Trend-setting restaurant Eleven Madison Park to go totally meat-free

Eleven Madison Park, a highly acclaimed restaurant in New York City, is dropping meat from its upscale menu when it reopens in June, becoming one of the most high-profile restaurants to adopt a vegan menu. CBS News reporter Kate Smith joined CBSN with more.

Video Transcript

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: One of the world's most celebrated restaurants is going vegan. Eleven Madison Park in New York City is dropping meat from its upscale menu when it reopens next month. It is one of the most high profile restaurants to do so. The move reflects a growing trend in the food industry with more and more establishments transitioning to more sustainable ingredients and food practices. Here to talk more about this is CBS News reporter Kate Smith. All right, Kate. So what prompted the restaurant to make this decision?

KATE SMITH: Well, Vlad, as I'm sure everyone is aware, restaurants are one of the most hardest hit industries during the pandemic. And Eleven Madison Park was certainly no exception. Daniel Humm, the owner and the chef behind Eleven Madison Park, he had to close his doors for 15 months. And when I spoke to him in January, he told me that that gave him a lot of time to think about where a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park, extremely expensive, very exclusive, where does that fit into the world of food?

And he told me a few things came up in many of those times thinking about that. One was the idea of exclusivity. Very few people are able to go to a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park. The idea of food waste. When you're making some of these very elaborate dishes, a lot of food goes to waste. But the number one thing he said he kept coming back to was the idea of what an animal based diet, how that impacts the environment, and how with a restaurant like his and a gigantic kitchen like his, how does their reliance on animal products, how does that directly impact in the environment?

And what we heard yesterday is he says, that's just simply unsustainable. So what we saw is he announced that when they reopen in June, Vlad, they will be completely vegan.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So some people choose to go vegan for health reasons. But when you say you're vegan, what it's supposed to mean is you're not using any animal products, precisely for one of the reasons that you brought up. It has to do with the environment. It has to do with the way animals are treated in our society. So I'm wondering, when the restaurant reopens, what will their tasting menu look like? If you're not a vegan, will there be an option for you if your meat lover?

KATE SMITH: No, there will not be. If you go to Eleven Madison Park, you are going to be vegan at least for the night. Except I hear there's one exception, and that is for coffee and tea. You are allowed to have milk and honey for your coffee and tea at the end of the service. But if you go to Eleven Madison Park, like I said, you are going to at least pretend to be a vegan for the night. And what you can expect to see is something like a tasting menu. And for our viewers who aren't familiar with that, basically what that means is that you come to a restaurant, and there are no options.

You sit down and you're hand the menu. And that's what you're eating that night. It usually is multicourse. Think eight, 12, sometimes even up to 20 courses. And then what they do in a menu like that, and the reason why you don't have any choices, is because the ideas that they highlight what's really in season at that moment. So think, you're never having something that's out of season that would be very difficult to procure. You're having things that are naturally you finding their taste height at that moment.

So think about tomatoes at the end of fall or September. They're beautiful and delicious. And so they would only serve tomatoes at that time. And so that's the idea. So when you're going to Eleven Madison Park when it opens in June, you're only going to be having produce that is at the height of its season and the most delicious. But like I said, Anne-Marie, you will have to be vegan. There will be no other choices. And expect a long dinner with many, many courses.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: So Kate, one of the things that-- let me just preface by saying I think that what's happening with climate change, with global warming, is one of the most critical points that we've ever been on this planet. It's a hugely important issue that needs to be addressed. But I wonder, this notion of a restaurant, one restaurant, or even a couple deciding to do this, it strikes me that the way you get this real change, lasting change, is not by an individual restaurant tackling something like this. It's by an entire country deciding to invest in sustainable agriculture.

The United States is not even in the top five of countries that have the best food sustainability. Actually France is the number one country followed by the Netherlands and Canada. And so I wonder in France for example, you don't hear a lot of restaurants doing this, A, because French people would not necessarily be all that interested in going to a restaurant like this, although there are French vegans for sure as they are all around the world. I just wonder if this isn't sort of a-- what's the word I'm looking for, Anne-Marie? You know me better than I know me.

