Two of New York City’s Rising Chefs on Pushing Themselves, Young Success, Kitchen Collaboration, and Restaurant Lifespans
Photographs by Evan Sung.
Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske are riding high on the Lower East Side. Their tasting-menu hit Contra turned two-years old last weekend, and their sophomore effort, the wine bar Wildair, has shot to the top of New York diners’ must-visit list on the strength of strong reviews, such as last Wednesday’s two-star love letter in the New York Times. Contra is also a popular stop for European chefs, such as Chateaubriand’s Inaki Aizpitarte, who did a guest stint there last weekend. The two chefs collaborate on their menus with Stone taking savory duties and von Hauske bread and pastry, and tag-team expediting turns at their two businesses. We sat down at Contra earlier this week to talk about this moment in their lives and careers, how they do what they do, and how they see the restaurant business in 2015.
[Ed. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity; some of von Hauske’s answers have been “spliced” into the first part of the interview as he had to join a few minutes late due to unforeseen circumstances on the day. – AF]
Friedman: I had dinner at Wildair the other night. At the end of the meal, it was late and the kitchen was winding down. I saw you, Fabian, with some of the cooks outside on Orchard Street, and I was watching you, thinking, “Two-year anniversary coming up, two-star New York Times review this week, two days away from the Chateaubriand weekend.” It was a beautiful night, with a light breeze, and you just looked so happy. At the moment, I thought, “I wonder what it’s like to wake up and be you guys right now?” I think you must be feeling like you’re on top of the world. What’s the feeling you have in the morning when you get up these days, when you come over here?
Stone: I’d say it’s definitely not Cloud 9. I mean, it feels good in the sense that it’s motivation. And I think we’re both the type of people to be constantly pushed by those things instead of content. I was thinking of that the other day. It’s all happening this week: Things are going super well. The review was super ‑‑ it was really great and a sense of relief almost. And with bringing in Inaki and celebrating the two‑year, it felt good to have these really comfortable things, but …
Friedman: Does it also create a pressure?
Stone: Pressure is not the word. It’s more that it keeps us on our toes just to make sure we’re still driving. For example, this morning I woke up and I was very much thinking what to do at Contra next to really keep up with what everyone is expecting and making sure that it’s still very comfortable and how we can … not keep making it more upscale or fancy or expensive, just how to elevate it in small ways.
Friedman: So keeping the identity but tweaking?
Jeremiah: Yeah. It could be something as little as what farm are we looking to next to help us get the right product all year round, or how do we need to change the schedule to make everyone perform at a really high level? I think all those things are just motivation to make us do better. They’re not really rewards to say, “Oh, we did a good job.” They’re like, “You’re doing okay.”
Friedman: Well, that’s the nature of what you do, of cooking, right? You have to prove it every night.
Stone: Don’t stop now, yeah. And we always feel that. The fact that we change the menu here weekly means it could be going smooth and the reservations are good and everyone’s happy, but that small thing of changing the food is a reminder that everything needs to constantly change in its own way.
von Hauske: Me personally, I feel that we’re at a cliff the entire time and someone’s trying to push us off it.
Friedman: You mean having this attention?
von Hauske: Yeah.
Friedman: As opposed to before the reviews for Contra, because now you have something to lose?
von Hauske: Yeah. We got the review and for me it was a couple hours of happiness then like, “Fuck. Okay, so now we have to keep doing this.” [laughs]
Friedman: What’s the process of changing the menu like for you? To some extent the answer to what I’m going to ask you has to be “yes,” but do you have a repertoire of recipes or sub-recipes (sauces, preparations, components) that you plug in to and combine with what’s available at the moment, or is as much of your menu completely new things that you’re trying?
Stone: I would say it’s 85, 90 percent pulling from things, or tweaking something we’ve done before or some way that we cook an ingredient, and then 10 to 15 percent of the time on top of that is just something completely [new], sometimes more. Sometimes it’s 60, 70 percent [new], but I try not to because it’s harder for everyone to learn it and to do it.
Friedman: Because you have to execute it quickly.
Stone: Yeah … hopefully you have people that have been with you for a while where you just show it to them.
Friedman: It’s a shorthand.
Stone: Yeah… They know it. I think the nature of what I like to do is I like to definitely introduce new ideas, and so sometimes we try new things, and if it works then it gets added on right away.
