There’s a statue on the southwest corner of Madison Square Park of William H. Seward, who served as the U.S. Secretary of State from 1861- 1869. It’s not a statue that immediately connotes feelings of hope, growth and partnership. It’s merely another bronze statue of a man in a long coat that thousands of people walk by daily, not even knowing who William H. Seward was or bothering to look at the accompanying plaque.
But for restaurateur Will Guidara and Chef Daniel Humm both agree this is where they got “engaged.” I say “engaged” with quotes because it was not your typical engagement that involved a ring and bended knee. This engagement was Will and Daniel committing to each other as business partners, and in turn committing to craft Eleven Madison Park into the international culinary destination it is today. They succeeded in their quest when Eleven Madison Park was named the best restaurant in the world in 2017 by the highly influential list, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Never ones to shy away from ambition, and with the success of Eleven Madison Park, Will and Daniel founded the restaurant group, Make It Nice, which now includes Eleven Madison Park, The NoMad Hotels, and Made Nice restaurants. The name, “Make It Nice,” is a nod to their core belief that no matter what they are doing, they want to “make it nice” for their guests.
I sat down with Will and Daniel at The Library Bar in the NoMad Hotel to ask why they insist on playing nice, what they cook when no one is watching, and why they have their eyes set on Vegas…
You don’t get to where Daniel and Will are without intense drive and passion. That passion always starts a lot earlier than one would expect…
Daniel: My earliest memory that food could be something different was when I was probably 10 years old, and it was a family dinner at a restaurant, and it’s not like [in the U.S.] where everyone goes to restaurants all the time, going to a restaurant was a special occasion.
It was my mom’s birthday, and in the beginning of the meal they had one jar with leaves of endives, and there were two other jars with two different dressings. So you take the endive, and dip it into a thing which was something I never experienced before. That was the first time I was like “wow food can be creative, it can be different.” Till that point I just knew my mom’s cooking. After that, every time we had guests at the house that was my dish I prepared.
Will: Where did you get the dressing? Wait wait, how old were you?
Daniel: I was probably eight.
Will: So you were making dressings at eight?
Daniel: (laughs) Yeah.
Will: That’s so cool. I can’t believe I’ve never heard that story before. Well, I grew up in restaurants because my dad was in the restaurant business in New York. Once, he took me to The Four Seasons for the first time, because Restaurant Associate’s, his company, didn’t own The Four Seasons at that point anymore. RA opened The Four Seasons. Then they sold it, but they still owned the Brasserie right downstairs.
So, I had been going to work at the Brasserie for years, and The Four Seasons was this magical world that sat just above it. And so I remember going there for the first time and I had on a kid’s first blazer in navy blue with gold buttons.
Daniel: You ordered a martini….
Will: (laughs) Yeah and we sat in the pool room, it was just me and my dad, and I remember having the duck, and I remember this big cotton candy thing. It must have been for my birthday, and they bring out this giant mound of cotton candy with a candle.
One of the things that we talk about when noting the nobility of restaurants like Eleven Madison Park is that you can create these magical worlds in a world that needs more magic. No matter what’s going on in people’s lives, if you do it the right way, they can lose themselves for even just a few hours. I remember just falling in love with that idea. That was the experience where I decided I wanted to make one of these. A restaurant.
While it might have been friendship at first dinner, it took Will and Daniel a while to fully commit to the other and become work husbands (as I like to affectionately call work duos). Luckily they had a great blind date to start it all off….
Daniel: Well, when we met Will was working for Danny Meyer, but at the Museum of Modern Art, and I was working at Eleven Madison. This was like early 2006, I had just started.
Will: And I had been with Danny for a long time at that point. The idea was to recreate Eleven Madison Park and make it into one of the great restaurants in the world. We had to transform a restaurant from one thing into another. We had to create a culture, we had to create everything, and that is two very different things. Danny and I were talking about who could be my counterpart, when Will’s name came up, which struck me, because Will is three years younger than me. Although it’s hard to tell now…
Will: Um, one of us is in our forties, and one of us isn’t. Daniel was going after a younger guy.