I mean, it just strikes me as if it's not going to be profitable, I guess, I wonder how long they're going to keep doing it.

KATE SMITH: Well, Vlad, I would like to say, if you tell a French person that they can't have butter, I'd love to know how that conversation ends. Because I don't think it'd look pretty.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: [INAUDIBLE]

KATE SMITH: Exactly. Right? But let me put it to you this way. Eleven Madison Park is kind of considered in the world of hospitality something like a graduate school. So when a chef moves on past Eleven Madison Park, that's kind of their resume. It's their calling card. If they open up another restaurant and "The New Yorker" writes about it, it's Eleven Madison Park alum opens new restaurant. They don't even name the person. They don't name the new restaurant. You can look online and see that. It really rings true.

And the reason why is that Eleven Madison Park takes a lot of risks. They do a lot of new things. They're ahead of the curve. They're a early adopter. So you're absolutely right. One restaurant, who I mean, frankly let's be honest, how many people eat at Eleven Madison Park every year? Not that many. It's very exclusive. But the idea is that when you see a restaurant like that making this move, it's not just about Eleven Madison Park. It's the trickle down effect of all these restaurants that now feel empowered that perhaps they could do something like this.

Or you don't have to go fully vegan, right? You can just have one of those very uniquely American diets where the appetizer has meat, the entree is a steak, or a pork chop, and then you start with a crudo, and every single dish has meat. And it's more kind of the freeing ability to say, well, what would this look like if we removed a lot of the animal based products? And what would that look like? And empowering people. So it's not just these little one off vegan restaurants here and there.

This is one of the best restaurants in the world and at some points has been the best restaurant in the world. So if they can do it, if they can create this incredible dining experience using just plant based products, I think what kind of the idea is that it's not just them but it would be the trickle down effect and empowering other restaurants to either do the same or kind of lean away a little bit from all those animal products that they've been so used to using all the time.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah. And I will point out to both of you that Michelin awarded its first Michelin star to a vegan restaurant just at the beginning of this year. And it is in the Bordeaux region of France. So I think sort of to that point, you are talking about sort of the leaders in this world cosigning on this trend. And it's a conversation that we had on CBSN AM last week. We reported on the popular cooking website, Epicurious, announcing that it will stop posting new beef recipes in an effort to fight climate change.

So we spoke to Jason Hill on the show who's a professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering at the University of Minnesota about what kind of impact eating less meat would have on the environment. And here's what he had to say.

JASON HILL: You don't have to cut out animal products completely to have a major impact on climate change. And think about it. If you eat meat seven times a week for dinner for example, if you cut that down to six times a week, you're still not a vegan or a vegetarian even, but you've had a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So I'd like to think of it not so much in absolute terms like vegetarian and vegan. But think more about a plant based diet, something that is that the basis is plants and plant proteins like legumes, whole grains, and so forth.

But building on top of that, maybe a little bit of meat every now and then isn't going to be so bad for the environment.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: All right. So Vlad is a wee bit of a skeptic here on this. But I would say sort of full disclosure, I was vegan for about a year. I wasn't able to maintain it after a year. But I really don't eat very much meat at all. But for me, I know it's doable. So I'm like, I could see this restaurant sort of continuing to be successful. And part of it is because this trend of eating less meat has been happening for a while now. The food industry has recognized that it needs to shift to at least plant based options.

Now people still want to kind of feel like they're eating meat. They don't want to feel deprived. And so we've had this emergence of all these sort of meat like products. But I have a question for you. The pandemic has shifted so much in the way we live. And a lot of people ended up doing a lot of cooking at home and sort of cooking in ways that maybe they had thought about doing but never had the time. Has the pandemic shifted people's views on what they're consuming?