Friedman: You opened Contra at relatively young ages [Stone was on the cusp of 29; von Hauske was 25 when the restaurant debuted in 2013]. I’ve been interviewing a lot of chefs who came up in the ’70s and ’80s and they feel that people are in too much of a hurry to hang their own shingle out right now. There are lines that come up a lot, like, “The chef’s the person in the kitchen who knows more than anybody else.”
How do you feel about this whole topic? When you open a restaurant at your age, I’m assuming, but correct me if I’m wrong, that you still feel like there’s a lot that you could learn, that this is still a process for you, as it is for anybody probably at any age. But what do you think the barrier is that someone should cross before they decide to make that leap, put themselves in the position of being the chef?
Stone: I mean, I think if the idea is that you’re supposed to know more than anyone before you become the chef of your kitchen, I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that way… you can spend your whole life studying as a French chef and being an amazing encyclopedia of French food, but at the end of the day maybe you know nothing about Thai food or you know nothing about Indian cuisine or there’s a new Japanese technique that you would never expose yourself to.
Friedman: That’s an interesting point, that the breadth of what people might be schooled in today is basically endless, whereas it used to be basically French.
Stone: I think there’s always something to learn. As long as I can be around other people that I can constantly learn from or push, for me as a chef in the kitchen it’s not like I know more technique than everyone else; sometimes that is the case, sometimes maybe it’s not. It’s the desire I have to make something a certain way. I’m the only one at the end of the day who is that affected by that plate. So when someone puts something out and it doesn’t look right, they only have the idea that they need to be effective…Every little thing about the way things are done, I care about the most, more than anyone. So that for me is what makes me the chef …
Friedman: I assume also you have what you would consider, your voice or your style, which you have a fairly strong sense of, which is what’s being executed.
Stone: Yeah. And I try and show other people and my staff, this is how I run things… “This is why I would do this.” And everyone’s taught different ways. For me, I never cook something this dark. That’s my personality. And that could be influenced from places I’ve been or something that I experienced as a child, or it could be something that I recently came to understand that this is how I like it… that separates us from everyone else on the staff. They all care a lot, but it’s not their name and it’s not their reputation or their money.
Friedman: As far as collaborating goes: I’ve eaten at both of your restaurants and all the food seems to gel. What’s the give and take in terms of the creative process, the ideation process, the common language that you guys share that makes that possible?
Stone: I think it’s some of the kitchens that we’ve worked in together. I think it’s that we happen to like the same kind of ideas. And it’s not necessarily the same stuff. When we go out to eat most of the time if we have ten courses we’ll like the same six courses or five courses.
Friedman: You’ll have the same reaction to the food?
Stone: Yeah. A lot of times. But we will differ on things. I think it’s good because one had a reason for liking one more. And we usually will talk about it, why we like this or that. And I think with the menu, too, it’s kind of like there’s always ‑‑ you know, there’s a certain approach that he has that is different when you’re talking about ingredients and how you would prepare something, but at the end of the day once we bring it together, it’s small. He might say, like, “Well, this doesn’t really seem like something we would do,” so we’ll tweak it a little bit, even if it’s an appearance thing. Or I might say, “Well, you know, this is my idea behind this.” Usually there’ll be a reason for messing around with it but maybe it’s, like, “Yeah, I get what you’re trying to do but it doesn’t really work in this menu, or it doesn’t really work with these ingredients.” That’s usually why it ends up meshing well, because we’ll edit.
Friedman: Is this anything that you guys at any point put words to? In other words, is it just kind of the shared instinct that you have because you’ve known each other long enough and worked together long enough and dined together long enough? I would never use an awful term like “mission statement” about what you guys do, or anything creative, but is there a definition that you have put to this or is it more of an instinct when something doesn’t feel right?
von Hauske: I mean, when you’re in a relationship and you get to know people, there’s things that you just know you can’t do or you shouldn’t do. It’s the same way. I feel like we know each other to a certain extent that we won’t do certain things just because we know that it doesn’t work within the relationship. I’m sure if he decided to open his own place or I opened my own place it would be very different to what this place is now. I feel like we understand what this place is and we just try to go with that.
Friedman: You mean the restaurant takes on a life of its own?
von Hasuke: Yeah, it might just happen to be … if it’s a dish or if it’s an aspect of design or whatever it is, it might be that way, and if I were to choose on my own it would be different, if he were to choose on his own it would be different, but it ends up being [what it is] because that is how it comes together with both of us.
Friedman: And it’s true to this restaurant?
