Local Guide: Contra.
Local businesses mean so much to us. We love getting to know the familiar faces in our neighborhood as we go about our day, and we appreciate the energy and inspiration that they can provide to us. "Local Guide" is a new initiative where we seek to shine a light on some of our favorite small businesses in NY and LA that we patronize week in and week out. Every few months, we'll launch a new feature consisting of a photoshoot and Q&A to help you get to know the business better, coupled with a t-shirt that we'll produce in limited quantities.
I met Fabian and Jeremiah 7 years ago, when they were on the sidewalk collecting signatures to obtain a liquor license for their soon-to-be-opened restaurant. I've been working in the LES for over 10 years and have signed plenty of these petitions, but this is the first time that I became friends with the owners.
Fabian von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone may be just Fabs and Jerry to me, but to others they own and operate two of the most exciting restaurants in NYC: Contra, a tasting-menu restaurant with a regularly rotating menu that highlights local meats and produce, and Wildair, its sister restaurant that is modeled after European wine bars with delicious, shareable a la carte dishes. Together, they are the recipient of two Michelin stars for Contra, Food & Wine's Best New Chefs (2016), Zagat's 30 Under 30 (2014), Forbes' 30 Under 30 (2016), and GQ's Chefs of the Year (2018).
I've lost count of the number of memorable meals I've had at their restaurants. One time, they opened up on a Monday (their only off day) to cook a private meal for Thrice and I somehow snuck my way into there. My wife and I have had three (maybe four?) anniversary dinners at Wildair. I've taken our team to their restaurants for several victory dinners. Their staff is impeccable, the wine list untouchable, and the food - next level.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the fine dining scene; we were already planning on producing this Local Guide tee for Contra before the pandemic hit, but once it did, we decided to donate all proceeds to their employee fund. I met up with Jerry and Fabs this week for the first time since quarantine to catch up and hear more about how they've been navigating the most difficult stretch of their careers.
What have you guys been doing since COVID hit?
Jeremiah: We have a menu that’s built for takeout/delivery called “Contrair” and we’ve been doing that menu since two weeks after all restaurant businesses were ordered to shut down. It’s a bit more travel-friendly and more affordable in price, some homier menu selections that we felt would be a good fit for this time.
Fabian: We chose things that felt a little more comforting; we didn’t want to just replicate what we were doing in the restaurant. We specifically didn’t want to serve things that people experienced previously in person as delivery. The first week or two, we both personally had ordered from restaurants who were doing delivery alongside in-person dining. A lot of what you get at a restaurant is experience, and we’re pretty aware of how that experience matters to a diner. Once you have one element from a place like that but everything else is lacking, you start noticing little things that might feel off, and then you start thinking “oh maybe it wasn’t as good as I remembered it.” That’s one reason we didn’t just offer our standard dishes from both restaurants. We went with things that are simpler and familiar, to help you feel better about what’s going on. For example, we repurposed the Wildair tart and made a dirt tart instead, a dessert that kids would have - but we thought it would be fun to do. We tried to keep Contrair as separate as we could from what we usually do.
Jeremiah: We put thought into our ceramics, the way that the table is set… everything about your in-person dining experience is considered, not just the radishes in your bowl. So much of the experience of going out is being with other people and sharing dishes and talking about it.
When you’re at home, you are either alone or sharing the meal with one person. For Contrair, we didn’t make a menu of that is to be eaten to survive, but rather food that can be eaten without worrying about how pretty it is or if you’re getting all the nuances that they’re trying to tell me in this story; no, we’re just gonna make good, simple food.
You've also been cooking for front line workers too, right?
Jeremiah: We were making food for hospitals and then later on, we were delivering to hotels and housing where nurses and doctors were staying. As the numbers of hospitalized patients have been going down, we’ve worked with organizations like World Central Kitchen and pivoted towards feeding people in need who normally rely on pantries and kitchens that can’t be open right now. So Bowery Mission, the Catholic House on 1st Ave, and still some food for front line workers.
What was it like to be in here, cooking and serving through the peak of COVID?
Fabian: Just before lockdown I got really sick from bronchitis, so I was at home for a good month before reintroducing myself to the world. It was so strange. Right in the beginning, I had a freakout - my sister is here and she graduated High School but has no health insurance. You start thinking about the worst fucking scenarios. I remember the first week, some of Jeremiah’s friends said they were going to escape the city, and people told my girlfriend “You should consider going back to Ireland because they are going to start doing some weird shit here.” It was so hectic. Everything changed from one day to another.