Daniel: (laughs) I mean we were kids, I was 27 and he was 24, you know we were really young. Then Danny said, “Oh, I think that could be a good idea. You guys should have dinner together.” And then Will and I were sort of set up on a blind date, and we went to a restaurant called Crispo on 14th street, and that was our first dinner and we were talking about working together. What was amazing is that I think we both were nervous about the dinner.
Will: Yeah, I remember trying on like different blazers, unfortunately I didn’t have one with the gold buttons anymore.
Daniel: But we knew, somehow we both knew that this dinner could be critical. And then during the dinner we hit it off, we enjoyed the same food, we drank some wine, we had some fun, we talked serious, it was very clear that we were both very ambitious, it was very clear that we were both very talented, and we both wanted to take over the world in our own way.
He always thought he would do that by himself, and I always thought I would do that by myself, but I think that night we realized that if we would do it together it could be so much stronger. Him coming from a background of hospitality, me coming from a background of excellence, we both realized that in my world there were things missing and in his world there were things missing, and if we could do both equally then that could be really powerful.
The amazing part was that on that first date we really laid out sort of the foundation of our relationship. We said it would be a 50/50 partnership. Kitchen and dining room would be equally important, and that we would operate from a place of trust. And that night we decided that we would work together. Will thought maybe for one year or two years, it wasn’t like we knew that it would be forever, but we decided that we could work together for a period of time.
Will: I had worked in fine dining kitchens before and I had always wanted to be in the dining room, and I would find myself trying to convince the chef to care about what I cared about. So I had given up on the idea that I would find a chef that loved service and put it on the same level as the food, and didn’t take life so seriously. We want work to be fun, we work all the time. It should be fun.
So the night ended at like four in the morning at this Dominican bar down the road. We were fired up to give it a go, but I was only going to be there for like a year or two, and then the deal with Danny was that then I was gonna go work at Shake Shack. But a year or two later they came to me and they were like, “hey the position at Shake Shack is ready to go.” And I said no because we were having a blast, and fine dining is awesome if you can find someone to do it that you can have fun doing it with, then its the best. Then we got “engaged,” I don’t know what year it was….
Daniel: … probably like two and a half years into it, three years into it…
Will: Yeah, so three years into our courtship we were running a four star restaurant, but we didn’t own it, so that makes you very poachable. We shared an office the size of this couch and chairs — that’s something that’s important to us is that we always share an office, because the busier life gets, you need to be near each other.
Daniel: The office is a little bit bigger now, but the desks are slightly smaller.
Will: Yeah our office got big, but we still sit kind of close. It’s actually kind of weird, lots of empty space. Anyway, I don’t think either of us were planning on leaving Eleven Madison, but I think we both shared this belief that, you at least listen to opportunities, so he’d be sitting there doing email, and then I’d be on a phone call interview or vice versa. So there is a statue of William Seward on the southwest corner of Madison Park, and when we’d leave work we’d always walk there together and he’d go right and I’d go left at the statue. And one night we ended up just standing in front of that statue for like an hour and a half or something. And we were like “hey, we don’t know where our careers are going to take us, but we’re together now” and that was a big deal.
Daniel: And that was so powerful and so liberating because now we could stop with all these phone calls, or at least if we had them we could have them together, and now we knew that we were together. And so many great things happened right after that…
Will: … because we could give everything of ourselves to it because this is forever now.
Something that consistently causes havoc in any dining establishment from a local diner to a four star restaurant is the tension that exists between front of house and back of house. Successfully running a restaurant is akin to nailing an intricately choreographed dance, night after night. And restaurants repeatedly stumble when they allow that tension to boil over (allow me this one food pun, I’ve held so many back, I swear). Will and Daniel made sure their two houses would be united.
Daniel: For me, I learned a lot from Will and I want to talk about that. But first, I also remember the days when I was working in a three michelin star restaurant in Switzerland, where it was like motivated by fear and the dining room and the kitchen didn’t even know each other.
