Flying solo: Daniel Humm on returning to London and Making It Nice at Claridge's

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Chef Daniel Humm on returning to London and the opening of restaurant Davies and Brooks at Claridge's

Related tags: Restaurant, Hotel, London, Claridge's, Chef

After a long(ish) delay and an awkwardly timed break up, Daniel Humm’s much-anticipated Claridge’s restaurant opens this week. And he promises it is worth the wait.

Daniel Humm and Claridge’s go way back. Aged just 15, the now world-famous Swiss chef toiled in the bowels of the grand hotel peeling tomatoes, chopping veg for mirepoix and cutting the crusts off cucumber sandwiches to form perfect little triangles.

Not far short of three decades later Humm – whose New York flagship Eleven Madison Park (EMP) holds three Michelin stars and was named the best in the world in 2017 by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants – is poised to open in the famed Mayfair hotel in the space that was once home to Simon Rogan’s Fera.

Humm is sitting in the The Fumoir bar mere metres from the building site that will become Davies and Brook. In a nod to the US habit of naming intersections, the restaurant takes its name from the two streets Claridge’s straddles. Drilling, hammering and the odd muffled expletive resonate through the bar’s aubergine leather panelling, lending our conversation a sense of drama and urgency. Davies and Brooks was supposed to open this summer and an army of tradespeople is rushing to get the restaurant ready for early this month.

Humm is tall with a wiry athletic build, and speaks in a calm and thoughtful manner. A competitive cyclist in his youth on the Swiss Junior Team, his stint at Claridge’s in the early 90s was more about funding his next season than learning to become a great chef, but it wasn’t long before he fell in love with kitchens.

He looks tired, having arrived in London late the night before from a brief break in Paris. “I’m so happy to be here,” he says, as if trying to convince himself as much as anyone else. But he soon warms up as he discusses the project, which is being billed as a homecoming of sorts as Humm opens in Europe for the first time and returns to the place he worked as a teenager.

“I love these big hotels. There’s so much history,” he says in a accent that would be tricky to place without prior knowledge of his background. “The rigid structure of the brigade system also appealed to me. Coming from cycling, which is very regimented too, it made sense. It felt like a team sport. I guess it is.”

Davies and Brooks is among the most high-stakes London restaurant openings of recent memory. Claridge’s flagship dining room – which was home to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant prior to Rogan – has lain fallow for nearly a year and is being refurbished with the lavishness and precision that befits one of the world’s most famous (and expensive) hotels.

Clardige's

The restaurant is described as a partnership, with the staff at Davies and Brook employed by Claridge’s rather than Humm’s Make It Nice group. No expense has been spared and, after 12 months bereft of a flagship restaurant, the hotel’s owner Maybourne Group is taking no chances, banking on Humm’s enviable international profile. In fact, the new restaurant is part of a major modernisation project at the hotel that will see the addition of 40 bedrooms as well as the creation of a five-storey basement underneath. Amazingly, the hotel has been able to continue to operate at full occupancy, the only evidence of this massive subterranean engineering project being a modest gantry to the rear of the building.

Second time lucky

In a delicious plot twist, Humm actually came within a hair’s breadth of opening at Claridge’s seven years ago as Ramsay’s 12-year tenure came to an end. The chef and his then business partner Will Guidara (more on this pairing later) were regular visitors to London when The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards were held there every year and got to know Maybourne Hotel Group co-owner Paddy McKillen.

“We came very close to having a deal. In fact, if I’m honest, we basically had a deal. But at the last minute I got cold feet,” says Humm a little sheepishly. “I had to make a phone call and say, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t do it’. The next year I came back and saw Fera. I regretted it because the room looked incredible. But it was the correct decision. I wasn’t ready seven years ago.”

It was almost certainly the right call. EMP was rapidly climbing the World’s 50 Best list at that point and the distraction of a transatlantic restaurant could well have stopped the pair reaching the top spot. But the stars have now aligned. As a former World’s Best Restaurant, EMP is now outside the main list and has instead entered its Best of the Best hall of fame, while Rogan’s tenure at Claridge’s came to an end earlier than planned. Despite that, Fera’s multimillion pound kitchen has been completely ripped out; while it was only four years old, the layout was too geared towards tasting menus and specific to Rogan’s food. “The main problem for us was the lack of a central cooking suite,” says Humm. “There was also no main pass, it was designed with lots of little stations. We did consider keeping bits of it, but it made more sense to start again.”

Going à la carte

It was originally reported that Davies and Brook would not be doing a tasting menu, but the restaurant will now offer one alongside a three or four-course à la carte menu and an express two-course lunch offer. The £145 tasting menu will have roughly the same structure as that of the tasting menu-only EMP, with seven courses plus quite a few extras.

