The first thing you notice upon entering Contento is that a large portion of the bar is lower than normal. You may then realize that there is about twice the usual amount of space behind the bar. These and other adaptations make Contento a welcoming space for wheelchair users, whether they are guests coming in for dinner or employees of the new restaurant in New York City’s East Harlem neighborhood. The space has less tables than it would normally hold, in order to allow wheelchair access; tables are slightly higher than usual, to make them more comfortable for people in wheelchairs; and there are no ramps or stairs at the entrance or restroom.
Contento is the brainchild of sommelier Yannick Benjamin, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident in 2003 left him paralyzed from the waist down. His passion for wine led him to adapt in order to continue doing what he loved, including outfitting his wheelchair with a special table so that he could continue to serve and teach about wine. Among Benjamin’s other notable accomplishments is the founding of “Wine on Wheels,” one of New York City’s largest and most exciting wine events. “Wine on Wheels” brings hundreds of sommeliers together to pour a multitude of wines from around the world to raise money benefiting individuals with limited mobility. The event is in its eighth year.
Benjamin’s partners at Contento are George Gallego, an attorney who is also paraplegic; Lorenz Skeeter, a longtime friend of Gallego; chef Oscar Lorenzzi, who previously helmed the stove at New York City restaurants Nice Matin, the Waverly Inn, and Marseille; and front of house manager Mara Rudzinski. Mr. Benjamin’s wife, Heidi Turzyn Benjamin, a sommelier who most recently worked as beverage director at Gotham Bar and Grill, developed cocktails for Contento. She can often be found behind the bar with a shaker in hand.
Chef Oscar Lorenzzi’s cuisine is rooted in his native Peru but shows a variety of international influences. Menu items range from $7 to $29; on a recent visit we enjoyed Oaxacan pizza topped with tomatilla sauce and chorizo, and tender braised short ribs in peanut sauce with a side of jasmine rice. The wine list, a joint effort between Benjamin and Rudzinski, a sommelier who ran the beverage program at Lafayette and also helps organize Wine on Wheels events, features a wide ranging variety of bottles at a lower-than-usual markup. Located at 88 East 111th Street, near the northeast corner of Central Park, Contento is open Tuesday through Saturday from 3 PM to 10 PM for happy hour and dinner. We recently caught up with Yannick Benjamin to talk about Contento.
World Wine Guys: How did the idea and the team for Contento come about?
Yannick Benjamin: The idea for Contento came about as a collaboration between myself and my partner and mentor George Gallego. I met George Gallego when I first got injured and he was very instrumental in my life and helped me transition to my new life living as a paraplegic. George competed at the highest level as para-athlete and is also a respected advocate in the spinal cord community. George knew how much I loved and breathed the hospitality industry and he always believed that I should create my own space that would be barrier free. His longtime friend Lorenz Skeeter found the space; he always wanted to be in the restaurant business and he and George became partners. George told Lorenz that the only way that this restaurant could succeed is if I develop the concept and take the lead. Every day when I go to Contento I am reminded how lucky I am to have met both Lorenz and George, who basically gifted me a restaurant on a silver platter.
WWG: What was your career path to becoming a partner in Contento?
YB: My family all worked in restaurants, and I followed them in their career path. It was while working at Le Cirque that I decided that I wanted to dedicate my life to hospitality and wine.
Prior to opening Contento I was the Sommelier of The University Club for over eight years and I loved every minute of it. However, I have my father to thank for teaching me everything that I know about food and wine. He worked over 40 years in the restaurant business along with his two brothers who all immigrated from Brittany, France. My cousin was also the Executive Chef at Le Perigord. I was always surrounded by those that made a career in the restaurant business. I also worked at Le Cirque, Oceana, Jean-Georges, Atlas, Felidia, and Atelier at The Ritz Carlton but it was under the ringmaster himself, Sirio Maccioni that forever changed my life. Sirio Maccioni took a chance on me and hired me when I was barely 19 years old to work as a barback but after a few months I was promoted to the dining room which would forever change my life; it is the base that made me the restaurateur that I am today.
I also want to mention that I had the good fortune to work over 10 years with the great Jean-Luc Le Du who was one of America’s greatest sommeliers. He taught me that panache and charisma are important factors to the success of a restaurateur and sommelier.
The truth is, by the age of 13, I dedicated myself to the craft of being a great hospitalian, and I always loved the concept of serving great food and beverage to people that would appreciate it. When I told my seventh grade teacher that I wanted to be in the restaurant business, she truly thought I was crazy, as everyone else in my class either wanted to become a doctor or lawyer or work in government. I was blessed to have spent my summers in France, so food and wine is truly a connection to my roots and my family. I could never imagine doing anything else. I am now 43 years old, and I still feel like a kid in the largest toy store in the world, because there is still so much to learn and enjoy along the way
WWG: How did the concept of accessibility affect design features at Contento?
YB: I have an interesting perspective because I was able bodied up until my car accident at the age of 25, which left me paralyzed from the waist down. Not having the use of my legs was very difficult to accept, especially in an industry that is so physically demanding. Even when I was told by the doctors that I was never going to walk again, I knew that I wanted to stay working in this industry. I worked very hard to get back on the restaurant floor, and I was told by a lot of people that it was just going to hurt me; that working in a restaurant on the floor as a sommelier would be almost impossible, and that in order to do so, I would need to build my own restaurant around my specific needs. I applied to many establishments and even offered to work for half of what they were offering, only to prove to them that I could do the job. I was even laughed at once when I came into the interview for a position at a posh place in Midtown. You can only imagine how defeated I felt.