Jeremiah: It was pretty crazy. Looking at things now with people eating outside, it’s such a big change. When it was the beginning of April, I would walk down the street and see people in full-body hazmat suits and I was wearing masks and gloves everywhere I went, being very cautious. No businesses were open, no cars were on the road. At 8pm on a Friday, there was not a single car going over the Williamsburg Bridge which was weird. Beyond that, having a lot of friends who got sick made it very real for us. That's why we took it so seriously.
Yeah. Just like it went from people on the streets to a ghost town, all of a sudden people are out and about again like nothing happened.
Jeremiah: There are probably two camps of people who are out and hanging out right now. There are some who stayed inside at first, they were so afraid and took things seriously and they just cracked, like “I can’t do this anymore.” And then there are other people who left the city for the peak, to Jersey, upstate - somewhere safe - and they came back and are trying to go out because never really experienced peak COVID and so they have a less drastic reintroduction to society.
How as a restaurant do you operate responsibly and safely in light of what you saw and experienced, while still needing to survive somehow?
Jeremiah: We’re generally cautious people. We rarely put money before anything else; usually for better or for worse, we will prioritize creativity, staff, or time over profits because that’s a pretty simplistic way to look at things if you are just concerned about the bottom line. It’s always a longer conversation for us. Our way of dealing with it is to weigh all the different aspects and consider how it affects us financially, health-wise, while still thinking about creativity - figuring out if we have enough people to execute what they want to make.
I see that you’re building outdoor seating. How is that going to work?
Fabian: It’ll be a window where you can order food and drinks, and that will be the only interaction our staff will have with customers. That’s the responsible thing to do, and that’s just our way of how we do things at this point. We just don’t want to do table side service right now; it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t make any sense. For us, we’re just waiting to see what is gonna happen. We’ll provide people with a space to eat with friends and with distance from others. It’s the responsible thing to operate. You go somewhere else and get served and it feels so uncomfortable. I went to have a drink somewhere and people are walking in and out without masks, checking out if people are leaving, stuff like that - it’s like, what are you doing? You’re putting everyone in danger for no reason.
Pivoting a little bit - you both have been extremely vocally anti-racist in your personal feeds. Have any customers been put off by this?
Fabian: A lady who’s been to our restaurant several times before, who likes what we do, replied to a post I made about ICE kicking out students who are here in the USA studying on temporary visas. We did a pop up in DC and she came, she was super nice. You’d never think that someone like that would have such an unbalanced opinion about something that is such a no brainer. Someone who pays to study in this country deserves to be in this country. Plain and simple. And for you to say “it’s not necessary for them to be here” is just so out of line.
This is personal to you guys because of the energy you build here. You invite chefs from all around the world to cook at Contra, and you travel around the world to learn and share.
Fabian: This world does not exist - same with music, any other creative endeavor - if you're secluding yourself from everything else. The amount we would lose with that mentality, it’s immeasurable. This such a dangerous line to cross because students are the least problematic immigrants. They are not here to take other students’ places - I mean, universities themselves allot spaces for foreign students. Foreign students pay full tuition.
You’re not even talking about strictly travel bans or immigration policies at this point, but xenophobia.
Fabian: Reading the news is so depressing. I saw in SF there was a CEO of a tech company in a nice restaurant ripping on an Asian family. He was saying stuff to them like “Get the the fuck out of here, Trump is going to fuck you.” Just to say that out of nowhere? It’s so crazy, I mean you’re a millionaire. I guess it’s wrong to assume that people with money are educated.
Jeremiah: And educated how? Education is about whatever you learn from a book that someone wrote. If you’re educated, that might just mean that you’re taught a certain set of rules and history and way of life that inherently, systematically disregards the stories of others. If you went to any number of private schools and institutions, if there isn't a specific focus on social education or why things are the way they are, you’re just learning how to be more self-absorbed and focused on what your ideal world looks like: which is that a bunch of friendly Europeans came on boats, traded with natives, gave them technology and got fur in exchange, and then they decided “We would like to purchase your land” and the natives got sick on their own and went away.
The proceeds from these tees are going to the Contra/Wildair employee fund. Did you see longtime customers step up for the employees in the midst of this crisis?
Jeremiah: A lot of people wanted to show their support - you see how much restaurant culture and dining out becomes a part of people’s lives. It’s something people wanted back when this is all over. For us, there’s always more investment and interest from customers than there is even from ourselves sometimes. Customers fuel the whole thing.
Fabian: Throughout this whole thing, you just notice who are your real customers. There are people whose names I’ve seen on reservations once or twice before, but then they were ordering deliveries once or twice a week once we started Contrair. Yeah sure they need to eat and this is a way of doing it, but the way they did it was really supportive and special to me.