Now in the top echelon of the world's fine-dining institutions, New York City's Eleven Madison Park has always been ambitious. Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group was the original owner of the light-filled, high-ceilinged space facing its namesake park, putting chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara in charge in the kitchen and dining room, respectively, in 2006. In 2011, having achieved a reputation for meticulous yet playful cuisine and a service style that matched, the pair bought the restaurant from Meyer. The restaurant earned a Grand Award from Wine Spectator for wine-list excellence that same year.
Humm, 40, got his start in kitchens in his native Switzerland, honing his craft at esteemed addresses like Baur au Lac, Gasthaus zum Gupf and Pont de Brent. After three years as the executive chef of Campton Place in San Francisco, he moved to New York City to be the executive chef at Eleven Madison Park.
Soon after Humm and Guidara took ownership of the place locals call "EMP," Cedric Nicaise, 37, a Belgium-born veteran of Aureole, set his sights on joining the wine team, starting as a sommelier in 2012. In 2015, he took the reins in the cellar.
Humm and Guidara aren't content to sit still: The restaurant will close over the summer for a massive renovation. EMP Summer House, a pop-up in East Hampton, N.Y., will satisfy hungry fans through the season before the flagship's fall reopening. Humm and Nicaise sat down with assistant editor Emma Balter to talk about their European roots, the importance of being on the same page in the kitchen and cellar, and the one time things went hilariously awry.
Wine Spectator: How did you get into wine and cooking?
Cedric Nicaise: My love for wine really stems from my family. My maternal grandfather is a big wine collector. He was always drinking something really amazing. My paternal grandparents came from much more humble beginnings, but they were the most social people I've ever been around. They always had wine around, or beer, or whatever. Friends would come over, have a drink. The beverage was never the focus, but it was always around, and that was super impactful, looking back.
Daniel Humm: I started cooking when I was 14, and really it was out of necessity. I was on the path to become a professional cyclist. I left school to pursue [this] career, and my dad, an architect, wasn't supportive of this at all. He's like, "If you leave school I'm done supporting you." I'm like, "OK, fine." In the off-seasons, I would work in the kitchen.
I was lucky that the restaurant I worked at, there was a chef who cared and took me under his wing, and was like, "I know you're here only to get a paycheck, but I want you to learn." And I fell in love with cooking. I did that for a few years until I was 21. I had a bad accident in cycling that kind of opened my eyes: You know, what I really love is cooking. Then I decided to make cooking my sport.
WS: How would you describe Eleven Madison Park to someone who has never heard of the restaurant?
DH: What we decided to do when we started is that we have a restaurant that is run from the kitchen and the dining room equally. Both have equal importance: the food and the service. You [Cedric] said that once really beautifully: "I don't serve wine, I want to serve people." That captures who we are. We want to be the kind of restaurant that celebrates everything.
CN: Lots of restaurants have great wine programs. When you start adding restaurants that have great tea programs, great cocktail programs, great coffee programs, beer … The number of restaurants that fall into that get fewer and fewer. This restaurant has blown up the idea that you can't have it both ways. We have it every way.
WS: Do you have a story about each other that you think represents the other person?
CN: I'll go first. It's not a story, it's something that I am inspired by, and that I try to emulate as much as possible. I am envious of chef's ability to give feedback in a way that totally doesn't think of one person's feelings, and I mean this in the most positive way. Getting honest feedback is how you grow.
DH: I think you're right about that. It's important to not take things personally. You have to always be direct. I think I've been at times a little bit maybe too direct at not always the right time, you know? [Laughs.]
CN: OK, I could tell a story. We did this pop-up in Zurich 18 months ago. I have no culinary background, I can barely turn an oven on. But I had said, "If I'm going to go, I'm willing to do literally anything necessary." I helped prep in the morning, slicing bread … but then at night, it was decided that I would run the [kitchen] pass. I was totally lost. The feedback was starting to come. At one point, chef looks at me and is like, "Do you even know what's going on?" And I was like: "Nope."
DH: [Laughing hysterically] It wasn't funny at the moment.
CN: No, it was not funny, I'm sure, for either one of us.
WS: How do you work together to create harmony between the dishes and the wines?
CN: The biggest change [when I was promoted] was being involved in food development. To work with the sous-chefs and chef to see how the menu evolves—the creative process, all that goes into making a menu—and actually having some input in it, is insane. It's so rewarding to work closely with the guys in the kitchen that way.
DH: What's nice is that Cedric is there really from the very beginning, from the inception of a new dish or a new menu. You've seen so many dishes that never became dishes. It's one thing to match a wine, but it's also even more important to understand where [the dish] came from. I think if you have that knowledge, you can match the wine even better, rather than just seeing a complete dish and then matching the wine. It's nice to have that happen at the same time: this evolution, his thinking, our thinking.