This article is a part of our inaugural Next Wave Awards. For the full list of 2021 winners, check out the whole series here.
From a very early age, Yannick Benjamin knew he wanted to work in restaurants. A born-and-raised New Yorker of French descent, Benjamin would hear the industry tales of his two uncles, father, and cousin over Sunday dinners and think to himself, “That sounds so exciting.”
Benjamin got his start young, taking his first restaurant job at 13 years old, but it was far from guaranteed that he’d still be in that industry some 30 years later. In 2003, while working as a sommelier, Benjamin was in a car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
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Despite being in both a city and industry that fall woefully short in being accessible for people with disabilities, Benjamin continued on his journey. He’s since become a beloved figure in New York’s wine scene and among the most respected sommeliers in the city. In 2011, Benjamin co-founded Wheeling Forward to provide others in wheelchairs with the resources they need to adapt to life with a disability. He also organizes the annual tasting and silent auction event, Wine on Wheels, with all the proceeds going to Wheeling Forward.
In June 2021, along with partners George Gallego, Oscar Lorenzzi, Mara Rudzinski, and Lorenz Skeeter, Benjamin opened the doors of his first restaurant, Contento. Though a lifelong dream, only in the last five years did the idea of opening his own small business start percolating in his mind. “I didn’t want it to just be a restaurant that was going to serve food and wine and make people happy,” Benjamin says. “It had to have some kind of significant meaning — a social impact.”
Those who have visited the space in East Harlem will confirm that Contento ticks all of those boxes. The restaurant’s tabletops sit a couple of inches higher than normal to accommodate wheelchairs, while a lowered, wheelchair-accessible bar provides an alternative for paraplegic guests who prefer to dine while chatting to a bartender or peeking into the open kitchen.
“I wanted to set up a place where people, in particular people with disabilities, would have an opportunity to come to feel comfortable, feel safe, and be themselves,” Benjamin says. Creating a truly accessible space would also, he hoped, give disabiled guests the chance to explore hospitality as a viable career option. “They can talk to us — myself and George, who is also a paraplegic — and understand what this industry is all about,” he says.
Benjamin says this while also accepting it could all disappear in a heartbeat, whether because of a hurricane, terrorist attack, or pandemic. Indeed, Covid-19 pushed back Contento’s opening by more than a year.
Despite having already teased the restaurant in early 2020 and held meet-and-greet hors d’oeuvres with investors, the team decided it would be best to wait, and ride out the pandemic for as long as they could. “We knew that if we opened and closed, and opened and closed, that would be the nail in the coffin,” Benjamin says.
Restaurant openings are a special occasion for all involved, and even more so off the back of a year-plus delay. But for Benjamin, equally as important are the random evenings, like a recent night in October when Contento hosted four separate parties with diners in wheelchairs and one blind guest. Or the Tuesday nights when guests enjoy themselves so much that they’ll end up ordering two bottles of wine. “That’s what really excites me,” he says. “That part is the vindication.”
For career professionals like Benjamin, restaurants are planned not over the course of a year or two, but during decades in the industry as both an employee and diner. Beyond the decor, the wine list, or the food menu, there’s a bigger question to be answered: What kind of place will my restaurant be?
For almost as long as he’s worked in restaurants, Benjamin has known the answer.
On New York’s 51st Street stands an old-school French brasserie, Tout Va Bien. “It’s where all the restaurant workers, French guys, would go for their drinks and to eat on their days off,” Benjamin explains. Tout Va Bien is currently closed, but “when you went there, you felt it was very neighborhood-y, that you were with people that you were related to. The food was good, the service was OK, but it was just the general aura — feeling welcomed.”
So perhaps the highest praise he’s received since opening Contento came when a friend — a French man in his 60s whom Benjamin has known for years — recently told him: “Yannick, I come here because it’s the closest place that reminds me of Tout Va Bien. I feel at home. I feel good when I come here. I feel welcomed.”