Chef Daniel Humm: A Renaissance Man

A four-star chef and marathon runner, Daniel Humm serves up excellence.

Nov. 23, 2009 — -- Chef Daniel Humm followed his heart and always knew he would find his way in life.

"I was confident that I would find my way, but I wasn't confident that I would have the career that I've had," said Humm, who practices his art at Eleven Madison Park in New York.

"And actually, to be honest, when I started cooking, I didn't know so much about chefs and what can be achieved. I just knew I loved food. I loved to be around the kitchen. And I knew with food, you make people happy, and you can, you know, it's pretty much instant satisfaction."

A native of Switzerland, Humm, who says he remembers dishes by the smell, found himself in the kitchen from an early age. As a 5-year-old, he remembers the aroma of his mother's jam.

Check out these seasonal recipes from Daniel Humm.

"My mom would always make a lot of different jams. ...I love peaches and she would make the most amazing peach jam. And I remember when she was cooking it ... because the whole smell of these peaches go through the whole house, and even outside," he said.

"It became a game that when I would walk inside the house, to guess what, what the food is today, or what the meal is today."

Humm was urged to follow in his father's footsteps and become an architect, but he immediately knew it was not his calling.

"My dad ... sent me to different architecture firms to do internships, at a very early age, maybe 10 years old. And, you know, I liked the lifestyle of the architects I've met, they always had nice cars, and they went to nice restaurants and were dressed nice. I like that, but then really seeing what they do in the office, I really did not like it at all."

Instead, Humm landed a three-year apprenticeship at the Hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich, where at age 14, he learned the foundations of his craft. Moving on to work at some of Switzerland's famed hotels and restaurants, Humm earned his first position as executive chef at Gasthaus zum Gupf, where he received a Michelin Star at age 25 and garnered much praise for his classic European style and sophistication.

Then Humm was off to San Francisco, where he was hired as executive chef at the high-end restaurant Campton Place. A newcomer to the U.S. culinary scene, Humm was nominated for the James Beard Foundation's Rising Star Award in 2004 and 2005.

Platelist: Daniel Humm

At Campton Place, Humm tackled his first Thanksgiving meal -- which he admits was a bit of a dud.

"I thought I could reinvent the wheel and, you know...just very elaborate, an elaborate meal but in the end of the day, people were asking, 'Where's my cranberry sauce?' or 'Where's my stuffing?' or 'Where's my sweet potatoes?'" he said.

"That made me wake up a little bit and say, you know, if something is tradition, you can't change it, you just got to go with it. You can do your spin on it, but you can't change people. ...I think that was a good lesson for me to learn."

Despite the flop, Humm has come to love the holiday.

"I love Thanksgiving because it's a holiday that is for everybody," he told "Nightline." "It doesn't matter where you are from or what religion you are. It's a time to celebrate and to come together and enjoy it with good food and with family."

Humm Hits New York City

Humm left Campton Place in 2006 and took his staff with him to New York, where he took the helm as executive chef of Danny Meyer's Eleven Madison Park.

"I visited New York before I came here, and I always felt this, just this special energy.

"I think what makes New York so special is that everybody who is here wants to achieve something in their field," he said. "If a doctor comes here, he wants to be the best doctor in his field, and if a lawyer comes here, he's here for a reason. He wants to achieve something for his career. And for chefs, it's the same," he said.

"New York is a tough place to live, there are more comfortable places. But people are here because they want to just achieve something, and they give their all to achieve that. And that's why it's so exciting and so competitive -- I really love this environment."

There aren't enough hours in the day for Humm, who's known as an early-riser. A typical day consists of waking up at sunrise to run, whipping up a healthy breakfast and standing on his feet all day in the kitchen -- only to do it all over again the next day.

"There's just so much that's going on and it would be nice that if the day would have like four more hours or so," he said.

Four-Star Chef Doubles as Marathon Runner

When he's not in the kitchen, Humm is a competitive cyclist-turned-marathon runner. He ran his first New York City Marathon in 2008, finishing in 2 hours, 51 minutes -- a 6:32 mile average. The chef uses running as a way to clear his head from anxieties in the kitchen.

"I just love to be outside and running in the forest," he said. "I work more, I run more. It really is like that. If I see I have a busy week coming up, I'm going to sleep less and I'm going to run more and I feel I get through it better. ...I stay sharper," he said.

Even in the culinary capital of the world, Humm's modern French style has stood out. His menu at Eleven Madison Park earned four stars from the New York Times.

Humm is an iron fist in a velvet glove. Sweet on the outside, but a strong, driven leader on the inside.

"My goal is to have a voice in this country as a chef and to be part of setting the trends," he said. "I feel there are so many voices...and I feel it's important that my voice gets heard, because I believe so much in what I have to say."

Humm is recently married and his wife is expecting a baby.

"It's about the simple things in life. It's about finding happiness," he said. "I think that's what's most important."

Check out these seasonal recipes from Daniel Humm.

Click here to get recipes and watch other top chefs in action on the Nightline Platelist.