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Instead of cooking for the upscale clientele, swiss chef Daniel Humm cooks for the needy

Interview: Daniel Böniger


The Swiss top chef remains in New York during the Corona crisis. Instead of cooking for the upscale clientele, he now cooks for the needy. It was the proudest chapter in his career.

Daniel Humm, you raised half a million dollars to cook 100,000 meals for the homeless. How did that happen?

On the eve of the crisis, our restaurant Eleven Madison Park in New York was full to the last seat – then everything came to a standstill overnight. Sure, we had looked to Wuhan and Italy in advance, but we didn’t quite realize what was coming. Until we were suddenly told: 3 cases, 30 cases …

You then retreated for a few days.

And I quickly realized where my task might lie. I have a restaurant, good relations with farmers and suppliers, I know many cooks, so it was obvious that I wanted to prepare meals for the needy.

That worked out right away?

Not at all. My team, with whom I worked for years at the highest level and who are not really afraid of anything, were afraid of the virus. We don’t go along with that, most of the employees said. To be honest, I felt as alone as I did many years ago when I came to the USA. I would stand in the kitchen early in the morning and called everyone – twelve people were needed to get started.

Did it help you to stand up and make a difference?

In the meantime I’ve even started to wonder why I didn’t think of it before Corona. I’ve always had trouble cooking only for those who can afford it, that was never one hundred percent right for me. I like the food I choose, I like the big team. Unfortunately, our way of preparing food cannot be offered at a lower price. And now, well, I cook half a ton of rice at once.

How will the project develop?

The half million dollars you mentioned, I raised in just 24 hours to get the project off the ground. In the meantime, over 15 million in donations have been collected – that’s a contract.

How many food portions have already gone out?

We started a good four weeks ago with 2500 meals a day, in the meantime we have put a second, separate kitchen into operation and were able to double the capacity. We work in groups of three in case someone falls ill. But even 5000 meals, actually a large number, is just a drop in the ocean. In New York City, a million meals a day would be needed for hospitals, nursing homes, the homeless…

And what, when the Corona crisis will be over?

Believe me, I will never be able to work as a cook or host again if this social component is not part of the concept. And I hope to be followed by chefs all over the world. It is possible to run an upscale restaurant and do something about hunger at the same time.

Did you distribute the food yourself in the streets of New York?

Yes, I’ve also been outside, to places that are currently among the most dangerous places in the world, hospitals for example. I have met people who fight for their own survival and the survival of their patients on a daily basis. It was important for me to see this.

Are you afraid of this scary disease?

You are always afraid, but it is of little use because it slows you down. But if you draw energy from it, it might change your life. And, of course, you have to take precautions and be aware of the dangers. But during these visits to the needy, I felt the magic of food anew, in a different sense than in my everyday life. One can do without clothes, without shelter, but not without food. This central aspect has regained importance for me, no matter how much I enjoy preparing artistic dishes.

The whole story has a flip side. You had to put 300 people on the street because your restaurant Eleven Madison Park is closed.

You have to know that there is no unemployment insurance here. At first I thought I could just sit back and keep paying the wages. Until after about a week I realized that the situation could last two, three months or more. Our payroll is about $600,000 a week, and that’s just the wages. You don’t have to be very good at math to see that it doesn’t add up. Other famous restaurateurs, who have a solution for everything else and who are exemplary in the way they treat their employees, have also gone down this road.

And in your new establishment in London?

The social conditions there are different, all employees still receive 80 percent of their salaries. “In America it’s the great depression, in Europe it’s the great vacation”, some say.

Doesn’t that make you angry with the US government?

I’m not a political person. For me, the US remains a fantastic country, and that’s why I stayed here in New York. I didn’t want to turn my back on this city that has given me everything. But: Everyone here is aware that the “Big Apple” only works thanks to the illegal residents. They raise our children, clean our stairwells, mow our lawns. If Trump thinks we’re gonna close the border, that’s very short thinking from a New York perspective.

You had a burnout…

Yes, I went to India, meditated there, but I did not find a solution to my problem. The present situation, however, has opened my eyes, set my course anew. Strange as it may sound, it was liberating to realize that the world does not need duck breast with honey at the moment, because five hundred people die every day here in New York.

Is your restaurant going to get back on its feet?

That is simply impossible to answer at the moment. It’s just that the economic situation on which we depend as a restaurant business will change completely. But I’m very open about it, because as a chef I’ve achieved everything. I have three “Michelin” stars, we were the best restaurant in the world in 2017 – my big dreams, which I had as a boy, have all been fulfilled. That’s exactly why I fell into a deep hole afterwards, into a crisis of meaning. It was simply unsatisfying to know that I would continue to cook like this for another 25 years.

In the metropolis, well over 200,000 people are currently infected. Are you getting this?

There’s very little noise on the streets except the sirens of the ambulances. Everyone here knows someone who died from the virus. There’s not a single car on Park Avenue at three in the afternoon. It’s spooky. And when I go jogging in Central Park at night, I feel like I’m in another city. You are alone and hear the birds whistling, as you normally only hear them in European parks.

You see that “strip of light on the horizon”, as the government here in Switzerland called it?

It’s hard to imagine what the next few weeks will be like. Whether you read “Washington Post”, “Wall Street Journal” or “Financial Times”, sometimes it says this, sometimes the opposite. Every opinion is currently being listened to. It is an election year here, and the fight against the corona virus is also being used as a tool. This is an unpleasant development.

So you don’t feel that things go in a good direction in New York?

We are looking to Europe, and it is of course good to hear that the situation in Italy is slowly returning to normal, that schools are reopening in Denmark. This gives us the hope that we too can return to normal life after the crisis.

Have there been any good moments in recent weeks?

Basically, the clarity of suddenly knowing what counts is beautiful. The most impressive moment? For me, that was probably the morning, a week after closing, when we turned the lights back on in Eleven Madison Park. I hadn’t slept a wink all night, and then there were twelve colleagues standing in the kitchen with me to get started. This was the beginning of the proudest chapter of my career so far.

Daniel Humm is the “best cook in the world”

Source: https://www.tagesanzeiger.ch

Simon supports

Ein wunderbarer Text von einer in Venedig eingesperrten Person


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