“It all started about six years ago when we received a review in the New York Observer.” Daniel explains: “The review was wonderful, but the reviewer said that the restaurant needed a little more Miles Davis.
“We didn’t quite know what that meant and so we started researching Miles Davis. We came to realise that Miles knew the rules of music, but wasn’t afraid to break them. He wasn’t scared to reinvent his music even when it was being well received. That resonated with me. We came up with a list of the 11 words most often used to describe him and hung those words in our kitchen as a source of inspiration—cool, collaborative, spontaneous, adventurous, etc. Since then, Miles Davis has been a huge part of our identity and a huge part of why and how I do what I do.”
Daniel is a native of Switzerland, but for the past six years he’s been the darling of Manhattan. He earned his first Michelin star at the age of 24, in 2000, at Gasthaus zum Gupf in the Swiss Alps. He is ranked at number five in the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2013; has earned three Michelin stars at Eleven Madison Park and in 2010 he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: NYC. That’s some feat for any chef, nevermind one still in his thirties.
“The awards we receive—the Michelin stars, the James Beard Awards, the S.Pellegrino ranking—are all for things we’ve done in the past. And so whenever we receive an award, we reflect on it and enjoy it, but then we go back to working as hard as we can in order to achieve the next milestone. Complacency has never been an option. We are constantly setting goals and doing everything we can to achieve them—cooking towards the future with an appreciation for the past.”
What stands Daniel and Eleven Madison Park—the restaurant he has co-owned with Will Guidara since 2011—apart, is in part down to the unique menu, which is a combination of composed dishes and communal courses, that encourage diners to interact over food and drinks. “We ask that guests tell us if there’s anything they don’t eat, [are] allergic to [or] anything they simply don’t like, and we cook for them,” Daniel explains.
Growing up in Switzerland, Daniel had instant access to fresh, seasonal produce. In the middle of Manhattan, he has to reach a little further for ‘local’ ingredients.
Daniel’s new book, I Love NY: Ingredients and Recipes, which he co-wrote with Will, shares in their favourite New York producers—exploring more than 50 farms in the state. The book also explores local farming traditions, taking the reader on a journey from field to fork.
“I had a relationship with food from a young age—I spent my childhood going to the market with my mother. We ate very seasonally and very locally—from Alpine cheeses to suckling pig, to the freshest spring peas,” he says. “Therefore, the idea of cooking and eating both locally and seasonally was something that was ingrained in me from childhood, something that I carried with me from Switzerland to New York.”
Daniel’s most vivid childhood memories centre on food, attending the local market with his mother and handpicking fresh ingredients. “Whenever she bought lettuce, it was my job to wash it,” he remembers. “The days when it had rained were the worst because the leaves were covered in dirt. I would wash them five or six times making sure they were perfectly clean before taking them back to my mom. At that point in my life, I didn’t know I would become a chef, but I appreciated that constant pursuit of perfection in even the simplest of tasks. In my life as a chef, it is a principle that she instilled in me that I still carry with me today.”
I Love NY: Ingredients and Recipes explores some of the unique producers in the region that Daniel taps into for his menu at Eleven Madison Park, such as Alex Paffenroth’s carrot farm. “Alex had spent the last 20 years farming in what is known as ‘black muck soil’. His land had once been the bottom of a lake, and, as a result, his soil was intensely black and rich in nutrients. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.” Daniel explains: “Five years ago, Alex decided that he wanted to focus more on growing carrots because it was the vegetable that best grew in his soil. We feature Alex’s carrots in our carrot tartare.”
Before Daniel joined Eleven Madison Park in 2007, he spent time in San Francisco, working at Campton Place, where he was the recipient of the 2005 Best New Chef Award from Food and Wine magazine.
The San Francisco Bay Area is known for its brilliant produce, blessed with the unique climate and landscape of northern California.
“The climate and landscape lends itself [to the west Coast].” Daniel explains: “You have beautiful fruit, vegetables and herbs year-round, at your fingertips.”
He describes the move to the east coast as a challenge; no longer having access to year-round fresh ingredients. “Moving to New York, with its harsh winters, was initially challenging. I sought ingredients from other places in the States and overseas. But over the years I came to appreciate the beauty of the seasons and of each one’s unique offerings. I came to realise that some of the best produce, such as the tastiest shellfish and the most unique game, was right in our backyard. I have come to love New York, not only for its cultural vibrancy, but also for its great agricultural bounty.”
Daniel’s relationship with New York is reflected in his book, which features almost 150 recipes, inspired by the state. Like many of the world’s best chefs of today, Sergio Herman, for example, Daniel also takes influences from other cultural sources.
“I constantly turn to unexpected sources for inspiration. Instead of taking inspiration from restaurants or other food-related venues, I turn to music and art, successful companies that I admire and leaders in a variety of industries, allowing them to influence me in the creative process.”
As a young chef, Daniel was more concerned with creating complex dishes, which layered flavours and used many techniques. These days, Daniel’s style has mellowed and instead he focuses on the most important aspect of a dish: the ingredients. “As I matured, I realised that it actually took more skill to make dishes that highlighted an ingredient or two, that really focused on perfecting one technique, that allowed diners to actually enjoy the food, bite by bite,” he says.
“I met a guy called Robert Rosenthal, who believed that ducks shouldn’t be raised in a fenced-in area. He believed that if he created the right environment for them to live, they would never leave. And so far he’s been right. I’ve never tasted duck as good as his. We roast them whole, glazed in lavender and honey [View the dish on page 48].” Delicious!
Multi-award winner, chef, restaurateur and author; all before the age of 40. But, there is always room for growth, as Daniel says: “I hope to continue taking risks, both big and small, that push the boundaries that we currently know in the food industry.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Francesco Tonelli