WHEN I FIRST MET Yannick Benjamin, in 2013, he was working at Le Dû Wines, a retail shop in the West Village of New York City. Until a car accident 10 years earlier left him paralyzed from the waist down, Mr. Benjamin had been a sommelier. This June, almost 18 years after the accident, Mr. Benjamin is set to open his own fully accessible restaurant, Contento, in East Harlem, New York.
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The story behind the creation of Contento and Mr. Benjamin’s personal and professional resilience resonates deeply right now as New York and the rest of the world recover and restart. Contento had originally been scheduled to open last spring, but when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, all the work stopped. Mr. Benjamin’s response, as always, was to look for the upside. “The silver lining was that it forced me to explore my own backyard,” he said. For instance, he recently traveled to wineries in Maryland, Vermont, Virginia, Long Island and upstate New York. Those visits inspired a category on his wine list titled “East Coast Terroir.”
The challenge of opening a restaurant during a pandemic is just one of many trials Mr. Benjamin has faced over the years, in addition to health complications, hospitalizations and personal loss, including the death of his friend and former employer, Jean-Luc Le Dû, who died suddenly at age 52 in late 2017.
They’re looking ahead with hope and a keen sense of responsibility to diners who have long been overlooked.
Mr. Le Dû had been a great supporter of the fundraising event Wine on Wheels and the foundation it benefits, Wheeling Forward, created by Mr. Benjamin with attorney Alex Elegudin. The two met at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital when they were recovering from spinal cord injuries.
Mr. Benjamin met George Gallego as well at Mount Sinai, and he became a very important figure in Mr. Benjamin’s life. “He saved my life,” Mr. Benjamin stated simply. After an accident left Mr. Gallego paralyzed at age 25, he went on to become a world-class athlete, businessman, philanthropist and advocate for people with disabilities. “He inspired me to create a culture where there are more Georges,” said Mr. Benjamin. Now, Mr. Gallego is not only Mr. Benjamin’s mentor but his business partner in Contento as well.
Mr. Gallego, who lives in East Harlem, began scouting around for a restaurant space three years ago. He and his friend Lorenz Skeeter, who once ran a courier business out of the space next door to Contento’s location, were lamenting that there wasn’t a neighborhood place to get a good meal or a drink. When Mr. Skeeter pointed out the vacant space next door to his business, Mr. Gallego told him, “It would only make sense if Yannick was involved.”
When Mr. Benjamin came to look at the space, Mr. Gallego introduced his two friends. “Lorenz fell in love with Yannick and Yannick fell in love with Lorenz,” Mr. Gallego said. At the time Mr. Benjamin was a sommelier at the University Club of New York, a Midtown private club that, unlike most Manhattan restaurants, could accommodate a sommelier in a wheelchair. Mr. Benjamin recalled thinking his friend simply wanted his opinion on the space. But Mr. Gallego wanted him as a partner. “I felt this was something that Yannick needed in his life,” he said.
The three men decided to make the restaurant a joint venture and brought in two more partners: chef Oscar Lorenzzi and front-of-house manager Mara Rudzinski. They had to gut the whole space and replace an entirely rotted floor. The upside of this pricey repair was that the partners were able to lower the floor to make it wheelchair accessible. Customers in chairs can simply roll through the door. “We hate steps and ramps,” Mr. Gallego said with a laugh.
The partners also agreed to limit the number of tables so that Mr. Benjamin could easily maneuver between them while working the floor. The bar was also designed at a low height to suit guests in wheelchairs.
Mr. Yannick, a lifelong New Yorker, grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood and now lives in the Bronx near Yankee Stadium. He often wheels over the Madison Avenue Bridge to the restaurant, sometimes with his King Charles-Australian Shepherd mix, Amelie. “It takes about 45 minutes, and it’s great for the dog,” he said. When he gave notice at the University Club to devote himself full time to building Contento uptown, some club members joked he was leaving for “Upstate New York.” Many had never been north of Central Park. “A lot of New Yorkers have lived here all their lives and don’t know East Harlem,” Mr. Benjamin said. He hopes that will change. The neighborhood is changing as well. On a long-empty, block-long lot across the street, three mixed-use buildings of various sizes are now under construction.
The Contento wine list, a work in progress as well, will feature 75 to 100 wines at modest markups. Many of the bottles featured will be unfamiliar to most guests: a Cabernet Franc from Hound’s Tree winery on Long Island, for instance, and a Sauvignon Blanc from the Vineyards at Dodon in Maryland, not to mention selections from Italy, France and Spain. Most wines will be priced between $40 and $60 a bottle. There will be small-batch beers from Brooklyn and the Bronx, too, as well as Miller High Life. Mr. Benjamin’s wife, Heidi Turzyn Benjamin, a former sommelier at Gotham in Manhattan, is in charge of the cocktail program.
The Peruvian chef, Mr. Lorenzzi, has worked in restaurants all over New York. Dishes on his menu range in price from $7 to $29 and display an eclectic mix of influences, from French to South American. A “Oaxacan pizza” has a topping of chorizo and tomatillos; the short ribs come with a spicy peanut sauce and jasmine rice. The restaurant will also cater meals for the Axis Project, co-founded by Mr. Gallego, which provides spaces for people with physical disabilities to exercise and socialize.
Contento’s official opening date is June 10. That firm date might be the only certainty in a high-risk business. Most restaurants don’t last long, and if they do the profit margins tend to be razor-thin. “A restaurant in New York with a 10% profit margin is extremely successful,” Mr. Benjamin said.
But he and his partners are looking ahead with hope as well as a keen sense of responsibility to diners who have long been overlooked. They’ve worked hard to build accessibility into the pricing of the menu as well as the floor plan of the space. And they’re committed to offering some really good wine and food, at the kind of neighborhood spot they’ve long wanted for themselves.
Write to Lettie at [email protected]
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