In a global, food-obsessed culture in which Instagram is king and people regularly partake in culinary pilgrimages to iconic restaurants, the founders of Make It Nice Hospitality Group know unequivocally that they can never stop innovating. It’s not enough that Eleven Madison Park was once named Best Restaurant of the Year, or that the NoMad has now opened a Los Angeles outpost. The rise of the fast casual restaurant has caught their eye, and they’re all in. They want to own the entire space from fine dining to superb everyday restaurants to fast casual eateries people frequent daily. They shall leave no culinary stone unturned in an effort to bring unique experiences to all types of customers. And perhaps it’s that exact philosophy that has led them on the path to building an empire.
CSQ Can you tell us about your individual upbringings and how that shaped your future and sparked your love for all things culinary?
Will Guidara I grew up in the hospitality world. My father worked with Wolfgang Puck, Au Bon Pain, Pizzeria Uno, and Restaurant Associates. He was my hero growing up; I always wanted to be like him, so going into restaurants was an easy choice. I look to him for inspiration and guidance to this day. My early jobs included working in the dining rooms at Spago in Beverly Hills and at Tribeca Grill in New York City. Each experience made me fall in love more. My first management position at Tabla with Danny Meyer sealed the deal.
Daniel Humm Unlike Will, I didn’t grow up around the restaurant industry, but I was exposed to cooking from a young age. Growing up outside of Zurich, home cooking, visiting local farmers, and even growing some of our own produce were all common place. My mother always had me help her picking lettuces and vegetables, washing them thoroughly, and prepping them for lunches and dinners. At the time it seemed a chore, but looking back I realize how important it was. Taking a role in a restaurant came about in part because I needed to get a job, but also because I enjoyed cooking and had an appreciation for it. It wasn’t the path I wanted to take professionally, that was to be a cyclist, but after an accident when I was 16, plans changed.
EMP was named the best restaurant in the world, and then you made the bold move to close for renovations. What was your thought process behind that?
WG There is a quote by Willem de Kooning, “You have to change to stay the same,” that is a big part of our company’s philosophy. We believe in constant evolution, always reinvesting and reinventing from a position of strength, not waiting until the experience is tired and you need to. While it was a pretty bold move to close after the big win, the timing was right. We had just signed a new 20-year lease, and felt ready to give the restaurant the facelift that we had been dreaming about for some time.
What type of experience will a guest have now at EMP that they wouldn’t have had before, prior to the renovations?
DH It’s still the same experience—gracious hospitality and delicious food—but now the room is more comfortable, more inviting, and more reflective of who we are. And then in the kitchen we have a few more tools of the craft, things to help us advance our food even further and better the guest experience.
EMP even has a presence in the Hamptons, for the second year in a row. Why is that an important market for you?
WG The decision to move to the Hamptons was based on the fact that we were renovating and we wanted to keep our staff. When we were thinking about how to do that, we asked ourselves what New Yorkers do in the summer. They go to the Hamptons. So we did the same. It was an amazing experience—getting to reconnect with our regulars, getting to spend more time with the farmers out there that we have worked with for so long, and getting to bond with our team as we all spent a summer together on the beach!
How do you approach your growth strategy for the business?
WG We are lucky enough to have a deep bench of ambitious talent, and part of our strategy is to watch them thrive. They commit themselves fully to our business and our ethos, and we want to give them opportunities—to watch them grow is to watch our business grow.
How did you start out in the business, taking a passion and turning it into a successful career?
WG I have always wanted to work in hospitality. I learned how important drive, ambition, and a strong work ethic are from my father and I never let go of my goal, which has always been to create meaningful experiences for people.
Did you ever think your hard work would create an empire someday?
DH When you first start out as a young chef you don’t think about empires—you think about each day, about small goals you can achieve and build upon. We started with one restaurant in 2011, and through the years have slowly grown little by little. But we don’t consider our business an empire—we have an amazing and supportive team that allows us to grow.
Why was it important to also tap into the fast casual market with Made Nice?
DH EMP is a restaurant you experience once in a lifetime, and NoMad is somewhere you go once a month. We started thinking about the kind of restaurant you would want to experience every day, and that led us to Made Nice.
What makes you different than other hospitality groups out there?
WG We have a seamless relationship between the kitchen and the dining room. At our restaurants, there is no separation from the front of house and back of house—in fact, we don’t even use those terms. We work together, share ideas openly, and never go to bed angry. At the end of the day, we also share the same goal: to make our guests happy.
