Chandler Yerves had wanted to work at Eleven Madison Park since he was 14 years old. After all, it had been named the best restaurant in the world, counted Leonardo DiCaprio and Martha Stewart as fans, and had pioneered decadent culinary techniques like its celery root braised in pig’s bladder and honey lavender roast duck.
So when Yerves was hired in May 2021 after showing up on a broken ankle to beg for a job, he was elated. Eleven Madison Park had been closed for 15 months during the coronavirus pandemic. Not only did Yerves have the opportunity to finally work there, but he had the rare chance to launch its brand-new vegan tasting menu. It was a chef’s dream.
Or it was until the day he found himself running around the streets of New York holding a ruler.
A sous-chef sent Yerves out, instructing him not to return until he had enough 5-inch red peppers for that evening’s dish of fried peppers wrapped in Swiss chard. Yerves’ bosses didn’t care where the peppers came from. All that mattered was that they were exactly 5 inches and looked like the photos the restaurant posted on Instagram of its tasting menu.
Eataly’s peppers were too big; two different Whole Foods didn’t have them. It took him two hours to finally find the precise peppers at the third or fourth Whole Foods he visited. Half of the peppers he purchased ended up in the garbage, in line with what another former employee called Eleven Madison Park’s “farm to trash” pipeline.
Yerves knew he needed to quit. He was exhausted from waking up at 4 a.m. and going to sleep at midnight, standing for six days a week on a broken ankle. (His walking boot was banned from the kitchen because of its open toe.) While the vegan tasting menu cost $335, he was paid $15 an hour as a commis chef, or junior prep cook. He was tired of being yelled at for things like scooping ice “too loudly” in the infamously silent kitchen. He bristled at the bins upon bins of wasted produce as Eleven Madison Park’s owner and chef, Daniel Humm, trumpeted the restaurant’s “higher purpose” and commitment to sustainability.
“It was definitely a huge toll on my mental health,” Yerves, who quit in November, said. “It was definitely the most egotistical restaurant I’ve ever been in in my life.”
Eleven Madison Park has been around since the 1990s, when the restaurateur Danny Meyer owned it. But it wasn’t until 2011 after Humm and Will Guidara, then the general manager, purchased the art-deco establishment that it became one of the most acclaimed — and buzzed about — restaurants in the world. With parties DJed by Questlove and tableside magic tricks, Eleven Madison Park made fine dining exciting. It was a place where staff members would surprise a family visiting from Spain with customized sleds after an 11-course meal so they could explore snowy Central Park. In 2015, The New York Times gave EMP a four-star review, praising its “relentless, skillful campaign of joy,” and it topped San Pellegrino’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2017.
In 2019, Humm shocked employees when he bought out Guidara. Guidara wanted to expand the restaurant empire — which included NoMad hotel restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas and the fast-casual spot Made Nice — while Humm was obsessed with creative freedom. Months later, the pandemic hit. Humm considered permanently shutting Eleven Madison Park in the face of looming bankruptcy, telling Bloomberg in May 2020 it would take “millions of dollars to reopen.” When $62,500 in PPP loans and rent forgiveness put reopening back on the table, Humm decided to relaunch it as a 100% vegan restaurant in June 2021. He said he wanted to “redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose.”
The reviews were brutal from the start. In September, Ryan Sutton wrote in Eater that Humm “doesn’t yet appear to fully possess the palate, acumen, or cultural awareness” to pull off the vegetable-centric meal, while the New York Post declared that veganism “might be ruining” Humm’s career. Perhaps most scathing was the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells’ review in September, in which he wrote the vegetables were “so obviously standing in for meat or fish that you almost feel sorry for them.” A heavily hyped beet dish, he wrote, “tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint.” Wells capped off the critique by revealing the private dining room still served meat, “a secret room where the rich eat roasted tenderloin while everybody else gets an eggplant canoe.”
It was just, to put it very simply, a shit show.
It’s been one year since Eleven Madison Park’s vegan relaunch. And while the reopening prompted a 50,000-person waiting list, the online-reservation site Tock now shows open tables almost every night. It would be easy to blame waning interest on the pivot to veganism — not everyone is willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for a dinner without the caviar and foie gras luxuries that typically appear on high-roller menus. But seven current and former employees who worked at EMP since the relaunch said the restaurant faced bigger problems. The past year has been packed with pressure, chaos, and understaffing. Some described Humm as more focused on his image as a celebrity thought leader than on acting as a chef. That would be far less of a problem if Humm weren’t essentially rebuilding from scratch. After he and Guidara split, most of the key players left for other ventures. New hires burned out quickly and fled en masse. The restaurant where it was once nearly impossible to get hired has been trying to recruit workers on Instagram, where it recently listed 16 open positions.
“There were suddenly sous-chefs who were walking out of the restaurant. There were cooks who were walking out of the restaurant,” a line cook who quit in late 2021 told Insider. “It was just, to put it very simply, a shit show.”
(Some of the 11 former Eleven Madison Park employees interviewed for this article requested to remain anonymous for fear of professional repercussions, but their identities are known to Insider.)
