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Chef Daniel Humm and his staff have faced some scathing reviews of his new restaurant Eleven Madison Park.
There was a moment last year, as COVID-19 brought the entire planet to a standstill, when the chef and owner of one of the world’s most renowned and expensive restaurants thought he might lose everything.
Daniel Humm’s restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, has three Michelin stars and had recently topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But like so many other less famous restaurants during the pandemic, it had to lay off all its employees, was struggling to pay its vendors and was facing the once-unthinkable prospect of filing for bankruptcy.
“At times I thought, well, if we’re going bankrupt with Eleven Madison Park, maybe that’s the end of a chapter,” Humm told CNN in an interview in August. “I actually got to the place where I was comfortable with that idea. I mean, you have to.”
Humm came to find the idea liberating, he said. Like many others before him he had previously concluded the food system required less meat consumption to be sustainable long-term. So if he might lose the restaurant anyway, why not take a chance?
That thinking laid the groundwork for a decision that shocked the food world: In early May, Humm announced that when Eleven Madison park reopened the following month it would go completely plant-based. (The only exception, he said at the time, would be cow’s milk as an add-on for coffee or tea.)
Like others before him, Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park had concluded the food system required less meat in order to be sustainable.
The menu — which includes items like a vegan caviar service made from tonburi, roasted eggplant with coriander and sesame tofu with squash — is all served with the signature flair and detail that Eleven Madison Park is known for.
But the move comes with significant risks. By going meatless, Humm is potentially shrinking his customer base to a smaller niche of diners. And those diners currently have cheaper options among other vegan or vegan-friendly fine-dining establishments in New York.
Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy, for example, has been creating plant-based fine dining since 2008, with a tasting menu that runs for $130 per person including wine. Daniel Boulud opened his “vegetable-forward and seafood centric” restaurant Le Pavillon earlier this year, and a six-course vegetarian tasting menu is $155.
Humm, however, didn’t cut the price when cutting the meat. EMP’s prix-fixe menu is still $335 per person — more if you add wine to the tab.
Reputation matters a lot for a restaurant like EMP, which is in a tier that relies on staying buzzy. In a pre-COVID-19 world, it was the kind of restaurant people traveled thousands of miles for after working hard to cinch a notoriously difficult reservation. Since the reopening diners have largely been New Yorkers, but that is unlikely to be the case long-term once travel picks up again. The question is whether the new menu can keep up the appeal and the hype that’s critical to EMP’s survival.
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Chef Daniel Humm and his staff have faced some scathing reviews of his new restaurant Eleven Madison Park seen here on June 10.
The reviews so far — including a scathing piece from the New York Times’ Pete Wells
The early reviews of the new EMP have largely not been positive. Some have even been downright scathing.
“This $1,000 dinner for two is not going to change the world. It is not a redefining of luxury, or anything close to it,” Eater’s Ryan Sutton wrote in September. “Omnivores have long been seeking out accessible yet ambitious vegetarian and vegan fare, and Humm, based on a mid-August meal, doesn’t yet appear to fully possess the palate, acumen, or cultural awareness to successfully manipulate vegetables or, when necessary, to let them speak for themselves.”
New York Times critic Pete Wells’ review last month went viral for its withering lines, including one about an EMP beet tasting like “a cross between lemon Pledge and a burning joint.” Beyond his problems with the food itself, Wells also pointed out that people who have environmental concerns about meat may not have much reason to celebrate EMP’s move.
“People tend to think of factory farms and feedlots when they hear about meat and sustainability. But Eleven Madison Park didn’t buy industrial pork for its compressed brick of suckling pig. As the servers were always reminding you in the old days, the pork, eggs, cheese and other animal products came from small, independent regional farms…If every restaurant that supports sustainable local agriculture followed Mr. Humm’s new path, those small farms would be in deep trouble,” he wrote.
And, importantly, he noted that through the end of this year, EMP still offers a meat option for customers who book a private dining room, a “metaphor for Manhattan, where there’s always a higher level of luxury, a secret room where the rich eat roasted tenderloin while everybody else gets an eggplant canoe.”
Wells did note that EMP has a history of correcting itself, however: “Each time the restaurant has overhauled itself — the cryptic grid menu, the magic tricks at the table, the themed New York City menu — it has gone overboard, then pulled back to a less extreme place,” he said, adding that “its talent for overcoming its own missteps was one reason I gave it four stars in its last review in The New York Times, in 2015.”
A spokesperson for EMP would not comment on Wells’ and Sutton’s critiques, noting it is restaurant policy to not comment on reviews. The spokesperson confirmed the restaurant’s decision to offer meat in the private room in a statement.
