How far does a chef have to go to be truly good?
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Restaurants news every morning.
It’s a Thursday evening in late July and I’m sitting at a table eating a dehydrated, then rehydrated, smoked, roasted beet. It was cooked in a clay vessel, which a server cracked open at our table with a mallet, and unearthed from a knotty nest where it had been waiting for us for three days. Served with horseradish and herbs, it tastes like a perfect duck tenderloin, but not. Like a ballpark hot dog with all the fixings, but not. Like a dense and meaty, umami-like beet. And also like nothing I’ve ever tasted.
I’m sitting next to my sister. Somewhere in the four-hour-and-15-minute fever-dream of our dining experience, she stops mid-sentence to say, “Oh my God. What was that leaf? I just ate the best leaf of my life.”
We have one of the most coveted spots in New York City: a corner table at Eleven Madison Park. In May, its chef Daniel Humm announced that his three-Michelin-star restaurant, deemed the World’s Best in 2017, was making a profound shift: it was going entirely plant-based. It’s the first restaurant of its calibre to do so. The meal consists of 11 courses and costs $335 per person. (Ours was complimentary.) The price was the same pre-pandemic but now, according to Humm, the reservation waitlist is 50,000-people long.
Everything we eat is the ideal of that food. The tomatoey-ist tomato. The cucumbery-ist cucumber. The meal surprises, delights and informs. We learn about tonburi seeds, which come from a Japanese weed and have to be unwrapped individually by hand. One dish we’re served has hundreds on ice like caviar, surrounded by okra seeds that pop in your mouth. I ask the server about another dish topped with finger limes (in fact, I just say, “finger limes?”), and he brings us two small bowls of them, so we can see and taste. There’s no meat, no dairy, but it doesn’t matter. It’s the sexiest plant-based meal I’ve ever had. It’s the sexiest meal I’ve ever had, period.
Humm, 44, is floating around the dining room in his chef’s whites, chatting with diners. He’s warm for someone so revered. He slides into the booth next to my sister and, as we talk, he holds eye contact and smiles. He tells us he was anxious about making the announcement of going plant-based but that, after perfecting his world-famous duck, he was on culinary autopilot with nowhere to go. He says that vegetables have opened him up to a whole new creative process.
“OK, but did you know you had the best duck?” my sister asks him. “Would you try duck at other Michelin-star restaurants and think, Yeah, mine is the best?”
He smiles and points at me. “This part’s off the record,” he says. But the answer is irrelevant. At Eleven Madison Park, Humm’s duck exists only in memory. It’s outdated, over, a relic of the before-time.
Humm’s decision went off like a bomb in the food world and the story of what’s happened at Eleven Madison Park in the past three months is already near-mythos. It goes like this: a creative genius, the best of the culinary world’s highest ranks, reached the top, lost his sense of purpose, then made the riskiest bet of all – for the planet. It could have gone wrong, but it hasn’t. That’s a common enough type of tale, but there’s something different about Humm and his rapid return to the heights.
Chefs and restaurant owners around the world watched their businesses collapse last March. The first question was survival: they had food going bad in their kitchens and staff on the payroll. They had suppliers, bills and rent. For many, the threat of bankruptcy loomed. For some, it hit. But many of them, like many of us, also faced existential questions in the fear-filled quiet: who and what am I doing this for? What’s the point?
In New York, many kitchens were initially able to keep afloat and find purpose by serving meals to the nearly two million people who were hungry, many of them children no longer receiving subsidised school meals. A combination of nonprofit support, government funding and community fundraising allowed many to keep some semblance of cash flow. For every $5 to $10 they received per meal, they could churn out good and healthy meals for about $3 in cost.
As the city reopened and diners returned, chefs and restaurateurs faced a new dilemma: what to do with the infrastructure they’d built to support their neighbours. They’d seen behind the curtain, beyond their front doors. They’d watched hungry New Yorkers line up for food, had to lay off and, when possible, rehire traumatised, overwhelmed staff. The pandemic taught them about community, how it works and how we take care of each other. They saw all the ways business is not structurally designed to help. This cultural shift hit the food world with one question in particular: what does it take to be good?
