In a few weeks, just as soon as the gas in the space gets running, chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske will open Contra, a 44-seat restaurant with a $55 tasting menu. The team's first stab at running a business is inspired by the neo-bistros of Paris in terms of structure and price, but Stone, 28, and von Hauske, 23, want to make a restaurant that's unmistakably New York. Though the two have worked for some of the world's great chefs, their goal is to create an inviting work-in-progress, a place worth giving a try and getting excited about, that isn't a clone of a restaurant across the ocean. "When you have dinner here, whether you're a tourist visiting or someone from the city, you should feel like you can't get it anywhere else," says Stone. In the following interview, Stone and von Hauske talk about how they became friends, their experiences working at great kitchens abroad, what it means to make New York food, and what it takes to open a restaurant when you're young and aren't yet a big name. Here's the interview:
How old are you? How did you meet?
Fabian von Hauske: I'm 23. We met at FCI. I was a student there and Jeremiah was working in the events department.
Jeremiah Stone: I was the sous at all the events in the school. I'm 28 now.
FVH: I was working with Dave Arnold, and on my free time, I would work with Jeremiah on events.
What had you been doing before then?
JS: I had already been working in restaurants. I did a lot of time at places I didn't really like. I helped open Allen & Delancey and had experiences at places where checks would bounce. There were a lot of those situations. I didn't really know what I wanted to do, so I did private dining and catering. I was going to move to San Sebastian at one point, but I ended up staying at FCI in a kind of R+D setting. We did everything from cooking for the Bocuse d'Or contestants to putting on a dinner for the owner's sweet sixteen. I met Fabian then, when he was moving back and forth between Jean-Georges and FCI.
FVH: I grew up in Mexico City and worked at some places there.
JS: I grew up in DC.
You both spent a good amount of time working abroad?
JS: After FCI, I picked up and moved to France. I first worked at Chateaubriand and also at my friend's place in Normandy before I ended up at Rino, in Paris. The sous chef was leaving, so it worked out for me. I was gone for about a year, came back to do Omnivore, and then my visa didn't allow me to go back. That's when I helped Ignacio Mattos open Isa. Then I went back to Europe for a bit, visiting Spain, Denmark, Italy, and a few more places. Fabs and I did some of that traveling together.
FVH: I was at Noma for like five months, then went to Faviken. After that, I went to Australia, to Attica, to work for Ben Shewry. This was around 2011. We've been planning the restaurant since then.
Tell me a bit about that process, and your experiences doing a pop-up before opening a permanent restaurant.
JS: I recently found an e-mail between us in 2010 when we very casually said we should do something together. It ended up turning into something serious. We wanted to do an ice cream shop at first. That idea evolved into doing a full-blown restaurant. By 2012, we started looking for spaces. I had no money when I came back to the States last year, so I did a bunch of consulting and dinners with Ignacio when he was out of Isa. I also helped put together the original menu for Marcus Samuelsson at Ginny's Supper Club.
FVH: I was doing a lot of the same types of things, still helping Dave Arnold a little. The pop-up idea came up a year ago. A lot of people would always ask us how the search was going, what we were going to do, and this was a chance to kind of put it out there and let people try it. Most of them sold out, so it was great.
JS: We were trying to figure out what would make sense in the city, what we should be doing, and what we should be charging for it. We figured out that we wanted to do a bistro with a very American feel.
How difficult was it to find a space and get everything together?
JS: It's really, really hard walking into a space and trying to figure out all these things, like second means of egress. We've never dealt with that before. It's been a huge growing experience. We've looked at close to 70 spaces.
FVH: The main challenge is that we are young and no one knows who we are. You have to show them that you are someone. They expect the place to be successful. We hit a lot of walls with landlords.
JS: We had the benefit of having really talented people, mentors, give us advice. But people come from different backgrounds and have different opinions, and that can be confusing. At the end of the day, you have to navigate it yourself. The goal was to put together something that wasn't this multimillion dollar project but also didn't look like we put it together over a weekend.
FVH: The space was small and big enough for us. It's a great location, people have been walking by, and we've been able to build everything we've needed to build.
What kind of food do you hope to put out?
FVH: It's kind of hard to say what kind of food it's going to be, but our goal is to make it very New York and very personal. We're not from New York, but we're here, and that's what we want to do. The food should be clean and, like the space, kind of spare.
JS: The produce has to be from here. We're not getting fish from Japan. This is an incredible food city, but sometimes you can see a lack of identity in the restaurants here, where people want to channel another place, another time. They want to do modern Thai, Roman, creative French. We just want to do something that's us — that melds our experiences and where we are — without feeling scatterbrained. The influence for the price and the format definitely comes from Paris and the neo-bistros. It's $55 for five courses.
Fabian has a very interesting way of doing desserts, where not everything is sweet or about cookies and cakes. It's built around ingredients in a way that is quite similar to how you do savory. There's a big focus on wine, too: we've brought in Linda Milagros Violago, who last worked at Geranium in Copenhagen. She's going from two-star fine dining in Copenhagen to a who-knows-what in New York! Basically, we want to be serious but not take ourselves too seriously. We're not trying to say we're the best chefs in the world. We just want to charge a fair amount so that we can do food that's interesting and that people like.
Can you go deeper into what you see as the lack of identity here? David Chang, for instance, has talked a lot about the fact that we don't really know what New York food is.
JS: Everyone likes to categorize food, just as with music. Anything that doesn't fit neatly into a category is indie or weird. But the ingredients we're using are familiar. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel, but we will try to come up with stuff without looking at a recipe. Is it French? Is it Italian? I think it's New York. It's diverse. It's not from somewhere else. I don't have these memories of my Italian grandma or my Chinese grandma. I ate whatever, what was here.
FVH: The point is, for me, that I don't think there's that much of a style here. You go to San Francisco and there is definitely a style there when you go to places like Coi or Commis. I think there should be more of an identity here, something that's contemporary that you can't find anywhere else. There's a huge mix of cultures that make something interesting.
JS: The quality and variety here is insane. You can find Mexican, northern Thai, all sorts of food. You can't find a lot of that in other cities around the world. But in trying to evoke some other place, we've forgotten in some cases what we are. We want a person from France to come here and get a representation of what two New York chefs want to do.
How do you feel about people that might dismiss you as too young?
FVH: People are going to hate you, regardless. A lot of people will say, "Look at those two young dickheads." But I feel like our generation of cooks — it's not necessarily about your age. That's the big difference between our generation and ones before it. A lot of those people in Paris are pretty young, but they can still do great, honest things. You don't have to be at a place for ten years to be able to do something interesting.
JS: You look at the big boom that happened in Europe and you see that people have found that they enjoy those meals, where things are sort of stripped down. Carlo Mirarchi and Iñaki Aizpitarte are pretty much self-taught. You have to have discipline and develop your skills. There's a lot of misconceptions wrapped up in resumes, where if someone worked for seven years at this three-star, it's assumed that they can do something good. It doesn't really guarantee you anything. We're really hungry and don't want to walk around with a clipboard. Some people have said we're not going to make money and that it's almost like a charity, but we want to prove ourselves and make something people can be excited about. When people walk into the place, they should feel like they're right here, on Orchard Street.
FVH: And it's been great so far, since we've been able to make every single decision along the way.