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How Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske of New York's Contra sum up their city with oh so subtle flavours
What does New York cuisine mean to you? Bagels at Zabar’s? A burger at Shakeshack? A Cosme tostada? It can, of course, be seen as all these things, yet for Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske, two out-of-town chefs who’ve made Manhattan their home, New York is a certain set of ingredients, coupled with a certain attitude. The duo’s Michelin starred restaurant, Contra, and its adjacent wine bar Wildair, might serve tilefish in a fond de veau sauce, or scallop mousse in a butter dashi, yet the pair believe this combination of local ingredients, and an exacting, subtle style of cookery belies a distinctly New York state of mind. Read on to discover how the pair got here, why they clicked and what they’ve got planned for their forthcoming Phaidon book.
Tell us what early life was like for you both?
Jeremiah : I grew up in Maryland, and both my parents were born in Shanghai. There was a lot of Chinese cookery in my household, and I was a bit of a fussy eater. I’d eat meat when I was little, but not a lot of vegetables.
Fabian : I was born and raised in Mexico City. My dad had to work a lot, and there wasn’t a big culture of sit-down meals in our family. I was actually more into music when I was younger. I played drums in hardcore, or actually post-hardcore bands. The last one I was in was called Rodeo.
You met at the French Culinary Institute in NYC in 2007. What made you click?
Jeremiah : I was working there and Fabian was a student, and we catered for a number of different events. It wasn’t that we were cooking any particular cuisine; it was more that I admired Fabian’s work ethic.
You both took staging positions at some pretty prestigious European restaurants. Could you tell me a bit about those places?
Jeremiah : I worked at Rino in Paris. It was a very stressful environment. We were a three-man crew, we did lunch and dinner and we made everything from scratch, breaking down a whole lamb in the morning, to making the pasta, everything. It was pretty grueling. That was one of the reasons why we started to talk about launching our own place.
Fabian : I was lucky enough to land a place at Noma, via their pastry chef Rosio Sanchez. Jeremiah helped me get that. From there I worked at an event called Omnivore in France, where I met Magnus Nilsson. He wasn’t a big name then, but he seemed like an interesting guy. I wrote to him later asking for a job. He wrote back saying, “do you have a driver’s licence? If so, come.” I did.
Nilsson’s remote Swedish restaurant Faviken must have been a very rewarding experience. How did you find it?
Fabian : It was quite strange. I remember being put in charge of harvesting the onions one morning. We weren’t sure how many diners were coming in and the onion patch was about a fifteen-minute walk from the kitchen. I remember getting twelve onions, getting back to the kitchen, then realising I was one short. It was like ‘fuck, I’ve missed one’. I had to go on a half hour walk to pick another one. Everyone wondered where I went.
How did you settle on the name for your New York restaurant, Contra?
Jeremiah : Weirdly, it was something that we both hit on. It means ‘against’ in Latin and Spanish. For Fabian it was the name of one of its friend’s old bands. I just remember seeing a poster in Paris that said ‘contra’. We had been tossing names back and forth. We just settled on that one.
You describe the restaurant as specifically New York, but not a guidebook version of New York. . .
Jeremiah : New York was the big focus. It was the place where we had these connections, these ties. We’ll do a beet, yoghurt and hazelnut dessert, or some squash with walnut pesto. It won’t evoke a stereotypical New York, but it’ll have local ingredients and an overall style that sums up the city.
You’ve said Daniel Patterson’s San Francisco restaurant Coi was an inspiration in terms of the way he summed up a region.
Fabian : Actually not just Coi, there were a lot of places in San Francisco that were run by people who had a clear vision and point of view, a certain approach with certain ingredients. When we were opening, we were trying to do the same thing.
How important is your location on Orchard Street in Manhattan?
Jeremiah : It’s important. We only looked at restaurants in SoHo, NoLita, Chinatown and the Lower East Side. We both live quite close by and the city’s immigrant cultures are there, from Jewish to Chinese to Italian cuisines. We could walk into Chinatown and pick up a certain ingredient more easily than if we were elsewhere in the city.
The New York Times review of Contra described a certain restraint when it comes to sugar, salt and fat in your cookery. Do you recognise that?
Fabian: I think so. We like to work with ingredients more than sugar, salt or spices a. When we find an ingredient we like we try to bring out the best in it, and be subtle with the flavourings and the seasonings.
Jeremiah : The food is certainly subtler at Contra than it is at our neighbouring wine bar, Wildair. We opened Wildair in the summer of 2015, because we wanted to do something more causal.
The wine list at both Wildair and at Contra is pretty special. Could you tell us a bit about it?
Fabian: Jorge Riera is our wine director. He was the manager of a place called 10 Bells, just down the block from us. It was an all-natural wine bar, and we used to spend a lot of time there. He’s a Puerto Rican New Yorker, and he’s into younger wines that aren’t too overpowering.
Jeremiah : We tend to serve lower-alcohol wines, at around 10.5 to 11 percent. It suits the food, there’s a real connection there. You don’t want a strong, overpowering red.
In the US and the UK, upmarket delivery food services are eating into the premium end of the restaurant business. How have you guys responded?
Jeremiah : We cook food that you can’t package up and sell via delivery. Our food is very delicate and is meant to be eaten right away. That’s how we stay relevant. I know delivery is edging some people out, but it depends on the type of cuisine, and also the kind of atmosphere you create.
The publication of your Phaidon book is still a while off, but could you tell us a bit about the kind of material you'll include?
Fabian : We want it to be not so much about the evolution of the restaurant, but more about our friends and the relationships we have with other chefs, farmers, artisans, and wine makers, and how those stories have influenced how we think about food.
Where have you eaten and enjoyed recently?
Jeremiah : We’re actually really excited by what’s going on in London. We’ve both been lucky enough to have done a couple of dinners in London recently and there are lots of people discovering natural wines. Lyle’s is good, and so is P Franco, Sager + Wilde, Noble Rot. They’re fun places, where they keep things simple.
For more on Fabian’s former employer take a look at our Magnus Nilsson books; check back soon for news of our forthcoming Contra book; and for more on our newly signed chefs, read our Fredrik Berselius interview.