Since Humm’s announcement in May, I have been running around this reborn city, talking to chefs and restaurateurs. All of them are trying to do good and all define good in their own way. I visited venerable institutions, newly opened restaurants and not-yet-opened kitchens. I had long conversations, I ate and I glimpsed the future of food in New York – and maybe the world.
When I first meet Ravi DeRossi in front of one of his new restaurants, a vegan soul-food spot called Cadence, the air-conditioner unit is dripping into the entrance. He’s working out how to fix it with one of his servers. DeRossi is a hands-on boss.
“My life is my company,” he says as we sit at a sidewalk table. “It’s all I do. I’m always feeling ready to open up a new place and that’s my problem. I have this addiction. I get ideas for restaurants in the middle of the night.”
The server brings us a vegan potato salad. “That portion is way too big,” he tells her, and it probably is, but it’s also herby and satisfying and somehow creamy. I take seconds and thirds.
DeRossi, 47, is an eccentric local restaurateur, an artist who opened a little bar in 2006 called the Bourgeois Pig to, as he says, “support my drinking problem”. The bar was a hit and he quietly built up a cadre of eight small bars and restaurants across the East Village, all under an umbrella company he’s recently named Overthrow Hospitality.
In 2016, DeRossi had lost purpose. He’d managed his drug and drink problems, was offered a sizeable buyout for his business and almost took it and retired. “But then I read an article that said one restaurant creates 100 times more waste than the average person. I thought, I’m doing 1,500 times more damage to this planet. What if I was to turn everything vegan? Could I do it?” Then his cat got sick and died. DeRossi loves animals. The next day, he announced that all his establishments would be going vegan, which they have been ever since.
During the pandemic, DeRossi says he took another look at his values. He asked three members of his staff, all women of colour under 30, what restaurants they would open if they were executive chefs. One said a vegan southern soul-food restaurant with a black-owned wine list. One said upscale Mexican. One said a pasta and natural wine bar. He found three empty spaces and gave each of them a place to run.
This is how DeRossi’s business model works: he flips. If a restaurant isn’t working he can keep the lease and refresh it aesthetically for as little as $100,000 or build out a new one for $300,000. A concept that isn’t hitting can quickly become a concept that might. He says the model suits his personality.
Still, it seems like a risk to give less-experienced chefs their own restaurants. Does he worry he’s setting them up to fail? DeRossi says he’s built an infrastructure to support them, including an experienced director of operations and corporate executive chef. If the restaurants don’t work, he’ll find his chefs other projects.
“And also,” he says, “when you hire a veteran chef, they’re a pain in the ass. They’re stuck in their ways and they don’t want to change. There’s a toxicity that they still carry. Kitchens are toxic workplaces. They’re sexist and racist workplaces.” He says with some veteran chefs, “it’s just ingrained in their system”.
We’ve moved from Cadence to Etérea, the new Mexican restaurant. We’re drinking mescal cocktails and eating “ribs” made of sliced corn on the cob. DeRossi says he has no interest in that toxicity. He’d rather take a younger chef who knows the fundamentals and is passionate and humble, and make them great.
“Is it affirmative action?” DeRossi asks. “Probably to an extent. But these chefs were already in my company. And I say this with a lot of sensitivity, but white men have been given every opportunity in the world, and women and minorities have not. So if we have to go all the way to the other side to get back to the middle, so be it.”
Of these three new restaurants, Cadence is the buzziest. Its chef, Shenarri Freeman, who is 27, seems tired, happy, overwhelmed. Musician Questlove gave her a shoutout on Instagram. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells came by to review it, a first for DeRossi.
Freeman tells me that before the pandemic she had decided she was done with the restaurant industry. She was tired of dealing with the micro-aggressions she felt as a young black woman working in kitchens. “We’re oftentimes not seen or not heard, and I was just kind of tired of that storyline for myself,” she says. “I can honestly say this is one of the first times and the first roles in my career where I feel like I have free creative space and control.”
Her goal, she says, is bigger than food: it’s to teach her community about healthy and vegan eating, to be a model for others like her coming up in food. “I have this title that most people get in their early forties,” she says. “So I have really big shoes to fill, and it’s not something I take lightly. I think, you’ve gotten this title, now what are you going to do with it? How will you influence other people? What will you give to the next group of young chefs or women chefs?”