Stone: Yeah, absolutely.
Friedman: Novelists have a line where they talk about at some point getting to a place where you’re just kind of following your characters, where they act on their own.
Friedman: You’re almost just being dragged along with them. Does the restaurant function that way to some extent?
Stone and von Hauske: Yeah.
Friedman: If that’s not too precious?
Stone: I don’t think it’s precious. I think it’s practical. Because at the end of the day it’s a business and if we sense that the restaurant goes a certain way and people like it that way then that’s [what we’re going to do].
Friedman: I’ve seen you guys talk about wanting to do places that feel very much of their time and place in New York. I saw a line in an interview where you said you felt there was a lack of identity in the restaurants here. To me what it gets at is this conversation I’ve had with a lot of people that things have become very homogenized, not just even really in the city or the country but to some extent around the world because there’s such an immediate exchange of ideas, and of visuals. That was, to me, part of what you were saying, if I’m not misunderstanding it.
Friedman: To that end, are there certain things that you guys, in trying to live up to that standard, consciously won’t do? Are there certain dishes you consciously avoid, like, would you not do the kale salad that’s making the rounds? Are there marks that a lot of people are hitting at this moment in time that you won’t touch?
Stone: Not necessarily trendy things. [But] we haven’t done a pasta dish because I think it falls into two categories, maybe like Italian restaurant or a new American restaurant that has these French and Italian influences, which you might see a lot of other places. It’s not that we have a problem with pasta. It doesn’t go against anything we believe in… but the food [here] is based more around a very specific personal idea. Being here in this space as a restaurant that’s in New York, this time, we don’t need to do a dish that’s like a pasta dish. That’s just an example.
Friedman: Is that something that you think is part of the original vision for the place or was that one of those things that as you were evolving, didn’t feel like it belonged?
Stone: I think a little bit of both. Just something that we said, well, we won’t do those kind of things because it gives off too much of a feeling of being one kind of place. People will tell us, “Oh, you should do a burger, just at the bar. It would help the bar feel busy.” That doesn’t make any sense to us.
Friedman: Would that feel like selling out to you guys or is it at a more personal level, like, that it just doesn’t feel like it belongs here?
Stone: More personal.
von Hauske: I think it’s a little bit of both. When we opened this place we were definitely trying to create an identity of who we were. And, it was a big thing, especially because I’m an immigrant [von Hauske is from Mexico] and Jeremiah’s first generation here, and we travel a lot so we take all of those things. For me New York is a city where there’s a ton of immigrants, and what’s so amazing about it is that everything coexists in this little island and it’s perfect and you get everything you want. And that’s sort of what the idea was for this place, that we thought we could take things from all these cultures, not necessarily a fried rice dish or pasta or burgers. Nothing that was that specific. We’re always taking from little pieces here and there.
It was less about, let’s not do burgers, let’s not do pastas, but let’s just try to do something that’s very “us.” And I don’t think either of us makes pasta. I’ve never worked at a pasta place.
Friedman: With the strong focus on wine next door and with [beverage director] Jorge Riera working the room the way he does, which I thought was great, does he come into the conversation at all about food and dishes? Does he ever have a wine that he thinks would pair really well with X and maybe you’ll try to back into something that would suit that? Do things come about in that way?
Stone: I mean, at Wildair, when we were planning the menu, because the menu didn’t change as much there, so when we were planning the menu there was definitely a lot of conversation where he was like, “Where is the da, da, da, you know?
Friedman: Specifically because he had wines that he knew would be great with, say, steak tartare?
Stone: Not one specific food, or some wine maker, but … he might say, “Okay. Here’s all this good Chenin [Blanc], where is the shellfish that goes with this?” But it doesn’t need to be one maker.
Friedman: Sure. A category.
Stone: A category, right… or he’ll be tasting something and he’ll say, “That needs to go with … we need something like lamb.” … Or the other way around where, you know, [at Contra]… he’ll say, “What’s the menu?” And we’ll talk about, “Well, it’s probably going to be squid that’s with walnuts.” And he’ll say, “Like four weeks ago, that one dish with the clams?” “Yeah, kind of like that.” Then he’ll start to get the idea.
Friedman: So you end up with a shorthand with him like the shorthand we were talking about with your cooks?
Stone: Yes. He definitely knows things that reappear and things that are staples and standards and how we do it.
