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Difference between good and great
Daniel Humm and Will Guidara
EARLY in his career in Europe, Daniel Humm spent 10 years working in three Michelin-starred restaurants without actually eating in one.
"It was intimidating," admits the gentle, mild-mannered Swiss-born chef who now helms his own three-starred restaurant - the buzzing Eleven Madison Park (EMP) in New York. "It was fine to be in the kitchen but as a guest, no way would I have been comfortable. In one restaurant, I spent seven years cooking in the kitchen but I never saw the dining room. Or the servers. It was always the kitchen on one side, the dining room on the other - we were always separate, we never ate together."
He could see then and there that the airy-fairy world of fine dining would eventually implode. When he moved to California in 2003 and to New York three years later, he had one aim - a restaurant where he could cook fine food, that people could dine comfortably in. "We didn't want to make it a temple."
The "we" he refers to is himself and business partner Will Guidara - a native New Yorker and restaurant manager whom he met when they were both still employees at EMP and, as the latter puts it gleefully: "We fell in love."
The duo's shared distaste of superficial airs helped them to breathe new life into EMP, which was then a brasserie owned by the restaurateur Danny Meyers. With Chef Humm's strength in the kitchen and Mr Guidara's talent in hospitality, the two eventually bought over the restaurant in 2011 and have since cemented their positions as New York's culinary "it" boys. In the past four years, they both nurtured EMP and launched their phenomenally successful Nomad restaurant, hotel and bar - all within a stone's throw of each other.
"We haven't had a dress code in years," says Mr Guidara, 35, slouching in slippers in the dining room of Restaurant Andre a couple of weeks ago. He and Chef Humm were briefly in Singapore for a special dinner with chef Andre Chiang as part of the Asia's 50 Best activities. "The day we got our four stars (the highest rating) from the New York Times, we removed it. We have a big bar (that's casual and boisterous) in Eleven Madison, we put picnic baskets on every table.
"We were 27 and 24 when we started out - it's hard for a restaurant to be stuffy with a couple of guys in their 20s (running it). That's why I didn't want to go into fine dining. A restaurant is the expression of the people behind it. The average age of the people we work with is 20, 24 years old. It needs to be fun or there's no point doing it."
A combination of vision, dedication to quality and doing right by their staff and their guests has been a powerful driving force for Mr Guidara and Chef Humm, 38, who are guided more by gut feel than profit. "We don't say, ok, what do we need to do to have 10 restaurants," says Mr Guidara. "It's more like, we need to really believe in what we're doing and never lose the joy in what we do."
It's for that reason that when they were looking to open a second restaurant after EMP, "we looked everywhere" before settling on their own backyard, says Mr Guidara. "London, Los Angeles - even downtown New York, but it felt too far. Nomad is four blocks from Eleven Madison. It's a five minute walk - we can do the pre-service briefings in both restaurants. Daniel's apartment is on this side (of EMP) and my apartment is on the other side (of Nomad). I can't finish listening to an entire song walking between Nomad and EMP. It's important to keep close. It's a big difference between four blocks and having to jump into a cab."
In the process, the duo has literally created their own neighbourhood in New York - a non-descript location in central Manhattan that locals now refer to as Nomad, short for "north of Madison Avenue". "You wouldn't want to walk here five, 10 years ago," says Mr Guidara. "People would sell drugs on the street, but 100 years ago, it was one of the most beautiful places in New York. The buildings are incredible but they were just run down."
Now, with Nomad the hotel, restaurant and newly opened bar, it's become the hottest spot in town "for fancy people who want a bit of grit", laughs Guidara. "It's changed so quickly we can't afford the spaces there anymore!"
The idea behind Nomad, "was to create a place where uptown and downtown meet", explains Chef Humm. "People from the Upper East or West Side won't come below to a certain area and people from downtown won't go to the Upper East Side. Because this location is so central, we wanted to create something for everyone - for the downtown hipsters to the uptown bankers and lawyers."
The dining concept came about because the pair saw an untapped niche between "fine dining and Momofuku (David Chang's casual food)", adds Mr Guidara. "The idea was that you could be somewhere cool with great music, a fun scene and still have a beautiful wine list, food with incredible technique and luxury. People still want luxury, they just don't want to have to get all dressed up for it."