A representative for Eleven Madison Park said in an email that Humm was “extremely proud of the team’s tireless work.”
“When Daniel reopened Eleven Madison Park post-pandemic, he told the New York Times that ‘we couldn’t go back to doing what we did before,'” the person wrote. “Neither the restaurant nor he plan to retreat from these necessary changes due to some mostly anonymous and flat-out erroneous critiques from former employees, competitors and other agenda-driven sources.”
Most employees hired to relaunch Eleven Madison Park found out it was going vegan when the rest of the world did: when Humm posted about it on Instagram in May 2021, about a month before the opening.
Quietly eccentric, with an easy smile and a perfectionist streak, the 6-foot-4 Humm convinced many employees that what they were doing was revolutionary, people who staffed the relaunch told Insider. Humm argued that the modern meat-centric food system was not sustainable, earning praise from experts like Michael Pollan who said plant-based fine dining could help address the climate crisis by legitimizing vegetables’ culinary potential. One employee recalled Humm comparing their mission to the first moon landing — some would doubt them, but it would change the world.
Despite Humm’s grand aspirations, current and former employees say he’s spent more time off-site curating his image than actually working in the kitchen. Humm is regularly seen out and about hobnobbing with power players: He met with Eric Adams during Adams’ New York City mayoral campaign in August; spoke at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in November; and sat front row at his friend Gabriela Hearst’s fashion show this past March. Even the women he dates are high profile, including the billionaire philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and his current girlfriend, Demi Moore.
Five people said Humm rarely visited the kitchen during service except to take VIP guests on tours, laughing with them as cooks silently prepared meals. Yerves recalls the chef personally calling Angelina Jolie’s agent to invite Jolie to the reopening. One memorable 2021 kitchen tour ended with Woody Harrelson and Humm dancing around the kitchen and lighting up a joint — an event that delighted some employees while disgusting others.
“He acted like an idiot,” a former front-of-house employee said, adding that servers started walking laps around the restaurant with trays of the pungent beet dish, not destined for anyone, to cover up the smell of pot.
“We kind of felt that Chef had lost touch with everything. It’s not Eleven Madison Park, the institution that is bigger than all of us,” the former employee said, adding that since the relaunch, the restaurant had “just been a vehicle for Daniel Humm to be Daniel Humm.”
As Humm mingled with celebrities, Eleven Madison Park staffers were reaching their breaking points, with six former employees saying they were driven out by low pay, long hours, and a lack of support.
In the tight labor market of 2021, most New York City restaurants were forced to raise wages to try to retain talent; Eleven Madison Park stubbornly kept its starting pay at $15 an hour. Even with overtime, employees said this was less than at other fine-dining restaurants, especially because tipping was banned at EMP. One former employee recalled Chipotle’s founder, Steve Ells — who sold Humm his $14.5 million Manhattan apartment — being “insulted” when employees refused his $1,000 tip.
A current employee said many employees quit to work at “lesser restaurants” that lacked Eleven Madison Park’s prestige. But at their new jobs, the person said, “they were making more money — a lot more.” One former employee said many people left for Danny Meyer’s restaurant The Modern, where starting pay was said to be about $22 an hour and Meyer had already ended his famous no-tipping policy.
Meanwhile at EMP, kitchen staff members said 80-hour weeks became the norm, with some days stretching more than 18 hours. Long shifts weren’t uncommon at Eleven Madison Park before the pandemic, but employees were now forced to juggle roles as people continued to quit, former employees said.
Numerous former employees said they lacked support, time off, and proper meals. Arielle Smith, a maître d’ from the relaunch until this past February, told Insider she saw colleagues breaking down in tears in the women’s locker room weekly. A former kitchen employee said he felt pressure to come to work while ill. He vomited twice before asking to go home, he said, but the chef de cuisine told him he had to finish his prep work first.
“Everyone was depressed,” said the former kitchen employee, who recalled employees at afterwork drinks in 2021 fantasizing about quitting. “Everyone was like, ‘This place is not OK.'”
Three former employees said even family meals — preservice staff meals once so delicious that New York magazine wrote about the sous-vide shawarma, fresh gnocchi, and toasted coconut-cream pies at EMP’s sister restaurant The NoMad — took a beating. Overworked chefs had little time and ingredients to make meals that properly sustained workers, three people said. Meals had to be vegan to satisfy Humm, a former employee said, even though the famous chef himself eats meat. A former employee recalled eating cauliflower and beets day after day. After their shift, some employees would get Sticky’s fried chicken or a burger at McDonald’s, another former employee said.
One former kitchen employee who didn’t have time during his 14-hour shift to seek out alternative food said his health began to suffer so greatly that he went to see a doctor. Preparing food himself or bringing some from home was allowed, but he said he didn’t have the time or money to do so every day. He told Insider he submitted a request to management that chicken be added as an option for family meals, as it was still quietly served in the private dining room at that time. But soon after, Wells’ New York Times review was published and outrage over the secret “meat room” exploded. The employee’s request was ignored.
