dining, but it may also convince investors that Vegan concepts can only work with another high-profile, white, male chef at the helm.

To effect meaningful change, Humm should use his platform to help introduce the world to the denizens of unheralded chefs and activists who are advancing the cause of plant-based cooking on a community level everyday. He can use his influence to help direct resources into communities that have no access to his restaurant. But cooking behind a walled garden, one that welcomes some and excludes others, limits the impact of his decision to go Vegan. Making the garden more accessible to everyone would not only contribute to improving public health but would also bring awareness to the need to repair our broken food system. Now that would be something to celebrate.

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The Case For Preserving QR Code Menus

There aren’t many features of the dining experience during the Covid Era that are worth keeping. Getting zapped in the forehead with an infrared thermometer isn’t exactly the warmest welcome, and it’s hard to imagine anyone missing plexiglass table dividers when they’re gone. The restaurant industry has had to be nimble in developing creative workarounds to operate more efficiently, improve sanitation, and restore public trust. We all yearn for the day when masking and social distancing are no longer necessary. Simply seeing our server’s face again feels unimaginable right now.

A common thread among the fortunate restaurants that have survived the pandemic is how they’ve leveraged technology to adapt their businesses. Obsolete POS systems with antiquated software proved ill-equipped to handle the challenges of pivoting to take-out food and delivery services, so many restaurant owners were forced to modernize. The now ubiquitous QR Code menu is one innovation that’s gained traction during the pandemic, despite the fact that cellphone use in the dining room is considered loathsome behavior by most industry professionals.

It’s become increasingly difficult to fend off the encroachment of technology in the dining room, especially when mobile devices have become portals for sharing the euphoria an amazing meal. Adopting QR Code technology was borne out of the need to minimize points of contact and provide a more sanitary alternative to physical menus, but it has shown to have benefits far beyond its original use case.

Despite so many restaurants going out of business, it’s been a time of unprecedented growth for many tech companies that offer more customizable solutions. Upstarts overtook market leaders—newcomers like Tock, recently acquired by Squarespace for $400 million, and Resy, which American Express took over last year.

The restaurant industry may never be the same again, but investments it’s made in technology during the pandemic will have a lasting impact. QR Codes are already proving useful in initiating fast and efficient mobile payments without the need for handling a guest’s credit card. Here are the most important reasons why restaurants should stay paperless going forward:

Digital menus dramatically reduce waste – Paper, especially the quality used in nice restaurants, is expensive. It’s often custom-ordered and sourced from a single vendor. Soiled paper menus cannot be reused, so they often become disposable even when they aren’t designed to be. Any minor printing mistakes—like incorrect fonts or typos—or last minute changes like 86-ed items require reprinting, which results in stacks of unused, newly-printed menus often ending up in the garbage without ever having been used.

No more printer problems – There are few things that cause restaurant managers more grief than printers. Most high-volume restaurants lease commercial-quality copy machine/printer hybrids that break down regularly. When repairs can’t be administered immediately, managers will often dispatch an unwitting staff member to a local Kinko’s or copy shop to make facsimiles. Canonizing QR Codes would eliminate the need for printers altogether. Managers would be able to focus on more pressing administrative issues without a gargantuan printer taking up so much space in the tiny hovel of an office that every restaurant has.

Stuffing menus is a laborious task – Detailing menus is right up there with folding napkins and making silverware rollups on the list of most dreaded sidework. Updating them is often a time-consuming daily routine. If a single ingredient on one dish changes, yesterday’s menus will be stripped and replaced with newly-printed ones. QR Code menus would dispense with all of this superfluous labor and free up the waitstaff to complain about other things.

Menu availability can be updated in real time – We’ve all had the dreaded experience where the waiter abruptly informs the table that half the menu is sold out. You had your heart set on a particular dish before the warning came, so it’s heartbreaking to find out the dish you wanted is unavailable. With QR Code menus, management can make those adjustments on the fly as they occur so that new guests should see only what’s available when they’re seated.

Multiple menus can be consolidated into one – There are cocktail menus, wine lists, dessert menus—each one requires a separate document and, of course, is also subject to change. With QR Codes, guests can access multiple menus in one interface. When the server comes over to offer more drinks, there’s no longer a need for him or her to grab the menu for you. When it’s time to discuss the desserts, you’ll already have studied the menu without needing to wait for the server to present it.

QR Code Menus
Image credit: @deatonpigot

Menus can provide nutritional information and warn of food allergies – Space on printed menus is often at a premium. Chefs also don’t like to crowd the page with too much verbiage. Simple text makes the food more appealing. Any details a guest should need about the ingredients in a dish or cooking methods are typically provided by their server. Digital menus can be designed to be more interactive and to offer more comprehensive information. Selecting a particular item could reveal a list of ingredients and allergens without adding clutter.

QR Code menus are more sanitary – The pandemic has taught us all the hard lesson that restaurants can be vectors for the community spread of disease. The Coronavirus is the most extreme case in a generation, but we always risk contagion of other common illnesses like cold or flu when we dine in public spaces under normal circumstances. Any form of physical menu, no matter how clean its kept, can harbor germs. Viewing the menu on your own mobile device greatly reduces the risk of transmitting more benign antigens.

Change in the restaurants is notoriously slow. There is often an inherent charm to the ones that resist modernization. Technology hardens the personal touches that are so important to cultivating genuine hospitality. But years of underinvestment have made the industry more susceptible to bullying by delivery apps, payment processors, and third-party booking platforms. In order to operate more efficiently, the industry will need to swallow its pride and move itself into the 21st century. Think of these technological changes like anti-bodies. Over the last year, while the pandemic raged, the restaurant industry was pushed to the brink of near extinction, but what hasn’t killed it should make it stronger.

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