When the pandemic forced their restaurants to close, two chef-partners pivoted beyond just delivering what they used to cook.
By Fabián von Hauske as told to Chris Mohney
With his partner Jeremiah Stone, Fabián von Hauske is half of the chef/owner duo behind adjacent New York restaurants Contra (which earned them a Michelin star) and Wildair. After the pandemic shutdown, von Hauske and Stone reopened a merged version of the two, Contrair, offering a new delivery menu inspired by the new cuisines and the chefs’ experimental interests.
The day before the lockdown was announced, we decided to close. We took some time to think things through. Two weeks afterward, we opened the hybrid of both restaurants.
A lot of my staff are really young kids, and they moved back home with their parents or left the city. So when we were approaching how to do this, we just wanted to do something different. We really only had the staff to do one place. We combined the staff from both restaurants, and we’re working out of the Contra kitchen.
The food is neither from Contra or Wildair. It’s adapted to simple dishes that travel well, but still resembles what we do—fresh products, good proteins. When we started, it was a very simple menu. The team was adapting to a whole new restaurant. Now we have dishes that are a little more complicated, and we’re less afraid of introducing things that take a little more skill. It’s a good chance to develop new things and be creative. As restaurant people, we’ve got to be open to new possibilities.
My partner Jeremiah is first-generation Chinese, and he always made this congee for special events. The way he makes it is very intricate and very elaborate. I used to tell him all the time that we should put it on the tasting menu. He was always like, “It’s Chinese. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to have Chinese on the menu.” I was like, whatever. We’re doing it now, and we’re serving it to people, and they’re like “This is amazing.”
It’s cool to do things that you’ve always thought of doing. We’ve always joked about doing a Mexican-Chinese thing, because I’m from Mexico and he’s Chinese. When we started delivery, that was the anchor for the menu. There’s a lot of Mexican references, and there’s a lot of Asian references, especially Chinese. It’s cool to try something different, even under these sad circumstances.
For example, at Wildair the one dessert that everyone gets is the chocolate tart. We reverse-engineered that to be similar to what you would call a dirt cup. Instead of doing crémeux with the pudding, with the chocolate, we would do the same praline as with the tart. We mix it with a little bit of cocoa powder and make a crumble instead of a tart shell.
When you get it, it looks like a dirt cup. But it’s not Jell-O pudding. It’s not cheap ingredients. It’s the same thing you would get at the restaurant, but it’s not going to go bad traveling 20 minutes. It’s still going to be a crunchy and pudding-like sort of thing. We’re making ice cream and packaging it for delivery too.
We’d never done any delivery before this. It’s something I’ve thought of doing. Even before the pandemic started, you could see that the delivery trend was going up. It’s funny, because even in top restaurants it was a topic of conversation before all this. It’s really interesting to see everyone, or most people, pivoting to delivery. We didn’t have any experience. We’re still learning how to improve things. As weeks go by, we try to expand the radius of delivery. We send food to people in Brooklyn, and they’re like, “This traveled well. This didn’t.” It’s a matter of re-engineering everything, which is such a different way to think. Before, we always focused on fresh plated food. Now it’s like, “What’s going to hopefully make this soup travel well for 30 minutes?”
Myself and Jeremiah—as much as we enjoy playing the Michelin game and all those things, at the end of the day, we’re chefs. We’ve just got to cook through this, because it’s the only thing we do. We wanted something that was serious, but temporary. It’s not like we’re going to switch either restaurant to this menu. We didn’t want to make the food that we did in the restaurants and take it to people’s homes. I personally think that’s kind of weird.
We also didn’t want to change one of the restaurants to do something else. Inevitably, everyone is thinking along the same lines. Everyone’s going to have to change what they do in some sort of way. We didn’t want to change it, and then change it again later on.
Reopening is going to be tricky. It depends how the government decides to do this. We see a lot of people in Europe reopening and going back to normal. We see restaurants going back to what they were doing. So who knows? We got badly hit here in the States, and especially New York. We’ll do this for as long as we have to, and we’ll adjust. We’re not trying to escape from it. We’re taking it seriously.
We opened Contra in 2013 right after the recession, and everyone was going back to work and having money and being well-established. You can plan for those things. If you see that the country is not financially well, you can plan on doing cheaper things or seeing what the trends are. But this is a problem that has so many different branches. You have economic problems, you have health problems, you have all these things that you just don’t know what the trend is going to be.
We’ve been looking at it from different angles. What’s going to happen if people stop spending money? What’s going to happen if people have to wear masks to restaurants, or we have to do a crazy amount of seats? I’d be lying if I told you we have a plan or a solution, but we’re ready to change however we have to change. Our restaurants are always a constant evolution of whatever we are going through in the city. We’ll adapt, and we’ll do whatever we have to do.
The industry got badly hit. It exposed all the cracks of restaurants running on very low margins. For some people, it’s not worth it anymore to stay in an industry that overnight got flipped on its axis. I think it’s our job to make sure we get all those people back on track, and that we improve the industry in some regard.
People still want to buy wine and eat nice food. People don’t want to cook at home all the time. I understand that. If you’re in the trade as a cook, you just cook. You work, you cook. You don’t think about anything else. But it’s good to see that there’s been a positive reception to what we’re doing. That keeps it going. It’s nice when you talk to regulars and they’re like, “I never knew this side of you guys. I didn’t know you cook Mexican food or Chinese food or whatever this is.” They’re willing to give it a try, so it feels good.