What other projects are in your lineup for the next few years?
WG NoMad Las Vegas is opening in October, and EMP Winter house will be open from December 2018 to March 2019. Beyond that, we are launching a partnership with the International Center of Photography in January and opening 425 Park Ave in 2020.
What is your overall food and hospitality philosophy?
DH Our goal is always to serve delicious food paired with gracious hospitality.
What would be the best piece of advice you would give to budding restaurateurs?
WG Prioritize graciousness and deliciousness above everything else.
If you weren’t in the jobs you are doing, what would you be?
DH If I weren’t a chef, I would be an architect. My father was an architect—the exposure to creating things, putting ideas to paper, and crafting a place that can be experienced influenced me. I learned from a young age how to appreciate the work.
WG I would be a musician. It was always my other love. I played the drums my entire life—in fact I still do, but not that often, and it is something I really miss. Perhaps one day!
Who would you say are your culinary mentors?
DH Chef Gerard Rabaey and Chef Michel Bras are both mentors and huge inspirations to me.
The NoMad has crossed the country and moved to LA. Why was the market so attractive to you?
WG NoMad Los Angeles needed to be a celebration of its own city and not a carbon copy of New York. We have been very lucky to have the support of such a welcoming community of chefs and restaurateurs—the way they have embraced us in their city has been amazing.
How did you approach the differences in cuisine from the NY palette to the LA palette?
DH In developing our menu we were inspired by what we found at the markets—the year-round seasonality and availability of amazing ingredients as well as the diversity of the city’s cuisines.
What are your thoughts about being a part of the culinary renaissance in LA?
DH I don’t see it as a renaissance necessarily. I mean, LA has been one of the best dining cities in the country for some time now. We’re just excited to contribute to that and bring our cuisine and our perspective to the city, particularly Downtown LA, which has been so wonderful in embracing us so far.
What is the most meaningful award that you have received, as a chef, artist, business man?
WG Honestly, each accolade has impacted my life and provided a moment I’ll never forget. I can’t say one is more important than another because each has left an indelible mark on me and on our staff.
With all of your interests and such a high standard of quality, what are some standards used to enforce quality control at this level?
DH It’s all about trust. We trust our staff, our vendors, and our farmers completely.
What hobbies and passions do you have outside of the kitchen?
DH Running, biking, snowboarding, and spending time visiting museums and galleries.
WG For me, it’s music—especially playing the drums.
Where do you see the overlap between the restaurant experience and the art world?
DH Art is based on form and function, as is a restaurant experience. At Eleven Madison Park, we’ve created language that reflects this—every dish must be creative, intentional, delicious, and beautiful.
The word entrepreneur carries an impactful weight in society today. What does it mean for you both to consider yourselves entrepreneurs?
WG I believe deeply in the nobility of service, which I cherish and teach to our employees. I see each of our restaurants, each seat, as an opportunity to create an experience. Over the years, as we’ve grown, we’ve developed the confidence to develop our own set of rules, which I think is a big part of being an entrepreneur.
What were the entrepreneurial precursors to your inevitable purchasing of EMP from Union Square?
WG We are both leaders—one of us leads the dining room, one of us leads the kitchen. As we worked together our confidence grew, we developed our own style of leadership and grew loyal to one another. Together, these factors led to us purchasing Eleven Madison Park—it felt like the natural next step, as a team.
Can you pinpoint any specific turning points in your career that set you on a particular path?
DH When I started out as a chef, I was always trying to come up with ideas to make my dishes more elaborate, more impressive—additional sauces, additional techniques. I thought this was what was necessary to show my skills. But over the years, I’ve realized that simplicity is what shows mastery of your craft. When there are fewer components on the plate, the purpose of each element is much clearer, and in fact it’s much harder to work with less. When I created the dish of celery root in pig’s bladder, I came to understand this. For the first time, I felt like I had found my style of cooking and my identity as a chef.
Is it true that when you do what you love every day, it isn’t work? How do you make sure you maintain a work/life balance amidst the demands of your job?
WG Yes and no. We put our heart, souls, blood, sweat ,and tears into our work because we love it. I still wake up excited and go to bed eager for the next day. I don’t think there is such a thing as work/life balance, but what keeps my feet on the ground are my friends, my family, and my wife—no doubt Daniel’s children do the same for him. Our family in the restaurants also make even the hard days worth it—we are inspired by them every day. And when it’s been a really long day, I order takeout and watch Netflix.