One of the World's Top Restaurants Is Going Plant-Based

The chef at Eleven Madison Park sees greater potential for creativity in vegetables.

Eleven Madison Park
The dining room at Eleven Madison Park in 2017.

Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Eleven Madison Park, one of world's top restaurants with three Michelin stars, has just made a surprising announcement: Its menu will be plant-based when it reopens in June. Gone will be the famous lavender glazed duck, suckling pig, and butter-poached lobster that once attracted well-heeled diners. In their place will be vegetables, prepared with the same level of care that chef Daniel Humm has always applied to his ingredients.

In a statement on the restaurant's website, Humm explained that a year ago he didn't know if EMP would ever reopen, but once he did, he realized it couldn't be the same restaurant it was before the pandemic. He wrote, 

"We realized that not only has the world changed, but that we have changed as well. We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming ever clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways."

He went on: "With that in mind, I’m excited to share that we’ve made the decision to serve a plant-based menu in which we do not use any animal products—every dish is made from vegetables, both from the earth and the sea, as well as fruits, legumes, fungi, grains, and so much more."

Some people may find the idea of paying the same $335+ for a tasting menu and not having any meat on the plate to be preposterous, but one might argue that elevating vegetables to the same level as fine cuts of meat takes considerably more skill on the part of the chef and his team. Indeed, perhaps it is that ongoing quest for growth and challenge that is motivating Humm to make such a drastic switch.

"A piece of fish, meat, there aren’t that many different ways to prepare them," he told Bloomberg in an interview. "If you have a beet, an eggplant, the opportunities feel endless." He's not wrong; a trip around the world will quickly reveal the infinite uses for these basic vegetables.

Chef Daniel Humm
Chef Daniel Humm.

Getty Images / Neilson Barnard

Environmental concerns do factor into Humm's decision, too. His perception of what constitutes a high-end ingredient has shifted over time. "All the caviar that you find now, it’s farm-raised, they sell it at the airport. Is that truly luxury? Kobe beef flown in from Japan? That’s not luxury. It’s gluttony," he told Bloomberg.

The announcement comes at a time when the topic of meat sparks intense emotional debate. Republicans and Democrats got into a recent tussle over meat and its role in climate change, when the former accused the latter of taking beef away from them in an effort to reduce emissions. (That was proven false.) Then major recipe site Epicurious said last week that it would stop publishing new recipes containing beef for sustainability reasons—and that it has been doing so quietly since fall 2019. 

Meat has been called "the next culture war" by National Journal columnist Josh Kraushaar, but that statement was challenged by numerous Twitter voices who argued it's "just a business making a decision." In her Heated newsletter, writer Emily Atkin takes Kraushaar's view, saying that political commentators are failing to grasp the importance of culture in climate politics. She writes,

"EMP’s announcement isn’t 'just a business making a decision.' It’s an influential industry group voluntarily entering a political minefield in an attempt to change food culture to be more climate-friendly... They did this knowing Republicans would try to falsely paint them as pawns in the Democrats’ secret attempt to force burgers out of Americans’ hands. EMP and Epicurious didn’t start the meat culture war, but they’re fighting it anyway. If more institutions did the same, we’d probably solve climate change a lot faster."

Regardless, it's a powerful choice that pushes plant-based eating into the spotlight more than ever. Former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl predicted it will have an impact similar to that of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters' iconic restaurant in Berkeley, California. "A restaurant like Eleven Madison Park is basically a teaching institution," Reichl told the New York Times. Chefs will take away and build on the skills they learn there. 

Eleven Madison Park won't be the only high-end restaurant focused on vegetables. A vegan restaurant in France, ONA, won its first Michelin star earlier this year. Gwendal Poullennec, international head of the Michelin Guide, said at the time that giving a star to a vegan restaurant " might 'liberate' chefs who are still reluctant to explore plant-based cooking."

Curiously, Humm used a synonym for that word when describing his own shift: "The concept has gone from limiting to 'freeing,'" he said. "As a chef, I’m just excited to cook with vegetables right now."