Daniel Humm on cooking as art, perfecting the two-ingredient dish, and culinary innovations

Daniel Humm is standing directly in front of The St Regis Mumbai elevator bank, casually FaceTiming with his daughter, in the lobby. He’s facing to the left and leaning on a column for support. Steps away, is Paresh Maity’s Wheeling the World, which consists of a four human-headed creature on an elongated body with wheels for legs. If the phone weren’t in front of Humm, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was in conversation with the artwork.

Humm is worried that the boxes of produce have not arrived from New York, where he is the chef and co-owner at Eleven Madison Park (EMP). The restaurant, which he joined as a chef in 2004, was voted number one in the world for 2017 at the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards in Melbourne. During the course of our interview he asks Sachin Mylavarapu, executive assistant manager – Food and Beverage at the St Regis Mumbai first, “All the boxes are here? Every box is here?”

 Daniel Humm on cooking as art, perfecting the two-ingredient dish, and culinary innovations

Daniel Humm

Then, about 22 minutes later, as Natasha McIrvin, director of creative projects at Make it Nice, the company that owns EMP brings Humm a chef’s coat for his next photo-shoot, he once again asks her, “Hey, umm, the boxes are here?” He’s concerned about his team — there are 14 chefs travelling with him to cook two dinners as part of The World Series presented by American Express, the first in Mumbai on Sunday, 22 April, and the next in Delhi on Saturday, 28 April. Drinks for the event are in partnership with Hennessy and Cloudy Bay Wines.

Humm describes his food as “elemental” and is very articulate when describing his culinary outlook. “I needed to create a recipe for future recipes,” he explains. Soon he elaborates, “Something amazing happened two years ago. I’ve been cooking for 25 years, 26 years, and I feel like as a chef, I have only found myself recently.” As he describes it, “my dream was always to cook food with two ingredients, that a dish has two ingredients, but for the longest time I was never able to do it.” Two years ago, he finally created his first dish with only two ingredients.

Humm’s dish, the one that’s made up of two ingredients, is celery root braised in pig’s bladder. “On the one side I was very happy, on the other side I felt a lot of pressure, because now I felt, after 25 years of cooking, I only have one dish,” he says. The plate led to the four fundamentals for his cuisine, which as Humm says, “all have to be present, in every dish [I create]”.  Listed, they make for an anodyne checklist, but when you hear him speak about them, you can tell that Humm has drilled down to the core of what he wants his cuisine to be.

Humm’s list of fundamentals, as he enumerates them are, “Number one: it’s delicious. Delicious is something that is instant; you don’t need to think about it. It is, or it's not. Number two: it has to be beautiful. For me beautiful is, it has to be minimal and it has to feel effortless. I don’t want it to look like it took 20 chefs with tweezers, it's not who I am. Number three: it has to be creative. It has to add something to the dialogue, have an element of surprise, a new technique, a new flavour combination or something. The last one is: intention. It has to have a story; it needs to make sense why it exists. It could be two ingredients grown next to each other on the same farm that could be so basic. It could be a personal story, a historical story, it just needs to make sense.” He calls this, “a language that I haven’t even fully started using yet.”

Humm’s kitchen at EMP has 11 words or phrases that hang on the wall. One of them is ‘Endless Reinvention’. By way of explanation he says, “You know my favourite artists are Robert Ryman for example who paints just with white, Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni. It’s all these artists who work with very little, who are quite minimal, and my dream was always to cook with two ingredients. But it’s so difficult, so difficult to impress someone with two things on a plate. Because the dish still needs to blow you away.”

Humm’s dinner that he cooked in Mumbai featured a host of dishes, all of them with more than two ingredients. About 70 percent of the boxes with ingredients he was waiting for arrived, and for the rest — the team improvised. Says Humm, “I think cooking is an art form, for sure. Like being a musician is an art form. Most of my friends are artists, and we are doing the same thing, we’re just using a different medium.”

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2018 17:01:12 IST