Many employees say it wasn’t just the low pay and tough working conditions that drove them away; it was the fact that they stopped believing in Humm’s mission.
When Eleven Madison Park reopened, Humm boasted about his plans to create dishes centered on produce from the fashion photographer Maciek Kobielski’s Magic Farms in upstate New York. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that the farm would “soon be one of EMP’s primary suppliers of fresh produce.”
In reality, most vegetables were sourced from delivery services like Baldor instead of farms or local markets, Yerves and another former employee said. Both former employees, who quit in late 2021, said workers regularly trashed entire green boxes of produce from Magic Farms. Vegetables that weren’t the right size or that had even a slight blemish went in the garbage, along with any unused produce. (Kobielski told Insider his collaboration with Eleven Madison Park — his farm’s sole customer — had been a “positive and meaningful experience” and he’d had “no indication that food I produce for the restaurant is wasted.”)
This particularly struck a nerve considering Humm cofounded the nonprofit Rethink Food, which collects and redistributes excess food from restaurants’ kitchens. During the pandemic, Humm partnered with Rethink to serve free meals to low-income communities out of a food truck; EMP pledges to donate five meals for every meal served at the restaurant. Three former Eleven Madison Park employees said bins of food were trashed daily instead of being donated to Rethink or composted. Rethink Food CEO Matt Jozwiak, a former EMP chef de partie, told Insider it took “a few months” to organize the transfer of excess food from Eleven Madison Park to the truck’s dedicated kitchen in Queens.
The former kitchen employee said it was bizarre to watch Humm describe Eleven Madison Park as a farm-to-table restaurant to the media when he found it to be “farm to trash.”
This is the new EMP, and everybody is new, and no one really knows how to do this.
All this took its toll on morale and staff retention, and Eleven Madison Park began experiencing a problem it had never dealt with before: understaffing.
Most of the people hired to launch the vegan menu last year are now gone, current and former employees say; they note that less than a handful of the roughly 45 staff members hired last June for the kitchen remain.
Maria Reuge said that when she worked at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad from 2011 to 2017, she turned away applicants with years of experience who were desperate to be reservationists or kitchen servers. Eleven Madison Park’s 16 open positions include senior roles like sommelier and sous-chef that were once achievable only through internal promotions.
While Smith, the former maître d’, is grateful for her time at Eleven Madison Park, she said the restaurant had lost experienced employees who were once crucial to its culture.
“This is the new EMP, and everybody is new, and no one really knows how to do this at the level that they’ve been doing it,” she said.
Humm’s commitment to plant-based fine dining has posed other problems for his restaurant portfolio, which now consists solely of EMP.
Humm’s London restaurant, Davies and Brook at the hotel Claridge’s, shuttered in December after the hotel refused to allow the chef to switch to a vegan menu. In March, the New York Post reported that owners of the swanky skyscraper 425 Park Avenue killed Humm’s long-held plans to open “a Four Seasons on steroids,” his new meat-free vision being the dealbreaker.
At Eleven Madison Park, interest in the vegan menu may be waning. A former employee recalled that before the pandemic, the chef de cuisine would shout to the kitchen how quickly a month of reservations sold out. The record, he recalled, was just nine minutes.
As of Friday, you could make a reservation for a late-Sunday tasting-menu dinner at Eleven Madison Park, just two days later. After that, you could make a reservation any day you wanted in June, barring one. Every day in July had at least one opening.
Former employees don’t blame the vegan menu for Eleven Madison Park’s struggles, however. Most feel the bigger problem is that the restaurant lost the players who made it an icon. Since 2019, much of the former leadership team has joined Humm’s former partner Guidara to start a hospitality consulting firm and transform a Hudson Valley castle into a culinary destination. Others launched their own new projects during the pandemic.
These departures essentially gutted Eleven Madison Park’s institutional knowledge, according to two people who worked at the restaurant before and after 2020. One quit in late 2021, saying that he felt Humm was hypocritical and out of touch and that standards had “dropped dramatically.”
“It’s probably never going to be the same restaurant as it was before, just because you can never rebuild that culture and get those people,” the former employee said.
Despite the chaotic year, Eleven Madison Park veterans cautioned against counting Humm out. “Endless reinvention” has always been part of Eleven Madison Park’s ethos, and this isn’t the first time critics have doubted the restaurant. Wells criticized a 2012 New York-themed menu as “the most ridiculous meal I’ve ever had.” Three years later, he awarded the restaurant four stars.
There are signs Eleven Madison Park is working to stem the flow of exits and find new revenue streams. In late April, Humm launched a $150 vegan meal kit called Eleven Madison Home. In February, Humm folded to internal pressure and began to allow tipping. As of the new year, the private meat room had also gone vegan.
Employees who staffed the relaunch said they hoped Eleven Madison Park was making changes to better support workers and return the restaurant to its former glory. One line cook said he quit in late 2021 after burning out and falling into a depression but still loved the restaurant and continued to marvel at its beautiful Instagram photos. Still, he is not rushing to recommend it anytime soon.
“It’s definitely not as good as it was before,” he said. “Definitely not worth the cost.”