I was working in one place for five years and I didn’t know the names of the people who were serving the food, and this is a restaurant that had probably only 16 employees. So five years and I still didn’t know them. We would eat separately, everything would be separate, and there was no respect. The kitchen didn’t respect the dining room, and we worked 18 hour days, and we poured so much into the food. But, the moment that the food hit the pass, we kind of lost control a bit.
And for me that always didn’t feel right and I always felt it was such a missed opportunity to not break down that wall. But then meeting Will, him coming from a world of hospitality, he knew so much about it, he had so much language about it, and the biggest thing was Will in the beginning, and it came from him, said “we got to operate from a place of trust.” Because if something went wrong at a table, if like a plate goes out and then it comes back and the waiter says: “oh, the guy is allergic to fish” and then I would say, “why didn’t the waiter not ask before,” but maybe the guest didn’t tell him.
So I would always assume it was the waiter’s fault, and in most kitchens that’s how we think. Something goes wrong, it’s the waiter’s fault. And when we started saying we operated from a place of trust, and assumed that the waiter is right, that just changed everything in the restaurant. You start to have much more respect for each other.
Will: We started off as colleagues, then we became best friends, and then we eventually become business partners. And once you become best friends, it’s not easy, even as a chef, to then try to change the mindset of the entire kitchen. You are supposed to be a tough chef, but then you want to say, “guys, we need to operate from a foundation of trust.” I don’t think that works if you are alone. So we had each other’s backs and then everyone else just needed to fall in line.
Daniel: In the beginning, before we were best friends, if we had something to discuss, we would make sure we would have coffee together in a place where everyone can see us, so people knew that we were together, a team.
Two seconds after sitting down in The Library Bar, Will was approached by a server. He asked for a green juice and for someone to replace that lightbulb in the corner. We all follow his pointed finger and indeed in the periphery of his eyesight was a lone bulb that had gone dark on the second floor of The Library Bar. It was such a pure moment of his drive for excellence and attention to detail, I almost thought it was planned…
Will: There’s a lot of hospitality and kindness and graciousness in every person. It’s just impossible to know how to give it if you don’t also know what it’s like to receive it.
I have a philosophy that if one day there was a federal mandate that for the next sixty days everyone had to be effusively nice to everyone that worked at the DMV, that suddenly everyone that worked at the DMV would be really, really nice. The people always complain that the people at the DMV are rude. Of course they are! Because no one wants to be there and people are rude to the people who work at the DMV. It’s just a vicious cycle.
So we had to find balance in terms of how to not only make people feel good but also do it in such a way where people understand the importance of also crossing the “T”s and dotting the “I”s. But, I think a lot of why it’s so hard to find hospitality and excellence on equal footing in fine dining restaurants is because people feel that in their pursuit of excellence they need to take themselves really, really seriously. And if you can take what you do so seriously without taking yourself so seriously you can find that balance and I think that’s when you can do something really great.
I have been fortunate enough to dine once at Eleven Madison Park and ironically it was to celebrate being offered the position that is now allowing me to write this! I know, kismet does exist in the world. There was an artist approach to this particular dining experience, and as a student of modern art, I was thrilled to hear how much it has influence Daniel’s approach to food…
Daniel: Art has been such a guiding light for me and an inspiring source. I think, when you see somebody’s very minimal artwork and you know that some of these artworks are some of the most groundbreaking works out there, that with one gesture they were able to change the art world, to me that’s really inspiring. There are many artists that have done that.
Veronica: What’s your favorite piece of art?
Daniel: That’s a hard thing to say, but a really inspiring piece of art is one of the works by Lucio Fontana, he is an amazing artist, amazing painter, amazing sculptor, but eventually he decided to just cut the canvas, and with that he asked the questions, “okay, does the art always need to be on the canvas, is the canvas the art? Or is the art behind the canvas?”
So everything that we know, everything we poured our lives into, he kind of just destroys and he questions it. So, works like that are very powerful to me because obviously these are amazing accomplished artists, but with one stroke with one gesture, they can really affect the art world.