Friedman: Can we talk for just a minute about the New York City customer of 2015? I’m curious how you guys perceive them? You have a tasting-menu only format at Cotra. You’ve gotten a ton of mainstream press. The people who are coming into a restaurant like this on Orchard Street in 2015, are they down with the whole thing, more or less? Do they understand what they’ve signed up for when they reserve, when they come in?
Stone: There’s a good amount but there’s still on the weekends …
von Hauske: There’s a certain amount that doesn’t.
Friedman: Are they surprised sometimes to walk in and find it’s tasting only?
von Hauske: Sometimes it’s very crazy how the older crowd that reads the New York Times, they’ll come in and they’ll have a blast, but then you’ll have a five‑top of Yelpers who are, like, 28 and you know they’re just picking apart everything.
Friedman: So sometimes it’ll flip your expectation of what you might expect?
Stone: Absolutely. I think some of that stems from our both having worked for other people who worked for other people and maybe some of the ideas we have are actually not very new at all. And maybe some of the stuff we do resonates. Because I have people, you know, who come up to me and they’ll just be like, you know, 60s, 70s. Tons of people in their 70s all the time and they’re like, “We never come down but we read about this from the New York Times or from whatever.” And you’ll just be thinking, “Oh, this is not going to go well.” And they’ll come back and they’ll start clapping in the kitchen and be, like, “That was amazing. I haven’t eaten like that since the last meal I had ‑‑” and they’ll name some really old chef. And that’s a great reference. Or Gael Greene, she said this monkfish dish reminded her of Le Bernardin when it opened with Gilbert. It’s those kind of things where you realize that maybe the food that you’re doing is not so “future,” “modern,” or “post‑modern” or whatever it is. Maybe some ideas and flavors bring people back to something very classic.
Friedman: Does the success of Contra and the rapid success of Wildair make you hungry for more or do you feel like you need to spend X amount of time now just sort of digging in and honing the machine and refining what you’ve got? I’m not asking for particulars but I’m sure you must be getting calls from people looking to explore a partnership, or do something at a hotel, that kind of thing. I’m sure you guys are getting those feelers. What’s it like to resist that? Do you have those impulses of your own right now?
von Hauske: This place has been like a roller coaster. When we opened, there was a lot of press and we didn’t know where it came from because no one really knew us. When we started we were really busy and reviews started coming out, and luckily everyone was super kind to us. We got one bad review, I think, but other than that people were very supportive of what we were doing.
Friedman: You were surprised by the attention?
von Hauske: Yeah. I mean, I still am. When we opened Wildair, I promise you there were days when we had four people. Some days where we had to invite our friends and family just to fill up the space. So yeah, for me it’s crazy that on Saturday night we did 100 people. Absolutely. And I’m the kind of person who’s, like, we just need to keep doing something because this is going to stop eventually. I feel like we went through what any hot restaurant goes through in New York. We had a really low summer our first summer and we really didn’t know what was going to happen. We were never bad financially but you always ask yourself how do we get back to where we were busiest? What do we do? And then, thank God, press started to line up again. We got all these end-of-the-year mentions, so it’s been good since then.
But you never feel sure about the success because you’re always waiting for it to disappear.
Friedman: I’m curious about this: For guys at your age who are pretty new to owning your own place, what is your expectation of the lifespan of a restaurant? I had a talk with Wylie Dufresne last year who was at the time closing a restaurant (he’s since closed his other one) and he was saying that there’s so many restaurants in the city now. It does seem a little crazy. You can go on Eater on every Friday and literally see “five new places you should try this weekend,” every week. I can see how you would feel like there’s always this possibility that it’s going to start to drain off because there’s such an influx of new places. Do you feel that?
Friedman: Do you feel it in your bones that there’s this constant generation of — maybe you don’t think of it as competition because these people are colleagues of yours, and maybe you like a lot of them and they’re friends or you’ve worked with them before — but at some level there is competition for the diners, right?
von Hauske: I feel when you open a restaurant in New York you definitely start feeling that this is not the city to open the restaurant that in ten years is going to become the best restaurant in the world, just because I don’t think there’s the support here, economically. People want the hottest thing and they want the most interesting thing right now. I think there’s a lot of people who will support a place and really go for it and see it grow but you can’t support a business …
Stone: I think for our age group, growing up in the restaurants that we did are not the restaurants that are the Le Côte Basque or the La Grenouille or Lutèce. Being open for 35 years or whatever is foreign to us.