“It is an incredible undertaking to reopen a restaurant, especially in the midst of a rapidly evolving pandemic, and it took the entirety of our staff’s focus and efforts to execute this at the level Eleven Madison Park operates,” the statement said. “Our intention was always to transition the private dining room to be fully plant-based as well. In early September, we made the decision to remove the last remaining animal products from the private dining room menus by January 1, 2022.”
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One of the items on the new vegan Eleven Madison Park menu is tonburi with pea cream and baby lettuce.
Taking a cue from Tesla
Others say Humm deserves some credit for his decision to go meatless.
“The problem is [Humm’s] going plant-based creates a narrative of novelty and freshness and vision on his part when there have already been chefs going in this direction who haven’t gotten this attention,” Alicia Kennedy, a writer who has written extensively about vegan and vegetarian food, told CNN.
Still, Humm’s move has significance because of his place in the industry — similar to how a top luxury fashion designer refusing to use leather or fur still has meaning even now, Kennedy said.
“If Daniel Humm making this choice has influence on chefs who look up to him … then it is serving a really good purpose,” Kennedy said. If it trickles down even further, to neighborhood suburban spots, that’s even better, she said.
As for Humm, he said he felt EMP could do with food what Tesla accomplished with cars.
“It was only really until Tesla created an electric luxury car that they made it sexy,” he said. “They made it luxurious. They made it beautiful. And so it took that for the whole world to change. And I thought of having this similar responsibility of this restaurant that we actually were in a very unique position. Most restaurants don’t have the luxury to make that kind of risky move.”
That doesn’t address the question of whether a meatless menu will keep people coming through EMP’s doors in the long run. But Humm said in August that the wait list was massive, with “15,000 table requests at one time.”
Reservations for Eleven Madison Park have continued to sell out the morning they are released, a spokesperson said. Since it reopened, the restaurant has been serving roughly the same number of tables as it did prior to the pandemic, but in total, it’s serving far fewer people: It’s now open for dinner only six nights a week, and before, it served dinner nightly and lunch three times a week. When asked to elaborate on other metrics like sales and profitability, the spokesperson said EMP does not share financial information.
Humm, as ever, is focused on the food. And he has remained optimistic that a vegan EMP can be successful.
“I think it’s the best cooking we’ve ever done,” Humm said. “By a long shot.”
There are roughly 9.7 million vegans in the United States today, up a staggering 3,000% from 2004, according to a 2020 study from Ipsos Retail Performance. These dietary changes have caught the attention of businesses and created a booming vegan market where even traditional meat industry giants have gotten into the faux meat game.
Sales of plant-based food in 2020 grew by 27%—twice as fast as food sales in general, according to data from SPINS for The Good Food Institute and Plant Based Foods Association. A full 57% of Americans say they buy plant-based alternatives to animal products.
People’s reasons for adopting a plant-based diet range from personal health to animal rights to environmental concerns related to factory farming. Thistle analyzed numerous academic studies published in peer-reviewed journals such as Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients to curate a list of 10 benefits of a plant-based diet.
Plant-based diets inherently focus on whole grains, beans, fresh produce, seeds, and nuts, but not everyone who eats plant-based diets eschews animal products entirely. As with all diets, it’s important to consider a person’s genetics, activity level, preexisting medical conditions, and any nutritional deficiencies or food allergies. In particular, those adopting plant-based diets are wise to make sure they’re getting sufficient levels of vitamins and minerals, from B12 to omega-3 fatty acids.
Keep reading to discover 10 benefits of plant-based diets.
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Inflammation is caused by white blood cells fighting off invaders—whether foreign objects, such as a splinter; irritations, such as allergies; or pathogens, such as bacterial or viral infections. In the case of autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks healthy, normal tissue in the body. Overactive inflammatory response is widely considered by experts to contribute to chronic disorders including Type 2 diabetes or heart problems.
Acute, or short-term inflammation, comes on as localized pain, redness, loss of mobility, or swelling. The area may be hot to the touch, as in the case of a bee sting, and can last from a few hours to several days. Chronic inflammation can last months or years, and can come on as a hyper reaction to an external trigger, such as is the case with allergies; a mistaken reaction in which the immune system attacks healthy tissue, as with cancer or eczema; or long-term exposure to an irritant.
Diet and exercise have major effects on inflammation: Whereas obesity, smoking, lack of consistent sleep, and a diet heavy in added sugars and unhealthy fats can all increase inflammation in the body, nutrients found in fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce inflammation.
A popularly cited 2018 analysis of the international food industry suggests that switching to a plant-based diet represents the largest single action a person can take to reduce their environmental impact. While those stats—such as the fact that the ecological footprint of livestock represents 18% of calories and 83% of farmland—are striking, they don’t take into consideration all the complexities of sustainable eating habits.