In late July, DeRossi and I sit together again, this time at the back of his pasta bar, Soda Club. We’re eating bucatini and ravioli and drinking a floral Greek rosé. I ask him how far he’ll go to do good. That’s very broad, he tells me, laughing.
“I don’t think our company has been 100 per cent good,” he says. “We’re still doing damage. We still get things delivered. We still use thousands of gallons of water. We don’t source local. We do it when we can, but doing so would be a very expensive endeavour. But everyone has different morals and different definitions of good. If it came down to either go bankrupt or serve meat, I wouldn’t serve meat. I would go bankrupt.”
A few days later, DeRossi emails me. He’s seen a quote that feels relevant to our conversation. “I don’t care if I win or lose,” it reads. “I just love to play the game.”
I’m eating from two plates of meat: a flaky lamb empanada, slow-roasted with sumac and aleppo, and a smoky, delicious, carnita-style pork shawarma. I ask chef Dan Dorado whether you can be 100 per cent good in the restaurant industry. “I’ve struggled with that thought so many times,” he says. “I look at the numbers. I’ll be honest, I really don’t know if it’s possible. I wish I could do everything. But I don’t think you can do it all, unless you charge $40 for a sandwich.”
Dorado is chef and co-founder of Migrant Kitchen, which I can only describe as a Latin-Arab fusion cooking initiative. It has a stall in the Time Out Market, a food hall in Brooklyn, where I’m sitting. It also has a catering business, regular pop-ups and two casual dining restaurants will open soon in Manhattan. But behind these customer-facing spaces is a massive operation that feeds the city. For every meal a customer buys from Migrant Kitchen, it makes a meal for a New Yorker in need. “It does suck to say that you have to choose which battles you want to fight,” Dorado continues. “At some point hopefully, all businesses can have a battle. And then maybe the next step is, everybody can have multiple battles.”
Some restaurants buy organic, farm-to-table. Some have compostable plates. For their battle, Dorado and his co-founder Nasser Jaber chose people. In addition to feeding the hungry, Migrant Kitchen’s mission is to give its mostly immigrant line staff good, reliable jobs.
Migrant Kitchen launched in 2019, so the pandemic hit during its inception. Dorado, who is Mexican, had been cooking for 25 years, eight of them as executive chef of Ilili, an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Manhattan. Jaber, who’s from Palestine, had worked in diplomacy and on emergency relief for the refugee crisis. They were friends who thought they’d give this new model a shot. But by March 2020 they found themselves sitting there, alone, surrounded by a thousand meals from a cancelled catering event.
When they brought the meals to a hospital uptown to donate to frontline workers, Jaber was invited on to MSNBC to discuss their work. They quickly put up a GoFundMe page before the interview went live and by the end of it they’d raised enough to keep going. Jaber says the pandemic scaled the business to a level that would have taken five years otherwise. They got access to unused kitchens around the city and funding from private donors and nonprofits. When they needed more space, they rented unused refrigerated shipping containers and put them on the street. Dorado estimates they’ve served at least five million meals to New Yorkers in need.
Migrant Kitchen will soon be run out of a 5,000-sq-ft warehouse on a desolate street in Long Island City, Queens. In late July, I knock on the door and Dorado invites me in. The industrial kitchen is enormous and impressive. This is where they’ll cook meals and train chefs, he says, “a culinary education that doesn’t come with a $20,000 price tag”. That’s where they’ll host community events. It’s all meant to open in mid-August, if the energy company turns on the gas. We walk upstairs into an empty room (“this might be for food tastings!”), our voices echoing as we talk.
I tell him about DeRossi and Freeman. “That’s pretty amazing,” he says. “Like if you’re in your twenties, it’s a dream come true. But my worry is that that’s not a sustainable dream for the thousands of people who work in this industry.”
The typical restaurant model is unsustainable overall, he continues, whether it’s a small place in the East Village or a large institution in Midtown. “You can only give so many restaurants away to chefs. And I hope they take it upon themselves to create an amazing work environment where they are. But at some point, that bottom line for a restaurant in New York City is going to rear its ugly head. And tough decisions always get made in favour of the business.”
