On Monday, Daniel Humm, chef and owner of the legendary and legendarily expensive Eleven Madison Park, announced that when the restaurant reopens in June, the menu will be fully free of any ingredients derived from animals. There will be no more lavender-honey roast duck, no more foie gras two ways, no more austere bricks of suckling pig confit. Henceforth, Humm declared on the restaurant’s website, EMP’s $335 tasting menu will be made exclusively “from vegetables, both from the earth and the sea, as well as fruits, legumes, fungi, grains, and so much more.” As Humm explained to WSJ, he’d had something of an awakening during the pandemic: “Our practices of animal production, what we’re doing to the oceans, the amount we consume: It is not sustainable,” he said. “If Eleven Madison Park is truly at the forefront of dining and culinary innovation, to me it’s crystal clear that this is the only place to go next.”
The story was quickly covered in all major publications and made waves in vegan-leaning circles. The pushback, too, was immediate, both from omnivores (paying the same price … for vegetables??) and from large expanses of the veg-friendly internet. Why, the arguments went, should we all care that Daniel Humm — paragon of the white, male, Eurocentric culinary establishment — is taking animal products off the menu at a destination restaurant that is, by design, wildly inaccessible to almost everybody? There are already countless other restaurants in the world doing exquisite things with vegetables (take Amanda Cohen’s pioneering Dirt Candy, for example), and here we are, breathless over Daniel Humm again? There are swaths of global cuisine that have been animal-free for centuries; why should we celebrate this man, pictured in The Wall Street Journal’s luxury-magazine supplement elegantly crouched in a greenhouse, hands dusted with plant-based dirt, for his decision, in 2021, to stop serving animal products at an elite establishment, having apparently discovered what countless people already knew?
Whether it is right or not, in the world that exists, what Daniel Humm does matters. And what Daniel Humm is doing, very publicly, is eliminating meat. If you care about climate change, or animal suffering, or even human suffering, then it is objectively good that a restaurant of EMP’s stature will abandon animal products. A restaurant that used to serve meat — that was, in fact, known for its meat — is no longer serving meat. For proponents of plant eating, it is an unequivocal win, and it will surely influence other, Humm-admiring chefs to reexamine their own menus.
For many people who don’t eat meat, veganism is and must also be part of a larger politics, the ultimate goal of which is not to invent better hamburger alternatives but to dismantle oppressive systems. Eleven Madison Park isn’t doing that, obviously, but Humm and his team are nevertheless broadcasting, very loudly, the importance of a plant-based agenda. Is it kind of annoying to see an establishment-approved chef lauded for doing something that lots of other chefs have done for years without making international headlines? Certainly! Does it undermine the pragmatic value of the announcement? Not at all.
The larger imperative is to shift the global appetite for animal products as quickly as possible. This is difficult for many reasons, and one of them: People like meat. For all the panicked discourse about Joe Biden taking away the nation’s hamburgers, American meat consumption is in fact rising, despite the unimaginable cruelty, environmental degradation, and appalling labor conditions that make mass meat production possible. Vegans aren’t going to move the needle, on account of the unfortunate fact that they are already vegan. To move the needle, we need omnivores to eat less meat, and while one way to do that would be to insist they adopt an expansive radical politics, the more efficient option is to reframe not eating meat as not radical. And who better to make something not radical than the most established of establishment restaurants?
Humm, by virtue of both his individual success and his structural advantages, has a near-singular platform. EMP is one of a small handful of restaurants globally to be named the World’s Best Restaurant, as it was in 2017, and one of two North American spots ever to win. It is one of three restaurants with a current four-star review from the New York Times. Humm, like his fellow countryman Roger Federer, embodies the ideals of the luxury lifestyle. And, at least for now, he is at the helm of what may be the world’s most expensive vegan restaurant. (Or almost vegan — EMP will still serve dairy milk and honey with coffee and tea service.)
Should any meal cost $335? For the purposes of this discussion, let’s table that. 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. The more status vegetables, the better, I say! Again, pragmatically: Anything that undermines the dominance of meat is good for the advancement of plant-based eating. Humm’s own justification for the continued pricing is that while the ingredients are indeed cheaper, preparing them is so much work that there is no savings. (Certainly, one can imagine that whatever you would have to do to vegetables to win over legacy EMP diners — accustomed to feasts filled with caviar, dry-aged poultry, and copious amounts of butter — would be labor-intensive. Also, have you ever peeled fava beans?) What Eleven Madison Park is known for is wildly creative and insanely complicated dishes executed with surgical precision by an army of cooks and stagiaires — so let’s see what all these people can do with turnips!
Humm is an especially effective emissary precisely because, until Monday, he had no discernible public interest in “plant-based” food, and now he is loudly converting his World’s Best Restaurant. This is how change starts. If the goal is to get people eating less meat, what we need is for people who currently eat meat to eat less meat.
It is of course impossible to measure the influence of something that hasn’t actually happened yet, and any impact it does have will depend on whether EMP can keep it up. Exactly how committed Humm remains to this new vision, once the press dies down and the pandemic fades, remains to be seen. But if it’s sustainable, and EMP can stay its exclusive self in “plant-based” form, it will be an example of what is possible — not just for ultraluxury vegan dining, but for vegetables in general.