It is true that pound for pound, animal protein requires 100 times as much water as grain protein—and that the production of oat milk emits 80% fewer greenhouse gases and requires 60% less energy than cow’s milk. Still, switching to a plant-based diet doesn’t guarantee more eco-friendly food choices: Growing practices, treatment of workers, the distance food travels, packaging, and ingredient sourcing all contribute to how sustainable the food on your plate is—or isn’t.
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Consumption of red meat and poultry has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes, in part because of the high volume of heme iron in those meats, according to findings in the Singapore Chinese Health Study published in 2017.
That research involved recruiting more than 63,000 adults between 45 and 74 from 1993 to 1998, and following their health progress for 11 years, in addition to studying the correlation between various kinds of meats and the volume of heme iron in each. Participants who consumed the highest levels of red meat and poultry showed a 23% and 15% increase in diabetes risk, respectively. Consuming fish and shellfish showed no perceptible association with diabetes risk.
Meanwhile, plant-based diets have been shown to not only protect Type 2 diabetics from developing kidney disease, but to help reverse Type 2 diabetes itself. Plant-based diets may also reduce mortality rates in individuals with chronic kidney disease.
Whole plant-based foods contain plenty of fiber, zero dietary cholesterol, and low amounts of saturated fats—a winning combination for heart health. Meanwhile, meat, cheese, and eggs come with cholesterol and saturated fats that, in excess, may create plaque buildup in a person’s arteries.
But it’s not enough to just avoid meat: For heart health on a plant-based diet, it’s important to steer away from processed foods, including white rice and white bread, which lack nutritional value and contain a high glycemic index. This increases your odds for spiking blood-sugar levels and increased appetite. Similarly, whole fruits are healthier than fruit juice, even 100% juice, which often loses nutrients and vitamins while being processed and contains high levels of sugar.
Numerous studies have shown the positive effects of plant-based diets—particularly a vegetarian or vegan diet combined with nuts, soy, and fiber—on cholesterol levels. Five observational studies, cited in a study published in 2009 in the American Journal of Cardiology, found lower blood concentrations of TC and LDL cholesterol in populations consuming plant-based diets.
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A direct correlation was found between high intakes of fruit and vegetables and a significantly reduced risk of cognitive impairment and dementia, according to a report published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in 2017. The key is likely in nutrients abundant in plant-based diets, including antioxidants, vitamins, and folate, that have been shown to have significant cognitive benefits.
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Vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to promote a healthy mix of beneficial bacteria promoting gut and overall health. A healthy gut biome promotes a high-functioning metabolism, strong immune system, healthy bowel movements, and appropriate levels of hormones that contribute to adequate appetite regulation.
Just 16 weeks of a healthy vegan diet focused on whole fruits and vegetables has been shown to cause a documented improvement in gut health, according to research led by Hana Kahleova, M.D., Ph.D., of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and presented in 2019 at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Barcelona.
Plants create an abundance of phytochemicals that help to protect cellular damage as well as being anti-inflammatory. A variety of long-term studies suggest that benefits like these from eating whole plant foods, as opposed to processed foods, may actually be able to prevent up to a third of all cancer cases. Most-studied have been plant-based diets’ capacity to help protect against breast, colorectal, gastrointestinal, and prostate cancers.
A growing number of professional athletes have turned to a whole-foods, plant-based diet to reach optimal performance. Colin Kaepernick, Venus Williams, United States soccer star Alex Morgan, professional surfer Tia Blanco, WNBA player and four-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi, and dozens more pros are all vegan.
Like the rest of us, dietary choices of athletes come with, at times, complex reasoning behind them. But there’s a lot of science backing up whole plants as a great choice for athleticism: Heart-healthy foods, such as whole fruits, vegetables, legumes, and nuts, are also largely plant-based. The anti-inflammatory principles and immune support of plants also benefit athletes in major ways. Tennis pro Venus Williams transitioned to a plant-based diet after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Sjögren’s syndrome and said a vegan diet allowed her to manage the disease without prescription medications.
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Low-fat, high-fiber diets are proven to reduce inflammation, which is great news for those following a whole-foods, plant-based diet. Because of how effective plants are at reducing inflammation, plant-based diets have been shown to work wonders for those living with inflammatory types of arthritis.
In a 2015 study, published in Arthritis, researchers investigated the effect of a plant-based diet on osteoarthritis. Those adhering to a whole-foods, plant-based diet experienced significant drops in pain levels and jumps in motor function in just two weeks.
This story was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.