If you ask chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian Von Hauske to describe the concept for Contra, their new, tasting-menu only restaurant, they’ll insist that its clean and spare, like their Lower East Side space, with food that’s serious, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. “We’re just trying to stay focused, showcase great products, and avoid doing things that represent who other people are as cooks,” Von Hauske said.
To be sure, Contra is thoroughly stripped down; From the narrow, reclaimed wood-paneled dining room to the 5-course, daily-changing menu with hand-scrawled dishes, like “Guinea Hen, Broccoli, Garlic,” “Beef, Hazelnut, Yogurt,” and “Chamomile, Peach and Herbs.” But while seemingly simple, Contra is anything but simple. (Hard to believe Jeremiah Stone’s career was kickstarted at Houston’s.)
The two young chefs already boast a serious pedigree, so you can expect subtle and sophisticated twists and flavors. Jeremiah Stone, who is in charge of the savory side of the menu, worked at Williamsburg’s Isa under Ignacio Mattos, while pastry chef Fabian Von Hauske is an alum of the famed Noma and Jean-Georges. And they’ve surrounded themselves with the equally impressive talent of sommelier Linda Milagros Violago, who has bragging rights to Charlie Trotter and Mugaritz.
The result is a Turnip and Radish Salad in Almond Milk Dressing, Wild Bass with Fish Foam and flash-pickled Baby Eggplant, and a dessert of crunchy Dried Beet Chips with tangy Yogurt Sorbet and creamy Hazelnut Cremeux. We spoke with the newly-minted restaurateurs about how they keep afloat with a $55 prix fixe, which food trends they embrace and which they wish would just die already (no more “New Nordic” in New York, please!), and whether they’d choose sex or dinner on their deathbed. (Jeremiah Stone threw us a curveball, opting for McDonalds!)
Fabian Von Hauske: Single.
Jeremiah Stone: In a serious relationship.
Were you always interested in food and cooking growing up?
FVH: No, I wanted to be a graphic designer. There wasn’t a romantic feeling towards cooking in my house growing up. It was more about sustenance.
JS: I was a very picky eater growing up, which forced me to make my own meals most of the time. I’m not sure if I was interested in food; I was more interested in avoiding vegetables for the first 14 years of my life.
What job would you say really kick-started your career?
FVH: If anything I feel my career is just starting. But working with Johnny Iuzzini at Jean-Georges formed a path for me to be interested in pastry.
JS: Working at a place called Houston’s. The kitchen manager there pushed me to go to culinary school.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
FVH: “Not to take food too seriously but take what you do very seriously,” Johnny Iuzzini.
JS: “You have to give them sauce, make sure they have enough of it,” Andre Soltner.
How did the two of you meet, and what made you decide to go into business together?
FVH: We met at the French Culinary Institute. We both felt compelled to become our own person and have something of our own. We each have skills that the other one lacks, so that helped.
JS: We didn’t think we’d be in business together until we moved to Europe and really became close.
How did you get involved with Linda Milagros Violago, and how does her wine program complement what you’re about at Contra?
FVH: Jeremiah met her through friends in Paris. She took a chance on us and decided to help us out. She is very interested in choosing wines from small producers who she knows and respects.
JS: Her wine selections are definitely in line with our food. We both source from small producers who care about their product. We love changing the menu to reflect each other’s choices in wine and food.
How are you managing to offer a $55 prix fixe in Manhattan, the rents being what they are?
FVH: We are trying to do something well while still being accessible. I think $55 is very approachable for people to give us a chance and enough for us to pay the bills.
JS: The set price of the menu doesn’t make it the biggest moneymaker, but it’s our hope that people will keep the place packed, and that price is an incentive to keep coming back.
What are your favorite dishes on the menu right now, and why?
FVH: It’s very hard to choose one because our menu changes every night, but I really like the Beet Dessert on the menu. The simplicity represents what our food is about; just a couple of ingredients on the plate.
JS: The menu changes pretty much every night, so there are not many dishes we keep revisiting. People tend to really like when we do chicken dishes and the Beet Dessert always gets love.
The “shopping list” menu has become very popular nowadays, though critics aren’t usually a fan. What do you like about the ‘shopping list’ format?
FVH: It just makes sense for us. We are not trying to challenge people with our menu; sometimes our dishes consist of three ingredients and that’s how we list it.
JS: It’s funny that people don’t like the “shopping list” menu. The alternative could look even more pretentious or confusing. We just list some ingredients that take the center stage. Menus have looked like that for years… it’s not a trend. It also allows our staff to start a dialogue about the dishes, and describe it better in person.
What would you say is each other’s most frustrating kitchen quirk?
FVH: No comment!
JS: We do a lot of little things that probably annoy each other, but we tend to laugh it off. The only thing that he does that frustrates me is he always ends up with all the scissors.
Who would your ultimate dinner guest be at the restaurant (they can be living or dead)?
FVH: Bill Murray.
JS: Jay-Z. I’ve eaten next to him before and he eats like a champ.
What ingredients can you just not bring yourself to cook with (or eat) and why?
FVH: Licorice. It reminds me of burnt plastic.
JS: I tend to stay away from salmon. I can’t look at salmon anymore. I think I’m sick of eating it and cooking it as well. Farmed salmon is gross to me.
What do you consider to be a sadly underrated ingredient, and why?
FVH: Salt and some sort of acid in desserts; you always need to balance flavors. For me, saltiness and acidity are very important when you are dealing with sweets.
JS: Neutral tasting oils. People love butter and olive oil, but a good grapeseed oil or sunflower oil can give a great texture and flavor while still letting other ingredients shine.
What are some other restaurant trends you really embrace, and which do you wish would just die already?
FVH: We try not to embrace any trends. Cooking with local and seasonal produce is not something we are proud of, it’s just part of who we are as a restaurant. For the most part, I think there’s a place for everything. Although for me, trying to be “New Nordic” in a non-Nordic country kind of defeats the purpose of what that sort of food is trying to transmit, in terms of time and place.
JS: We embrace the trend of young chefs striking out on their own. Big restaurant groups feel very contrived at times. I don’t know any trends that need to die. Maybe copying restaurants entirely down to the menu and opening them up in some foreign country where no one will notice. Is that even a trend??
What’s your favorite guilty pleasure food, and what do you eat when you’re really looking to treat yourself?
FVH: A Twix Ice Cream Bar.
JS: My biggest guilty pleasure is street meat. I love sitting in bed with a box of lamb over rice and passing out. When I want to treat myself, I’ll make my way to a good Japanese restaurant. We eat at Katz’s almost every month, too.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in the city, besides your own?
FVH: Estela, Skal, Black Tree and Maiden Lane.
JS: I always find myself eating Chinese food. I’ll hit up Vanessa’s almost every week, along with Congee Village, Spicy Village and Cafe China. I don’t get to eat out much anymore, but enjoy places like Estela. We do Mission Chinese and Parm for lunch a lot. I like Kyo-Ya and Ootoya.
What is your ultimate career goal as a chef or restaurateur?
FVH: To make Contra the best place it can be for now, and hopefully learn another craft along the way.
JS: My goal is to always be striving to make the best food I can. Maybe eventually have a little place that makes pies all day and closes early.
You’re on your deathbed; sex or dinner? And no, you can’t say both!