Humm’s tasting menus used to be 14 courses long, but over the years he has dialled back on the number of dishes. “Personally, I now don’t enjoy a meal that long. It’s just too much to enjoy,” he says, relating it to a kind of sensory overload. “I was in Paris the other day and went to two art galleries. I thought about going to a third but didn’t because I knew I would not be able to take anything else in.”

The focus on à la carte looks to be an attempt to position Davies and Brook as a more casual place that could – theoretically – attract regulars as well as those after a four-hour epic. “It’s a big change for us. If you want, you can have a meal here in an hour-and-a-half, rather than the three or four hours it takes in New York,” says Humm.

As well as shortening its tasting menu, EMP has also simplified its dishes and service in recent years, offering fewer theatrical courses and more free-form service. Davies and Brook will follow suit, but Humm says the team will continue to create wow moments for the whole table with a number of larger dishes to share.

Humm’s food is memorable and distinctive, but not as groundbreaking as many of the restaurants that have topped The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, including El Bulli, Noma and the UK’s own The Fat Duck. Modern French with some avant-garde elements is combined with modern American influences and Swiss precision to create plates of food with a refined, classic aesthetic.

The menu at EMP is themed around New York, with many dishes referencing the city’s culture and its culinary traditions. In London, Humm says he will draw inspiration from ‘local’ ingredients and the city’s culinary diversity.
“For Londoners, Indian and Middle Eastern cuisine is not exotic,” he says. “We will take inspiration from our travels. I spent some time in India recently. People can expect a menu that’s a bit more eclectic.”

Eleven-Madison-Park---Duck

Dishes on the launch menus will include crispy rice salad with citrus-marinated yellowtail with pickled white carrots, jicama and a herb pesto; winter squab with bitter greens, lemongrass and crispy shallots; and short rib with mint, poached endive and a mojo vinaigrette. The menu won’t be big on EMP signatures, but it will feature its famed roast duck dish, which sees birds dry-aged in-house for 14 days then glazed with lavender and honey.

A parting of ways

Humm is no stranger to pressure or the weight of expectation that comes part and parcel with being considered one of the world’s greatest chef restaurateurs. But Davies and Brook is an especially big deal as not only is it the first restaurant from Make It Nice pitched at a comparable level to EMP, but it marks the first he will open without Guidara at his side.

The restaurant was originally going to be opened together by Humm and Guidara, the chef’s long-standing front of house counterpart and business partner, when it was first revealed by Restaurant back in 2018. Yet one of the most storied US restaurant bromances came to an abrupt end this summer when the pair split, citing significant differences in their business and creative goals.

This carefully choreographed and apparently relatively affable divorce ended with Humm buying out his gregarious co-founder to take full control of Make It Nice which, in addition to its flagship, oversees F&B for upmarket US hotel gropup NoMad, as well as the fast-casual restaurant Made Nice in New York. The company also has a number of other projects in the works, including an as yet unnamed high-rise fine dining restaurant in New York and a London NoMad that’s expected to open late next year.

Humm and Guidara met at EMP in 2006. Humm was a hot young chef new to New York, having trained at top restaurants in Switzerland, and had recently attracted a four-star review from the San Francisco Chronicle for his cooking at Campton Place, putting the restaurant in the same league as the nearby The French Laundry. EMP was then owned by influential restaurateur Danny Meyer, who was running it as a brasserie serving up to 500 people a night. Meyer charged Humm and Guidara with elevating the offer – with its beautiful Art Deco design, huge windows and soaring ceiling the space had potential – and the pair duly created one of the most forward-thinking and influential restaurants in the US.

Central to their approach was a marriage of equals between kitchen and dining room, a rare thing in the restaurant world and at the time a largely new idea. In particular, Humm and Guidara popularised the idea of front and back of house working together to delight diners. Notoriously, the restaurant researched its customers’ likes and dislikes prior to them coming to dinner.

Dining-Room---Jake-Chessum

The pair’s slick and artful fusion of front and back of house also allowed them to rethink tableside theatre, their most famous concepts including a carrot tartare dish that involved a meat grinder affixed to the table and an after dinner card trick where servers used sleight of hand to deliver each diner’s preferred choice of chocolate. “We paid a great deal of attention to every aspect of the restaurant,” says Humm, now 43 years of age. “Whether it was the cocktails or the tea program, we aimed to make it the very best in the world. That sounds obvious now but it was kind of ground-breaking 10 years ago.”

EMP won its third Michelin star in 2011, prompting the duo to convince Meyer to sell it to them. Six years later, the restaurant was named the best in the world.

Flying solo

With Guidara’s service ethos so intrinsic to Make It Nice’s success and front and back of house at the group so intertwined, it’s difficult to see his departure as anything other than a blow. But the show must go on and, as one would expect, a positive spin is being put on it.

