Seriously, were Contra's chefs once enemies?
Sort of, but they overcame their differences to make their joint venture one of New York's most exciting restaurants
Before opening Contra in New York back in October 2013, Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske hadn’t actually cooked together in the same kitchen. They also hadn’t wanted to be chefs for that long either. Fabián had harboured graphic design ambitions, and Jeremiah had wanted to be a DJ. What’s more, they fought. A lot. The pair would drink together at their school, The French Culinary Institute in New York (now The International Culinary Center), “and get into physical altercations,” Fabián remembers, “which stemmed from arguing about literally anything.”
The future culinary partners weren’t even from particularly similar backgrounds. Jeremiah was born to Chinese parents in Maryland, while Fabián grew up in Mexico City. Also, as far as Fabián can remember, they didn’t exactly hit it off immediately. He can recall first coming across Stone towards the end of a fifteen-hour shift at the FCI.
"I was extremely tired, sitting down to relax for a second when Jeremiah came over to use the [sous vide] Cryovac machine, still obviously working,” recalls Von Hauske the chef's new publication, A Very Serious Cookbook. “I forget exactly what he said, but it was some kind of snarky comment about me sitting down, not working, and I remember thinking how annoying he was and that hopefully I wouldn’t have to work with him often.”
Yet they did work together and soon realised that it was their contrasting working practices, both at school and after school, that helped them click.
Jeremiah is a little reticent to record and share his recipe ideas, while Fabián is happy to do so; Jeremiah likes to push things as far as they can go, while Fabián remains more grounded. Their personal experiences provided them with different strengths and weaknesses.
After leaving FCI, Jeremiah went on to work in Paris, mastering French casual dining, while Fabián got a place at Noma, enabling him to get a handle on fine-dining, destination restaurants.
“I would get to my room super late at night and the only person that would be online was Jeremiah,” recalls Von Hauske. “We’d chat almost every night about our day in the kitchen and about the things we wanted to do in the future and we always came back to wanting to do something together.”
Their contrasting personalities, styles and backgrounds might have stymied any business ventures, yet Contra - which serves incredibly high-class food, and beautiful, natural wines, in a relatively relaxed setting – is the perfect expression of Fabián and Jeremiah’s partnership.
“In 2014 we got reviewed by the New York Times,” recalls Fabián. “It was a glowing review in which restaurant critic Pete Wells said, “I hope Mr. Stone and Mr. von Hauske achieve all their goals except the one about creating a shared New York style. The crazy riot of voices chattering in hundreds of accents is the whole point of this crazy, riotous city they have adopted. We don’t need other chefs imitating Contra’s style. We’ve got the original now.” It finally felt like all the hard work was starting to pay off.”
For more of the stories behind Contra and Wildair, as well as plenty of recipes from America's most interesting restaurants, order a copy of A Very Serious Cookbook here.