Seriously, Contra began as an ice cream shop?
Here’s how a sweet, icey way to keep one chef in NYC developed into one of the city’s best restaurants
The service staff at Contra, one of New York’s most highly regarded contemporary American restaurants, may ask diners plenty of questions, from wine preferences to preferred seating arrangements. Yet one question that’s unlikely to come up is whether diners want one scoop, or two?
Things weren’t always going to be that way. “The idea for Contra, our tasting-menu restaurant with a wine list and multiple seatings a night, started as . . . an ice cream shop,” confesses chef and co-founder Jeremiah Stone, in the new Contra and Wildair publication, A Very Serious Cookbook. “It was called Chavez Brothers and we were going to serve Mexican-inspired nieves (ice cream) and paletas (popsicles) in the front and do more elaborate tasting menus in the back on the weekends.”
This was not, actually, the craziest culinary idea in the world. Stone and his fellow founder, Fabián von Hauske understood the appeal of Mexican treats, as well as the difficulties faced by Mexican citizens working in the US, as the pair prepared to leave New York’s French Culinary Institute and find work in the catering world.
“On one of Jeremiah’s last days at The FCI, we were in that same theater drinking, just talking about our future,” Von Hauske recalls. “He had already done a lot for me (he helped me get a stage at Noma in Copenhagen), but we were talking about things deeper into the future, ways for me to come back to New York and what I would do if I did.”
Fabián was from Mexico City, and it was proving hard for him to stay on in the city. “It seemed pretty clear to me that the only possible way for me to stay was to open a business and get a visa through that,” he recalls. “We joked about opening an ice cream shop—a Mexican ice cream shop that we’d call Los Hermanos Chavez.”
The two crossed the Atlantic, Jeremiah to work in Paris, and Fabián to take his place at Noma, yet the idea for their own restaurant stayed with them, even after the brutally long days common in the restaurant business.
“I would get to my room super late at night and the only person that would be online was Jeremiah,” Fabián recalls. “We’d chat almost every night about our day in the kitchen and about the things we wanted to do in the future and we always came back to wanting to do something together.”
Yet their newfound skills – Jeremiah in French casual dining, Fabián in high-end Nordic cuisine – pointed them in new directions.
“The ice cream shop turned into a restaurant, the restaurant got a name, the name became an idea, and just like that,” Fabián writes, “we were opening a restaurant together.”
Fabián still makes ice cream at Contra, and has some very exacting views on how it should be done – sorbet is more or less banned – though the ingredients such as charred milk and persimmon fruit show how far these two young chefs have come since leaving school.
For more on how these two young chefs are transforming New York's culinary scene order a copy of A Very Serious Cookbook here.