However, passion and desire will always win, and if you’re motivated, you can convince yourself to do just about anything. Trying to convince someone that has an unconscious perspective on what someone with a disability can or can’t do is not an easy task, let alone trying to convince an executive to hire a sommelier who is paraplegic. I was very fortunate to have met Mr. Dorman at a sommelier competition, who would later become my boss at my job as the Sommelier of The University Club. I took a job as a floor sommelier that likely no one wanted, as the pay was not very good, but I knew that I would make it my own and that I would simply keep my head down and work hard. There were certainly challenges, but I was happy to have a job that gave me pleasure and a sense of purpose. Now, almost 18 years from the date of my car accident, I opened a restaurant in East Harlem that will have no barriers. Stay calm, breathe, and push forward, because you’re never too old to dream and believe in magic.
WWG: You have said that Contento is “more than just a restaurant, it’s a community space.” Can you explain what this means?
YB: Contento is proudly powered and operated by individuals living with disabilities. Both George and I dreamed of a safe, barrier-free place of work that incorporated empathy and compassion in its employee training program. After meticulous planning, our dream became a reality. Today, Contento’s staff is fully educated on how to best serve guests with disabilities. Additionally, the restaurant offers aspiring hospitality workers living with disabilities a place to learn, gain experience, and find work opportunities through The Solera Project. The menu is spearheaded by renowned chef Oscar Lorenzzi and is focused on high-quality dishes produced with local ingredients and respect for their raw materials.
At Contento, history, psychology, social needs and sustainability will always be honored and practiced. In addition to fine dining, the space will utilize its location to offer enriching programs that will enhance the quality of life for people living with disabilities, as well as marginalized communities. The philosophy is simple: Leave the doors open behind you so that you won’t be the last one in.
A recent study by the Open Doors Organization found that disabled diners spend an average of $35 billion dollars at restaurants annually, and that 75% of people with disabilities dine out at least once per week. In 2012, the U.S. Office of Disability Employment Policy noted that people with disabilities are the “the third largest market segment in the United States.” This market potential becomes even larger when friends, family, caregivers, colleagues, and others connected to disabled consumers are considered.
An estimated 26% of adults in the United States, or roughly 61 million people, have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This breaks down to 13.7% with mobility issues, 10.7% with cognition challenges, 6.8% struggling with independent living, 5.9% with difficulty hearing, 4.6% with visual impairments, and 3.7% who have issues with self-care.
In addition to inclusivity and hospitality, Contento aims to relay the cultural, historical, and artistic fusion that defines New York, through bringing grace, dignity, and enthusiasm to all. The goal is to provide guests with a feeling of contento (happiness, satisfaction), which is first achieved through a safe and inclusive ambiance, followed by top-quality dishes.
WWG: Contento’s opening was set back more than a year by Covid. How did you and your partners keep the dream alive during that time?
YB: Despite the many challenges that we all faced in 2020 and in 2021 I can honestly say that I am starting to see the light and I can also feel the positive energy of people throughout NYC. After a very long delay it brings me so much joy to finally have Contento Restaurant open and serve interesting beverages from every corner of the world along with the fantastic cooking of our talented Chef Oscar Lorenzzi. Our ability to weather the storm was because of the collective teamwork that was incredibly cohesive and ego free. If you want to open a restaurant, be sure to surround yourself with people that have passion, desire, and grit because unfortunately there will be other catastrophic events that will happen and it’s all about how you overcome them. I make no illusions about our situation, and I know that we still have a lot of work to do from the burdens of COVID.
I want to be on the journey that is going to make me grow. I don’t want to be on the easy path but on the one that forces me to be creative and appreciate every second that has been gifted to me. Passion is what has given me direction in my journey, but my desire has allowed me to push through unexpected obstacles. During the journey many mistakes are made but that is the only way to achieve your goals. You must fight your own fears and not be afraid of failure. I always have embraced my failures over my accomplishments. A lot of great things can come from failure, but nothing will ever get accomplished if you remain in fear. Your personal evolution can’t happen if you refuse to adapt and live-in complacency. Our life is about overcoming challenges and defeating our own limitations.
WWG: What are some of the highlights of Contento’s neighborhood and the surrounding area?
YB: Contento Restaurant is located in the heart of museum mile and down the block from Central Park. If you are looking to get a vibrant showcase of art and culture, there is no other place better than East Harlem and where we are located. An ideal day for me is to start off at the Metropolitan Museum of Art located on 82ndand 5thand enjoy this majestic museum. I would be sure to have a good book so you could stop in the Conservatory Gardens in Central Park located on 106th Street and 5thAve and sit down in one of NYC’s prettiest gardens. As soon as you are reenergized you could walk over to the Graffiti Hall of Fame where many well-known street artists show their skills on schoolyard walls. Finally, you are five minutes away from Contento where you would be offered delicious food and a great beverage list to choose from, but most of all you would experience a unique ambiance.