What Went Wrong With Eleven Madison Park’s Vegan Menu

Dead ducks are the through line of an Eleven Madison Park episode of 7 Days Out, a show chronicling the week leading up to a major event. In this case, the major event in question is the 2017 renovation and reopening of the massively famous New York fine dining restaurant. The carcasses arrive whole and are hung up to dry. Their heads hang lifeless over the tops of a Cambro storage container. Chef Daniel Humm repeats many times that the duck must be perfect, that the duck must be served hot. Prior to the renovation the restaurant had topped the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list; it had been awarded three Michelin stars. That only happens for the kind of places that take extreme care with ingredients like, say, duck.

In 2021 ducks made way for peppers as the restaurant went plant-based. It marked a monumental occasion that Humm hoped would shape fine dining’s future. But months later things aren’t looking so optimistic for one of the world’s most famous restaurants. There have been negative reviews of the food and, more notably, there have been allegations of food waste and labor issues that betray Humm’s progressive promises of change.

It’s been a grand fall for a restaurant that once reached the pinnacle of the industry and a striking example of the ways veganism can be used as a glowy shield for questionable work conditions that have long gone unchallenged.

Eleven Madison Park’s history has been dominated by reinvention, something its owners state proudly. In 1998 restaurateur Danny Meyer opened the restaurant as a brasserie serving upward of 500 people a night, with dinner running under $100 per person. In 2006 Humm and front-of-house partner Will Guidara took over the space, transforming it into a fine dining destination where tables that formerly sat four now generously sat two. Dinner gradually became a $195 tasting menu. Guidara and Humm bought the restaurant in 2011, pushing it to the top of the 50 Best list and overseeing this near-total renovation. All the while the restaurant’s now $335 menu featured dishes such as dry-aged veal with bone marrow; a soft egg with farro, corn and frogs’ legs; suckling pig with blackberries. In 2019 Humm bought Guidara out of the restaurant group they’d established, Make It Nice. The next year, 2020, saw the once-illustrious kitchen turned into a commissary kitchen for ReThink Food, recovering ingredients from restaurants that had to close and cooking them into meals for the food insecure.

On May 3, 2021, Humm posted a photo of himself on Instagram in a Prada jacket, squatting in a greenhouse, hands covered in dirt. It was time for the next transformation: Eleven Madison Park would be going fully plant-based.

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