Veronica: If that gesture then questions their entire life’s work as an artist, you have to have a certain strength about you to do that.
Will: So then the next season, we just did a broken plate on the table. We just broke the plate in half and we put two pieces and we’re like “enjoy.”
Daniel: (laughs) But for the longest time, I tried to cook in this very minimal way because I believed in that. I’ve been wanting that for a long time, to make a big impact with very little. But, it’s so hard, and for the longest time in my career I always tried it, but then I felt like “Oh no, it needs another sauce, it needs another crispy element, it needs another thing to be complete.” And it did actually need it, because my technique or whatever the two things were, wasn’t strong enough. Yeah, it’s extremely difficult, you can ask any artist who is working with this kind of vision, that minimalism is the hardest thing.
So I had one moment when I made a dish that really felt like for the first time in my life I did it just that, I achieved minimalism. it happened like three years ago with this one dish and I was like “wow, this is it. This is how I want to cook forever.”
Veronica: What was the dish?
Daniel: It’s a dish of celery root and black truffles in two bite circles. It’s one of the world’s great dishes, it had everything it needed. Then when it happened I felt happy that it did, but at the same time I was frustrated because now I was cooking for 25 years and only had one dish.
So through that dish we created our fundamentals, I knew I had to find the answer in that dish. We created four fundamentals, the first one, it has to be delicious; the second one it has to be beautiful, then we had to be creative, it had to have something to add to what food was, and then it had to have intention, a reason for being.
These four things have become our guiding principles and since then we’ve created probably a hundred and twenty new dishes, and we’ve been able to really move forward in a big way. In a way I feel we’re at the very beginning because we learned this language, and now we really have something to work with.
The NoMad hotels have recently expanded with NoMad Vegas, with the accompany restaurant to open on November 14th. Every chef and restaurateur dreams of Vegas but, not surprisingly, Daniel and Will waited till they could do Vegas their way…
Will: I’m so excited about Vegas. We’ve been getting offers in Vegas for a really long time, and every time we even looked at them we were like “no way.” You go to a restaurant in Vegas, and no matter how transcendent the experience, you leave and you walk out and you’re in a slot machine floor. It’s almost like you’re in a neighborhood that you hate, you would never open a restaurant in a neighborhood that you hate, especially when it’s a neighborhood that no matter what you do you can’t help it evolve. The slot machine floor is always going to be there and so you create this magic bubble around someone and it’s broken the moment they leave.
So first, with the NoMad in Vegas you get out of your car, you walk through this grand entrance and, we can control the environment the whole time; the lobby, the bar, the restaurant, the high limits gaming floor, the pool. If you can curate the environment in the right way, it can be a really great, fun place.
An experience is half what you’re serving and half the grace that the guests are giving themselves to receive it. One of the biggest things about a restaurant in New York is you might come to Eleven Madison Park to celebrate something, but you might come straight from work, and who knows what kind of day you had. You may be feeling really cynical, so the first half an hour of your experience at EMP is very, very intentionally curated to just make people let it go and relax so that they can receive the rest of the experience.
It’s a lot more fun to serve people who are there to have fun, and in Vegas everyone is there to have fun. So, when you are creating an experience, that is such a great gift. Everyone is walking in ready to have fun. Like we can roll over the martini cart, we can light stuff on fire and no one’s going to be like, ‘Aw man, this is so cheesy” because everyone is just there for fun, they want us to be full throttle and we like doing that.
Veronica: What do you cook for yourself when no one’s looking?
Will: It’s true. I’ve had it. And it’s delicious.
A huge thanks to Will Guidara and Daniel Humm for taking the time to entertain my questions, and with such thoughtful answers no less. You can experience the magic of Make It Nice by dining at Eleven Madison Park, or booking a room in NoMad New York, NoMad Los Angeles, and (the newest!) NoMad Vegas. Their accompany restaurant at NoMad Vegas opens with much anticipation on November 14th.