And it worked, because Nomad is now one of the most talked about places in the city. But both of them feel they would not have been able to achieve this if they had been operating independently. Mr Guidara, who is godfather to Chef Humm's daughter, says that while they don't always agree, "what we do is about taking risks, whether with food, hospitality or service, and it's really nice to know that the person you're working with has your back. Then you're going to take even more of a risk because even if it doesn't work out, you're not alone. And that extra little risk is the difference between good and great".
Telling stories with dishes
THE GMO guys at Monsanto hate him. Rural farmers and street vendors in his country adore him. If not for him, you would still think that tiger's milk is something that big cats give to little cats. Ten years ago, a chef named Gaston Acurio decided that Peruvian food was too good to remain in Peru and made it his mission to tell the world about it. Not only has he turned it into one of the hottest cuisines on earth today, he and other like-minded chefs have discovered that they wield a power that extends beyond the kitchen - the power to influence public opinion.
Just a few days ago, Chef Acurio and 19 other top chefs - including Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz - were in San Sebastian in north-eastern Spain, to promote the consumption of small fish such as anchovies and sardines as a solution to the pressing global problem of over-fishing. The idea was to use the chefs' star power to extol the virtues of the healthy but overlooked fish which are more often turned into bait for bigger fish than served in restaurants.
Whether it's Rene Redzepi campaigning for insects to be the next protein or global chefs driving the locavore movement, food can be a powerful tool for social change, says Chef Acurio on his recent stopover in Singapore. Over a whirlwind couple of days, he and fellow Peruvian chefs, including Virgilio Martinez, turned the Spanish restaurant Ola (run by Peruvian chef Daniel Chavez) in the Marina Bay Financial Centre into a mini Lima - serving up ceviche made with the mouth-puckering lime juice marinade colloquially known as leche de tigre or tiger's milk.
He recalls leading a lobby to the Peruvian congress to bar Monsanto - the agriculture company associated with genetically modified crops - from entering Latin America, and succeeding. "Latin America is the only country that Monsanto can't get in, because of us," Chef Acurio says proudly. "It was a battle and they almost got in, but I told Congress, if you do this you will be traitors to the one million small farms in the country. So we have stopped them for 10 years, but they still keep trying because they have money and lobbies. But we have the support of our people."
He doesn't buy Monsanto's "absurd argument that only GMO will save the world", pointing to the advanced technology of the ancient Incas who, "2,000 years ago, developed potatoes, corn, tomatoes, chillies, quinoa and gave them to the world".
As one of the first chefs in Peru to gain acclaim for his eponymous restaurant Astrid y Gaston in Lima, Chef Acurio felt it was his responsibility to use his position to champion farmers and street food vendors to show the real extent of the food culture in Peru. "Fine dining gets all the attention but cooking is beautiful in every way," says the charismatic chef.
The past decade, therefore, was spent building up a strong community of chefs who could share recipes and opportunities to promote the cuisine and the local growers. "We understood that more important than our own dreams was the dream of Peruvian food. If that dream could grow, so would we. Peruvian food was a huge weapon to promote our country to the world. To promote tourism, local produce, culture, and build a new image of Peru, not just as a country of commodities but a country that can share something we create."
The 47-year-old chef is now taking a back seat in terms of showcasing Peruvian cuisine overseas, leaving the job to a legion of younger chefs "who are ready and doing a much better job, working in an environment which is now very open to Peruvian flavours".
In fact, he sees a lot of similarities between Singapore and Peru, "which is the most multicultural country in all of Latin America". You can see Chinese, Japanese, African, Arab, Spanish and Italian faces but "they're all Peruvian", says Chef Acurio. "We have been multicultural for 350 years, and because of all the mixing, we have hundreds of words like taku taku, ceviche, leche de tigres which may sound strange to you but they are words our society invented to name something that in one dish, represents all the cultures that make up Peru." In turn, "Singapore has only 50 years of multicultural history - imagine what will happen in 200 years!"
Now that he's taking a back seat in pushing the Peruvian agenda abroad, Chef Acurio - who still has a string of restaurants around the world that he considers "embassies" of Peruvian cooking - is busy building a university back home to teach the finer points of cooking and culture to aspiring chefs. "We have a huge space in the south of Lima and our dream is to bring people from around the world and teach them to be storytellers. In the first year, we will train them in anthropology, sociology, physics, chemistry - why you can do what you do on the plate. After two to three years, they can cook, and after five years, they can tell stories with their dishes."
