For every renowned chef, there is always one dish that defines his or her entire cooking philosophy. For Daniel Humm, the celebrated individual behind Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, that dish is consommé.
Think of consommé like a broth that has been supercharged: It simmers for longer. It incorporates actual meat not just bones. It's clarified using egg whites, which remove all the excess fat and make for a purer, more deeply flavored soup. And though typically made with beef, you can use almost anything as a base—chicken, seafood, even mushrooms. "It is so refined and humble at the same time, and comforting like a cup of tea," Humm says.
Humm grew up in a small farming town outside of Zurich, in a middle-class family where cooking meat was an occasional luxury. So when Humm's mother did cook meat, she was always looking for ways to stretch it out into multiple meals. She would gather up the leftover bones ("The fresher, the better," Humm says); add them to a pot with burnt onions, a few other vegetables, ground meat and egg whites; and make a consommé. His early childhood memories involve her patiently standing for hours over a pot of quietly bubbling liquid, carefully skimming the fat off the top, making sure the soup was perfectly clear. "We could always watch, but no one could touch it," the three-Michelin-star chef recalls. "It was so precious and warming."
Just watching that process "was always magical," he adds. "The beauty of cooking is when you turn something that is a by-product into something incredible."
His mom's trick to getting the most concentrated flavor out of the consommé (which Humm still uses today) is to add ice cubes to the broth, which allows it to come to a boil very slowly and gently. "That is when the magic happens," he points out. As the egg whites slowly bind to all the meat particles, they impart a deep richness to the soup before being strained out. For an even stronger broth, Humm will go through this cooking and straining process twice for what's called a consommé double.
The scallop consommé (top right) at Eleven Madison Park | Photo: Evan Sung
Humm believes that consommé—like an omelet—is one of those basic dishes every chef needs to know how to make. "It really is the essence of cooking," he says. "If you can't make a consommé, you can't do anything. It takes real precision and patience. There are no shortcuts. It requires all of the senses." Though it's just a simple stock, it's a complicated process—from knowing when to add the egg whites, to skimming all the fat off the top, to cooking the vegetables and ground meat to exactly the right point.
When the weather is cold, Eleven Madison Park serves a simple cup of the soup—unadorned, without fancy garnishes and accoutrements—as the first course to every meal. Humm's current version is a consommé that's made out of scallops (see the recipe). For the base, he roasts the "scallop skirts," or the frilly parts that are left over on the shells once the flesh is removed, as they contain an incredible amount of flavor, he notes. The end result is briny, complex and deeply comforting.
The dish, he says, is perfectly emblematic of the kind of cooking he seeks to do at each of his restaurants. Though many of the dishes at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad may look precious and complicated, "it is cooking that is reduced to the bare minimum," he says. "I want people to be in shock of how simple a dish is. And when they taste it, everything should just come together."
In this age of rainbow-colored ice cream sundaes and dishes with 15 different components, Humm is not surprised that uncomplicated trends like bone broth have taken the food world by storm. "We are oversaturated and overloaded with everything," he concludes. "I think that now more than ever, people appreciate something that is very pure and simple. Consommé is just that."
Priya Krishna is a New York-based food writer by way of Texas. Follow her on Instagram for embarrassing family vacation photos at @pkgourmet.
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