KATE SMITH: Absolutely, Anne-Marie. And think about all of the different ways the pandemic has impacted our lives. It's forced us to really remember that we don't live in a vacuum. We live in a community. So when you think of all of the major flashpoints that have happened in the past, I'd say year, but now it's looking more like 14 months, masks, vaccinations, racial reckoning, all of these things are not individual issues. They're, how do you fit into the community? And how do your choices impact the community around you?

And something that has been obviously come up, and part of that is, what do you eat? And so you've seen a lot of different places reintroducing meat substitute products. And it's not just places like Eleven Madison Park or food blogs. It's Burger King. They introduced a vegan chicken sandwich, which not chicken, but a chicken substitute of course. Dunkin' Donuts for example, they have a Beyond Meat sausage patty egg sandwich.

And the reason they're doing this, Anne-Marie, it's important to note. They're not doing this to be good stewards of society. Businesses make these decisions because that's what consumers are asking for. And we exist in a free market. They're doing the things that they see interested in. So what that signals is that people are interested more than ever in seeing what would my life look like if I didn't have that sausage patty for breakfast? I had a meat substitute. What would my life look like if I had a vegan lunch?

What would all of these things look like? And it exists in this larger context, Anne-Marie of people thinking about, where does the individual really exist within the community that they're a part of.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: It just strikes me, Anne-Marie and Kate, that we often in this country seemingly attack-- we don't ever address the systemic issues that are problematic. We just have these little one offs that we can then point to as a success story. And I go back to the time that I spent in France. I spent almost a third of my life in France. And I remember the first time I moved there and I went to the supermarket because I wanted to buy a turkey.

And it was a real eye opening experience for me when I got to the supermarket to see the kinds of turkeys that were for sale in the supermarket. You did not see those huge saline injected all breast meat turkeys that are 30 pounds frozen in the aisle. You actually, what I saw, and this was back in the early '90s, but you saw a lot of turkeys that were just plucked and fresh on a big sort of counter. And they were very skinny. And I remember looking and saying to my friend, why are these Turkeys so skinny? And she's like, well, that's how they were born and that's how they died.

I mean, and I use that as an anecdote, but the issue is that in a lot of other countries around the world, they do get their produce and their products from within. They do have cage free chickens and eggs, and cows that are not injected with steroids and chemicals. It's a very big deal. And so by the very nature, people are eating healthier, and the food is sustainable. And also, yes. French people like beef, and they like fish, and they like chicken. But that guy in your interview Anne-Marie, no one eats beef seven days a week. I mean, you just can't do that.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I mean--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

KATE SMITH: Yeah, Vlad, you're absolutely right.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: But--

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I think his point is that cutting back and not depriving yourself 100%, cutting back could make a difference. And yeah, he is talking about the impact of some of these sort of larger factory farms. But by no means, I mean that's not just happening here in the US. Despite the great food that you can get in France, I'm sure they have factory farms as well out there. And so I think that-- so I think it's really-- what I think is that how successful Eleven Madison Park turns out to be will be very telling about where we're going.

Whether or not there is a cultural shift happening, or is it just a trend, because the people that go to that restaurant are people with choices.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: That's right.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: And so we'll see. I certainly have seen restaurants here in Philadelphia who have done the same thing, nowhere near as high end as that. But a chef will become vegan and change things over, and then it shuts down, and the restaurant is for sale, and it's back to serving beef. So we'll see if Eleven Madison Park can sustain this successfully. I hope they do.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: Fascinating discussion. Love this discussion.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Yeah.

KATE SMITH: Yeah Yes. Me too. And I should mention Daniel Humm, the chef of Eleven Madison Park, is a extremely competitive person. I had the opportunity to meet him. If he didn't think this was a winning ticket, Anne-Marie and Vlad, I highly doubt he would be doing it. He's gunning for World's Best Restaurant, three Michelin Stars, four stars from "New York Times". So if I know anything about Daniel, I know this is going to be a success. Because he has thought long and hard about it.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: We'll keep tracking it. Kate, thank you as always. Appreciate it. This is great.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: Well, I'd eat there.

VLADMIR DUTHIERS: I don't know. I don't know about that.