Meanwhile, he is confident about the future of Peruvian food, and the chefs that are now flying the flag overseas. "When you ask a kid what he wants, he does not say he wants this restaurant or that restaurant," says Chef Acurio. "He says, 'I want to represent my country'. So I want to leave that legacy for them."
Making the ultimate sauces
ONE of the easiest ways to annoy a French chef is to tell him that French cuisine is outdated and superseded by the Japanese or the Spanish. He may bristle or he may stay cool and unaffected, but his stand will remain the same: you can't deny that French cuisine has centuries of history behind it; Western cooking methods as we know it originated in France; any Western or non-sushi making Japanese chef of note today would have worked in a French kitchen at some point in their careers; and French chefs are now stepping up to the plate to reclaim their status as the original masterchefs.
Yannick Alleno is no exception, cutting through any suggestion that Japanese chefs cook French food better than the French with the precision of a boning knife through quail. "You know exactly what French food is because you think of the sauces," he says in heavily accented but near-perfect English. "If you lose that, your food will look like the others. That's why we have fantastic Japanese influences in French food, because people are looking for lightweight (cooking) and the best way to get it is through Japanese food. But it is not French. (Japanese chefs do not really use sauces) No, they use dashi. Dashi is not a sauce, come on."
Chef Alleno is currently making waves in Paris after scoring a perfect three Michelin stars almost immediately upon taking over the Pavillon Ledoyen restaurant in June 2014 - after leaving the equally acclaimed Le Meurice the year before. (He was also in the news last week when ex-employees of Ledoyen accused him of harassment and violent behaviour, which he denied). Part of the acclaim stems from the work he has been doing in the past couple of years to push French cooking to another level - by developing new methods of flavour extractions to make the ultimate sauces.
This was one of the reasons he left Le Meurice after nearly 25 years of working in hotel restaurants - to get away from the "noise" of Paris to open his successful Terroir Parisien bistros and work on his research at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant Le 1947 in Courchevel.
His obsession with sauces was sparked by an epiphany of sorts when he made a terrine at home and noticed the purity of flavour in the natural gelatine that formed around it. "I said, I want that taste, how do I get that taste."
While conventional sauces are derived from the reduction of liquid and aromatics over heat, Chef Alleno wanted a way to extract single source flavours without "disrupting" it by high temperatures. He used sous-vide to slow-cook individual ingredients to extract the flavour from say, celeriac, and then freezing rather than heating to remove the water crystals, leaving the pure flavour behind.
He then learned blending techniques from a champagne maker, who showed him how they achieve a consistent taste of the champagne every year. "That's exactly what I want with my sauces - to have the same taste every day without any irregularity."
His quest to literally re-invent the wheel (of making French sauces) came about "because I learned from fantastic chefs but they told me how to make things and how you have to do this and that. It's very hard to change direction, but I did and the results are impressive".
The problem with French sauces today is that "the public don't want them any more", Chef Alleno laments. "They think it's too heavy, too fatty and no good. But sauce can be good for them, so we have to save the pleasure and take off the things we don't want. (With my way of making it) You don't have salt or fat, it's very light and intense."
His version of "molecular cuisine" comes on the heels of other projects he has taken on, including his Terroir Parisien campaign to support farmers from the outskirts of Paris. That project has been a success, he says, with more than 100 chefs now supporting the local produce.
What France needs now is to re-look its cuisine, he says. "Not many countries have the culture of France. If you look at northern Europe, it's an emerging country for food - they started work 15 years ago so it's completely new. But if you look at France - the confiseries, charcuterie, sauces - it's a lot of baggage and it can be heavy but we have to enrich our repertoire of ideas (such as his extractions) while respecting what is French. French is not Japanese. We have to evolve and absorb influences but without copying what they do in other countries. We need to stay French."
While his devotion to French cuisine is clear, Chef Alleno is not impervious to the growing role of Asia. His company has been making inroads into the region with restaurants in Taipei and Beijing, and "we are looking for a place in Hong Kong - it is confirmed we will do it but I don't know where". Shanghai is also another possibility.
He adds: "The Asian market is very important for me - it will be the next place to work in. It is really booming and I want to develop in that direction. Asians are crazy about food and we want to develop here because they really understand about food."
Singapore will be his next destination after Hong Kong, but "it would be better to be in a hotel - easier". Given his decades of experience in that arena, local hotel developers may want to take note.