When Daniel Humm, executive chef of the Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York City, announced they would reopen with an entirely vegetarian menu, the world got a glimpse into the future of fine dining.
Not only is the acclaimed Manhattan restaurant pivoting to a plant-focused menu. A portion of its proceeds will also sustain the Eleven Madison food truck that Humm launched during the pandemic to combat hunger in New York City.
The announcement was met with loud applause from an industry that’s slowly waking up to its own environmental footprint. Which is not to say Eleven Madison Park is the first high-end establishment to take a long look in the mirror and decide to refocus on vegetables. From L’Arpege in Paris to Noma in Copenhagen, vegetable-centric dishes have been gracing the menus of well-appointed dining rooms for years. But Eleven Madison Park is taking it one step further by eschewing not just meat, but animal products altogether (with the exception of milk for coffee and tea).
New York City chef Adriana Fracchia, formerly of Dante and Gramercy Tavern, thinks it’s about time the restaurant world changed its tune. She recalls working in kitchens that prioritized meat above all: “It always comes first,” she says. “I’m like, okay, what is something that we can do that has a similar look and flavor to the beef dish but is vegetarian.” In New York City and other dining capitals around the world, it’s rare to find vegetarian options that don’t feel derivative of the meat entrées, or inane (we’re looking at you, $25 cauliflower steak).
For many chefs including Humm, the pandemic has put in sharper focus the growing hunger crisis and inequities in our global food system. And it’s not just the restaurant industry that’s grappling with these issues. The world of wine is also in the throes of a sustainable revolution, the result of climate change, growing social and political pressures, and consumer demands. Currently, less than 3% of the world’s wines are made sustainably, a statistic VIVANT is committed to changing.
Adopting sustainable practices is not always easy, or economical—which makes Eleven Madison Park’s move all the more laudable. Overhauling a menu requires retraining an entire staff and altering the way the kitchen conducts research and development. In the context of wine, converting a vineyard into an organic or biodynamic estate is costly and arduous to the point where it can be nonviable, even for well-meaning producers.
At Eleven Madison Park, Humm and his team have long relied on butter, cream, and prime cuts of meat to create gastronomic trophies. If he wants to continue justifying his menu’s pre-pandemic price tag ($335 per person, including tip), he’ll have to deliver on inventiveness and wow-factor.
Amping up investment in Row 7 could help. Founded by celebrated chef Dan Barber, a longtime advocate of sustainability and plant-focused cooking, the seed breeding company creates proprietary vegetable varieties for top restaurants like New York’s Per Se and Mexico City’s Pujol. The seedlings—which are 100% certified organic and non-GMO— produce plants that are stronger, more resilient, and full of flavor.
Humm remains resolute that a plant-focused menu is the only sustainable way forward. But with the restaurant still weeks away from reopening, it’s yet to be seen whether fans of the iconic establishment will embrace vegetables the same way they do foie gras, glazed duck, and truffle-stuffed chicken.
Yet, as chef Adriana Fracchia points out, “You never went to Eleven Madison Park for the meat. You went for the experience.” The best fine dining restaurants take their guests on a journey that isn’t really about food, after all.