Recipe for success? Forget ego

Solid partnership between chef and manager drives Eleven Madison Park

It is a match made in restaurant heaven.

The chemistry between chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara of New York's Eleven Madison Park is one that restaurateurs envy and chefs wish they had with their maitre'd.

The pair do not face the manpower woes that plague the restaurant industry here either. An army of 150 staff, with an average age of 26, work for the duo, who also own NoMad restaurant that opened in 2012 in The NoMad Hotel.

All this has come about because their egos are set aside both in and out of the restaurant, which is currently ranked No. 4 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.

Zurich-born chef Humm, 38, says: "I've worked all my life to get to where I am and I have to share the spotlight with someone? But if it means the restaurant is twice as good, I'll do it all over again. Ego is the biggest thing that gets in the way."

He adds with a laugh, nudging the amused Guidara, 35, who bursts out laughing too: "I read somewhere that 'Ego is not your amigo'."

The charismatic pair are in town for the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants award ceremony held last night at Capella Singapore.

They were also speakers at the event's summit held on Sunday, a culinary conference for chefs and industry professionals.

On breaking the walls between the dining room and the kitchen, they spoke of their trust in each other and how great service is as important as putting out good food for diners.

While Eleven Madison Park is known for its multi-course meals, staff have gone out of their way to buy hotdogs for tourists dining at the restaurant who have not had a New York hotdog.

Guidara also told Humm to make a Cuban sandwich for a diner as it brought back fond memories of his late father.

Guidara overhears diner conversations and makes an effort to do research on them.

He says: "Daniel trusts me to make the right decisions and I trust he will put out a tasty Cuban sandwich. The guy cried at the table and said it was the best Cuban sandwich he ever had. The tourists said it was their best meal in New York."

This solid partnership has carried them through the toughest times.

Nodding in solemn agreement, Humm and Guidara say the darkest time in their careers so far was when Eleven Madison Park was hit by the 2008 financial crisis.

Humm, the more soft-spoken of the two, says: "What we believed in so much was in jeopardy."

Adds Guidara: "When you're mentally and emotionally drained and not making money, you'll be like, sc*** this. But thank God we were together. If we were alone, we'd have given up."

They bounced back after a four-star review in August 2009 by then New York Times' restaurant critic Frank Bruni, which has resulted in a fully booked restaurant since. The two have also worked tirelessly - Humm wishes there were 30 hours in a day - to constantly refine the restaurant's dishes and focus on interaction with diners. These might include kitchen tours, card tricks performed by waiters and carrots grated at the dining table.

So it is not surprising that on their first trip to Singapore, the dish that has impressed them - besides chicken rice and bak kut teh - is the Chinese New Year dish of yusheng, or raw fish salad.

Guidara, who has a girlfriend, says: "We love the energy of lo hei and how it feels. I'm not sure how it will work in New York, but I'm sure we can do something inspired by it. Some things work best in their own country.

"I'm not sure whether lo hei originated in Singapore or Malaysia. But I'm going on the record to say it's Singapore," he adds, chuckling heartily.

Their latest food game, which they debuted at Restaurant Andre last week during a dinner, is a "game of four chocolates" served at the end of the meal. Diners have to guess which chocolate is made with the milk from sheep, goats, cows or water buffaloes.

Their fervent belief that "food needs to be delicious, gracious and fun" has translated to their young staff, many of whom do not have any industry experience.

As a nurturing leader in the kitchen, Humm also insists on working in a quiet kitchen environment. The father of two says: "Chefs who scream in the kitchen look stupid."

Speaking with conviction about how service, like food, is an art that requires devotion too, the chef says: "It's fine to not have huge tablecloths, fancy wine lists and expensive flowers. But to not have service? That has gone too far.

"If we don't do something, great service will die in our generation.

"Do you realise that some companies now have co-chief executive officers? Because one plus one can be more than two."

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