Covid-19, he says, opened his eyes to the fact that in all his years, things haven’t got any better for employees at the line level. “If anything it’s only gotten worse. The benefits are crap at that level. I don’t know how any of it changes. And I just don’t want to be a part of that system.”
What does a more sustainable model look like? We’re talking fast now. He needs no time to think. “If I had that answer, I would write that plan and sell it to somebody,” he says, laughing. “Our answer is working out of a facility like this where we don’t have to pay $60k per month in rent in Manhattan and have the ability to practise what we preach.”
There’s a cynical way to look at all this. Is “doing good” just another way to sell? Consumers today like spending on something socially or environmentally altruistic. And we’ve all gone a bit vegan-curious; Burger King sells Impossible meat, after all. Eleven Madison Park, Overthrow Hospitality and Migrant Kitchen all market themselves with grand soundbites that cater to this desire. A PR dream.
But for most restaurants, “It’s naive to think that’s actually how it works,” says Greg Baxtrom. He is the 36-year-old chef and owner of Olmsted and Maison Yaki, two restaurants on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. We’re sitting in the backyard of Olmsted in mid-May. The restaurant is a 15-minute walk from my home and is beloved, a special-occasion spot that feels fiercely local.
When Olmsted opened in 2016, foodie website Eater called it “the neighbourhood restaurant we’ve all been dreaming of”. It was a James Beard finalist. Its backyard has a small urban farm in the centre, around which diners sit for a drink before their meal. In one corner, bees. In another, a quail coop. Baxtrom, who came up in Michelin restaurants such as Per Se and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, keeps an imaginative menu with memorable, farm-to-table plates: clam and carrot crepe, heirloom tomato schnitzel, duck pastrami. Olmsted has doubled in size and is always booked up.
I ask Baxtrom to tell me his pandemic story and he recounts an energetic tale with his dog Spud at his feet. A neighbourhood-supported GoFundMe page let him back pay his staff and start a “full-on bodega” in Olmsted for several months, selling hot meals and fresh bread, as well as nappies and tampons. He brought his pastry chef in and converted his private dining space into a trading post, which sold food to go. He paid off his suppliers, so they were willing to give him leftover beef hearts, which he made into chilli. Outdoor dining let him rehire the staff who still wanted their jobs.
When Black Lives Matter protests passed his storefront in June 2020, he looked across the street at Maison Yaki, his French-Japanese fusion spot, which was sitting empty. He had the idea to create a Black Entrepreneurs series, giving four early-career chefs two weeks each in the space as well as access to the things he needed when he started out, like a publicist, lawyer and food photographer. “That was just a no-brainer,” he says. “Once you have the idea, then you’re just a scumbag for not following through on it.”
After his businesses rebounded, Baxtrom went back to his hometown, Chicago, for three months. “I was not in a good mental place at all,” he says. “And I just got help.” Baxtrom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Now that he’s medicated and in therapy, he says, “it’s interesting being calmer in my head and more in control of my thoughts. I didn’t take care of myself before. It’s made me more understanding, even appreciative.”
When we talk in May, Baxtrom has big plans to open three more spots, two along Vanderbilt in September (a bakery and a family-friendly restaurant) and one in Rockefeller Center in March. Maybe continue the Black Entrepreneurs series in a different location. Would the neighbourhood want a comedy night?
But when I revisit Baxtrom two months later, everything is moving slower than he wanted. Olmsted is as full and popular as ever, but he feels less in control. His Vanderbilt restaurants will open in October. His staff is struggling with small transitions, he says, “not because of laziness, it’s just a lot. It’s been hard on them. It’s been hard on me.” The Black Entrepreneurs series will be a lot of work for his team, but he’s trying. He wanted to do a fundraiser for the Asian community, but couldn’t pull it off without more staff.
Baxtrom doesn’t think the good he does makes him a hero or that chefs have more responsibility than anyone else. He thinks some big gestures are good, that Michelin chefs need to do experimental things so the food world shifts (“René Redzepi needs to do weird food at Noma in Copenhagen and its influence will trickle down and everyone’s restaurant will kind of change”).