“Very little has changed. It is the exact same team. It’s more about the direction of the company. It’s a new chapter, and a really exciting one. The team is super fired up about where we are heading,” says Humm, who has promoted former NoMad director Jeffrey Tascarella to COO at Make It Nice to pick up the slack.

Humm is under no illusion that opening in London will be tough, especially without his long-term confidant by his side. “Some things get easier as you get more experienced. But with restaurants I get more and more nervous each time,” he admits. “At this level everything matters so much. What you say. What you do. I don’t get paralysed by it but I certainly feel it. I just want to do a good job.”

Much like in the Big Apple, being a big cheese elsewhere is no guarantee of success and the chances of creating something that is both a critical and commercial hit are low. He cites the example of Alain Ducasse, who upon opening his first restaurant in Manhattan loudly declared he would “teach New York how to eat”. A year or two on, the Frenchman had to beat a hasty retreat.

Sensibly, Humm is taking a more deferential tack with Davies and Brook. “I understand that this is not our city. In a way we are guests at Claridge’s and we feel humble to be here. There are so many amazing chefs here doing amazing work. To even play a small part here is great.”

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He adds he hasn’t sought creative advice from any UK-based chefs. “Creating a new restaurant is a bit like a band making a new album. You might have some people you let into that creative process, but I don’t think any music group would go to another band to get their opinion on how something should be.”

To Humm and the rest of his team’s credit, a considerable amount of Make It Nice’s resources are going into the project. Several of the company’s top people have been in London for the past year, including EMP’s former general manager Billy Peelle and its former chef de cuisine Dmitri Magi, an alumnus of Noma. Both have been with the group for about 10 years and will be stationed in London permanently, revising the same roles they had at EMP along with head bartender Pietro Collina (former bar director of The NoMad New York).

The trio have been getting to know chefs, bartenders and suppliers and staffing up, their starting bench bolstered by a dozen or so Europe-based alumni of EMP. Humm is now in London until Christmas to oversee the launch and will return in January, but long-term he will be concentrating on EMP and Make It Nice’s upcoming projects.

The restaurant his team will oversee will be accessed through a much grander entrance than Fera, which guests entered via a rather incongruous speakeasy-style door. Brad Cloepfil, the American designer behind the jaw-dropping 2017 overhaul of EMP, has designed the dining room. The space will be contemporary while referencing Claridge’s classic look with glowing walls, Irish cast crystal colonnades, banquettes shod in velvet and leather in warm silver and terracotta tones and dramatic lighting that ‘accentuates every angle of the room’.

Davies and Brook will have 85 covers in the main restaurant, a bar area for about 20 and a 12-cover PDR. The frontage of the restaurant is being opened up by removing the frosting from the windows and adding some tables for drinkers to Davies and Brooks’ narrow terrace.

Just like the New York restaurant, the bar will be a key feature of the space, in this case positioned to the front of the room directly opposite the kitchen. Aside from the bar and the new entrance, the configuration of the space is roughly the same as Fera, with the main dining space in the middle of the room (tables and a waiter’s station in the centre, fixed seating around the edges) and the PDR adjacent to the kitchen to the rear of the room as guests enter.

When he’s there, Humm will no doubt feel at home. Like the grand EMP, which is located in the Art Deco Metropolitan Life North Building that looks over Madison Square, Davies and Brooks has 1930s elements as well as high ceilings and big windows down one side of the room. Also like EMP, the dining room will feature artwork personally selected by Humm, in this case a striking 40-part photographic installation by Roni Horn, depicting the hills of southern Iceland.

Redefining fine dining

Humm’s brand of progressive classicism is a good fit for Claridge’s and his incumbency is well-timed, arriving as the hotel looks to redefine and to some extent modernise its offer to attract a new generation of hotel goers.

He doesn’t want to give a definitive answer on whether his London outpost will be pitched at the same level as his New York flagship, but no doubt the hotel is looking to replicate the prestige of the Stateside restaurant – as well as some of its international acclaim.

Grape-with-Mulled-Wine-and-

“Davies and Brook is for sure a sibling of EMP. There’s a different vision behind it but we’re still striving for excellence and deliciousness. It’s for people to decide whether it’s at the same level,” says Humm, hinting that he’s not going to stray far from the EMP model.

“In London, fine dining seems to be something people don’t want to hear. But I believe in the craft and the art of what we do. There is a place for tablecloths and beautiful china – it is our job to make it more accessible and current so our generation wants it. EMP played a big role in redefining fine dining. But there’s more to be done.”

This is a web version of an article that first appeared in the December issue of Restaurant magazine, the leading title for the UK's restaurant industry. For more features, comment, interviews and in-depth analysis of the restaurant sector subscribe to Restaurant magazine here​.

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