Friedman: Or even a generation later, right? Places like Gotham Bar and Grill, or Tribeca Grill, which just had its 25th anniversary this week. You probably don’t even connect to that so much.
Stone: Even Union Square having to move now. Even if its restaurants that we could have worked at. I think those people even feel it now because it’s almost like it was expected before, that you keep the restaurant open. But now with rent and staff and all these new laws, all the money you have to dump into how much it costs to run a restaurant that didn’t exist before. I think you sign a 10‑year lease and then you try and live that out.
Friedman: That would seem like a good run to you guys? If you went 10 years?
von Hauske: [laughs] I think at this point if we went five …
Friedman: For real? You think most of your peers feel that way?
Stone: I think so.
Friedman: You think the mindset of, “We’re going to be here in thirty years drinking champagne on our anniversary,” that doesn’t seem credible in the New York of today?
Stone: I think that everyone thinks, “I really want this place to keep going,” but it’s difficult. We do get the calls and we do get people wanting to invest in us but, at least to this point, we wanted to be independent. We wanted to do things how we want to do it. I think that the success that we had is because luckily we’ve had people who’ve aligned themselves around us and they made us who we are now and successful. I mean, I would like to think that this place exists in 10 years, but …
Friedman: But your generation of chefs see it as a natural thing that probably you’ll have a succession of projects over a lifespan?
Stone: It’s hard for me to wrap my head around something that’s like the age of Tribeca Grill … wd-50 going 10 years; that’s a good run, you know? A lot of people have come out of there. It does seem short but at the same time, with the neighborhood changing and people are always getting closed. So it’s hard to say you feel comfortable thinking that a place will be open for twenty-five years. And I think maybe a lot of younger business owners like ourselves are looking at it like, if we could be successful for however many years… as long as we can pay out the restaurant, have a great staff and have people that love to eat and then transform that into something else or, move or whatever, if that’s how it has to be in New York. You escape that rent, you move somewhere else where it’s cheaper and you do something different. Maybe that’s the new thing.
Friedman: Whether from a business standpoint or from a management-of-a-team standpoint, since you guys have hung out the shingle for the first time two years ago, what’s the biggest “If I knew then what I know now” lesson?
von Hauske: I think for me when we first opened, our vision for me was, we want to do this and we were just going to do things our way. And I feel like if I could go back, I would tell myself that there’s a way that you can do things your way and you can still make people happy. There’s certain things that you just don’t have to cling to that you could give away… [for example] when we opened we had a sommelier who’s really strong. She was a very strong character. And this is just an example. She would be, like, there’s no BYOB. This is the list. We have to respect it. And, a year in or whatever, you’re just, like, “You know what? These people want to come to your restaurant. They’re paying money to come eat your food. They want to drink their wine. It’s not going to kill you if they drink their wine, just let them drink their own wine.” That sort of thing. If I could go back to when we opened, I would maybe just let go a little bit and it’d have made the experience a lot better.
Stone: I think for me it’s pretty much the same. There are certain things that we’re very set on and over time you’re, like, (a) it probably wasn’t the best; and (b) maybe you see someone else’s perspective.
We had no reservation system when we opened. We were, like, “We’re going to take it by hand. We’re going to do it on the book.” I don’t even know why. I think it was just, “Oh, we can save money this way.” Having that mentality, probably for the first year, we did a lot of things that once we changed them we saw things improve. The whole first, I don’t know, eight months, I was cooking on the line, roasting all the meats or something like that. That’s not the most ideal for the business owner to be locked into this one position.
Friedman: Where did that come from for you, the need to do that?
Stone: Maybe it’s just some of the places I worked, small places. When I was in France I worked in a very small restaurant. A lot of the chefs are the ones who were on the line. At least, in my case the chef I worked with, he line cooked everything so he’d have his hands on all the meat. That was his station. It was a small enough restaurant to do that. I think also we both like to control the situation, but it handicaps you… so I think if we could go back, not that we would change anything but just to be more flexible and to realize that there’s different ways of doing things and that you have to allow, to enable other people to help you.
Friedman: That goes against what you learn as a young cook, right? You’re supposed to be self‑sufficient. You’re not supposed to ask for help. You are supposed to help.
von Hauske: Yeah. People always tell you that a good cook is a person who anticipates what the chef needs. So, for me it’s a horrible point of view to come out of. [It’s hard to] stop seeing what other people need and just take it in, let people give you stuff. It’s super weird.