But when famous chefs with major outside funding declare at conferences that everyone should start a sustainable farm upstate which they can’t afford, it’s insulting. “Stop living in this romantic universe,” Baxtrom says, “Because it’s not real. And you’re ruining it by saying that’s what it’s supposed to be like. When I cared about Michelin, all that stuff sounded great. But once you see the whole universe, then you just realise it’s all ego-driven. Very little is substance based.”
In the real world, it’s all hard decisions. “If I am just a guy with a high-school education that just has a restaurant and is just trying to do right by his staff, then some things are going to give.”
Baxtrom wants to feed the hungry and has hired a full-time employee to co-ordinate doing so. He is struggling to give his staff health insurance. He longs for a proper reservationist, who will pay attention to the little things. Like knowing Dasa is a woman who has been there 150 times, comes in every Wednesday at 7 o’clock and can’t eat raw onions. “I want that,” he says. He goes really quiet. “Yeah, that stuff is hard.”
In Baxtrom’s mind, to be able to do those things, the business needs to make more money so he can afford to pay someone more senior. The new restaurants should help. In the meantime, I ask, how does a chef in his position authentically do good?
“In restaurants, those opportunities to do good come in a lot of ways,” he says. “One of the cooks just had a son, so we sent him [a gift package] and I’ll pay him for the week. The cook who just walked by cut his finger a few weeks ago, so I gave him some free hours and a simpler job as one of his shifts. Nick, who owns this building, is a really old guy and he’s not doing well. I like to make him food and hand it to him. When you really want to do good, those actions manifest themselves in a lot of different ways. When you see something that requires kindness, you act on it.”
The afternoon after my meal at Eleven Madison Park, I walk back through its gilded doors for a final conversation with Humm. We sit at a corner table, sunlight streaming through the triple-height windows.
He says that when he was considering going plant-based, he looked at the car industry. Some 25 years ago, Toyota’s Prius hybrid was groundbreaking but only attractive to a certain type of person. “Because it was kind of a dorky car?” I ask. “Because it wasn’t sexy,” he says. Humm tells me that when Tesla came along selling luxury electric sports cars, the game changed.
It’s clear that plant-based is not simply a trend, Humm continues. “So why not put my creativity to make that future more delicious and more magical and more exciting?” He speaks deliberately, softly, slowly, with a Swiss lilt, but now he perks up. “It’s exciting to eat vegetables! You know? There are so many ways to cook an eggplant. It’s limitless. With a piece of meat, it’s actually not limitless.”
I tell Humm about Migrant Kitchen, about Olmsted, about restaurants with less power that have to make choices or can’t afford to take as big a risk. “That’s why I felt almost a responsibility. This is a very unique platform,” he says. At Eleven Madison Park, diners pay top dollar for an experience. They’re not just paying for the food on the plate. But most restaurants sell à la carte dishes and “if you only work with plants, there’s only so much you can charge for a main course of carrots. And then you’re not actually going to have a business.”
Humm mentions Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse – “the most important restaurant in the history of this country” – who popularised the farm-to-table movement. He hopes this opens the door for new, entirely plant-based restaurants that diners won’t question paying for. “But I’m definitely feeling…” he pauses. “It’s a big responsibility now. In a way, I underestimated what it would mean to stand on that stage and take that step. The whole world is watching us. It’s overwhelming at times.”
Even Humm, arguably today’s most powerful chef, struggles to do it all. He still sells duck at his London restaurant. “We can’t go from what it was to being perfect,” he says. “But does that mean you don’t even try? Does that mean you’re just stuck? You take one step and then there are so many other things.”
I ask Humm how he defines doing good: “Whatever resources are at your disposal, just carve a slice out to also use for others.” For him that’s Rethink Food, his nonprofit, which helps Olmsted and more than 90 other restaurants make and distribute meals to hungry Americans.
I shake Humm’s hand, thank him and walk to the subway station at 23rd street. While I wait for the F train, the man beside me is digging through a trash can for food. He pulls out a Bible and flips through the pages. I wonder if he’ll leave it. Instead he checks the bin again, finds nothing and walks away, book loosely in hand.
It’s less than 24 hours after I’ve eaten a nearly $1,000 meal. My stomach is still digesting a beet that sat in a nest for three days. I don’t know what it means. But I think about it all the way home.
Lilah Raptopoulos is host of the FT’s culture podcast and US head of audience engagement. Email her at email@example.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first.