We Cooked Eleven Madison Park’s $475 Duck Dinner. Here’s How It Went
(Bloomberg) -- Earlier this fall, when almost all of New York City’s three-Michelin star restaurants reopened for indoor dining, Eleven Madison Park stayed closed. Instead, the 2017 Best Restaurant in the World began selling meal kits. Now that the city’s dining rooms are once again shut, EMP at Home kits are so popular, there’s a waitlist.
The current kit’s centerpiece is the famed honey lavender roasted duck, which has appeared on the restaurant’s menu in one form or another since 2006. So popular was the dish that a big part of the restaurant’s last renovation was to install glass-doored fridges in the middle of the kitchen to put the ducks on display.
The multicourse meal serves up to four people. The price: $475. With optional add-ons, such as both black and white truffles and caviar, the cost at checkout can rise to $1,400. It’s designed for the holidays and offered through New Year’s Eve.
The program started in October with chef Daniel Humm’s famed foie gras and black truffle-stuffed roast chicken ($275). Hundreds of orders went out each week. Thanksgiving turkey dinner—an organic turkey, seven sides, and a pie—also started at $475.
“We wanted to bring something that was a bit more similar to what we do at EMP,” says Dominique Roy, who heads Eleven Madison Park’s culinary research and development, of the duck.
So, how does it hold up?
I arranged to have the EMP at Home package delivered from the pickup point to my home on a Saturday afternoon; customers must pick up the kits or hire their own courier service. The delivery worker could tell that the sleek 18-pound white box contained something valuable and grilled me extensively—for my name, contact information, who sent it—before allowing me to even touch it.
Once the Playstation 5 of takeout dinners was secured in my apartment, I began the unboxing. There’s branding on every object: the ribbon around the box, the labels for the glass jars, and even the string around the duck. No plastic soup containers here: Everything screamed bespoke.
Each of the items meant to go together were color-coded, so there’s a playful element to grouping things together as I pulled everything out of the box.
The green stickers on the winter greens corresponded with the glass jars filled with tarragon vinaigrette and crumble; the sky-blue sticker on a small jar signified that the spiced chestnut was to be sprinkled on the quart of celery root veloute once that’s reheated; the dark-blue stickers on a rather petite brioche and the peanut butter-size jar of foie gras brought the most joy, for there was sure to be leftovers for the next morning. The red stickers went on the duck breast and the three jars filled with honey gastrique glaze, citrus duck jus, and spices designed to complete masterpiece.
There were also three orphan dishes: oyster mushrooms, shepherd’s pie, and chocolate tart. It took every ounce of willpower to not eat the entire tart right off the bat.
A sealed blue envelope contained a menu and multiple pages of in-depth instructions so you don’t ruin $475 worth of food. Even so, there were difficulties translating a multicourse experience from a three-Michelin star kitchen into a home with varying qualities of appliances—not to mention culinary competency.
“The duck, the way that we’re doing it at EMP is pretty difficult, and you need a specific oven,” says Roy. “So we totally had to completely R&D a new way to cook the duck.”
At the restaurant the duck is roasted in a fancy convection oven. For the kit, the breast is partially cooked sous vide—you’re expected to render out the fat and crisp the skin in a sauté pan yourself.
The instructions specified 12 to 15 minutes. I found that it took closer to 20. Constantly spooning fat out of the pan was a tedious exercise that brought to mind Bill Murray’s line from Lost in Translation about a hot pot joint: “What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”
The shepherd’s pie and oyster mushrooms were easy enough to handle—I just tossed them in the oven. But as the duck was cooking away—and I was constantly skimming off fat—I juggled reheating the celery root veloute in one pan and the citrus duck jus in another. This was already more pans than I’d ever cared to use for any meal, let alone takeout. The stress of having most of the burners going and potentially ruining a component of a $475 meal kit was something that could only be ameliorated by inhaling the brioche slathered with foie gras, both of which could, mercifully, be consumed at room temperature.
Forty-five minutes after opening the box, I was finally able to Instagram the meal. After that, the first bite of the duck breast, dripping with the honey gastrique, made it worth the elbow grease involved.
As it turned out, I got more bird for my buck: At the restaurant, guests are served a sliver of the duck breast as part of the tasting menu. Here you get the entire breast, legs, and parts of the bird that you’d never see at the restaurant, turned into confit for a shepherds pie, easily the dark horse for tastiest item in the kit.
Behind the Price Tag
While chef-owner Humm says that Eleven Madison Park has secured a rent deal with its landlord SL Green and could mothball the restaurant until indoor dining returns, the revenue from the $475 kits serves two purposes. A portion of each purchase finances 20 meals for Rethink, the nonprofit that uses excess product from restaurants to combat food insecurity. Since the start of the pandemic, the kitchen has produced more than 340,000 meals for Rethink and continues to churn out at least 400 meals a day.
The kits have also bumped the number of retained EMP staffers up to 35, as unemployment benefits run out and government aid remains elusive. “Basically, we’re trying to figure out ways to keep some of our employees employed, and some of our core team working,” says Roy. “Just trying to survive during the pandemic.” The restaurant employed 250 people in happier days.
When Masa debuted $800 takeout kits in the opening weeks of the crisis, it felt out of touch, given the historic unemployment. Nine months later, with restrictions on indoor dining in New York back in place and the absence of the Restaurants Act in the latest Covid-19 stimulus package, operators are on their own. Takeout experiences that go for hundreds of dollars, such as chef Daniel Boulud’s famed $275 braised short ribs, have become more prevalent. Some consumers flush with money that they otherwise would have spent on vacations and more regular eating and drinking experiences, and ready to splurge on big ticket items.
The pandemic reminds us that the dollars spent at a restaurant don’t just pay for luxury food.
At $120 per person, the EMP duck dinner might seem like a discount from the normal $310 per person tasting menu. But at the restaurant, you’re paying for so much beyond the food: the service, the swank environment, the bragging rights. The meal kit fee still goes to support staff—and impress your digital friends—while preserving the supply chain of small farms. And in this case, it also buys meals for the far less fortunate.
EMP’s original roast chicken kit also accomplished all of those things. Clocking in at $200 cheaper, it sold more units and was also much easier to prepare at home: Just slather butter all over the chicken pre-stuffed with black truffle and foie gras and throw it in the oven along with everything else.
The brain trust at Eleven Madison Park seems to know that, too. Paired with the easy-to-prepare roast oyster mushrooms and chocolate hazelnut tart from the holiday menu, the chicken kit will be available once again starting in January. Lock in your order now.
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