Most people take visiting a restaurant to enjoy a meal for granted. But, dining out can be a challenge for many of the 61 million people living with a disability, from navigating a room, to reading a menu or hearing the daily specials.
Yannick Benjamin is committed to making dining out inclusive for everyone and breaking barriers to redefine how restaurants serve individuals with disabilities. This past June, Benjamin, and his partners opened his first restaurant, Contento NYC. Located in East Harlem, the 40- seat restaurant’s social mission is to offer accessibility to all and serve as a vibrant member of the community to encourage inclusivity.
Benjamin’s desire to go beyond reasonable accommodations to create an inviting, welcoming environment stems from his long career working in hospitality in top New York City restaurants like Le Cirque, Oceana, and Jean Georges, and having a family in the restaurant business in Brittany, France.
It is also born from Benjamin’s personal experience living with a disability. In October 2003, an automobile accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. Benjamin worked through his despair and physical therapy with a fierce determination to stay in the game against all odds. He enrolled in the Diploma of Wine & Spirits program at The International Wine Center. He outfitted his wheelchair with a tray to serve customers and applied for jobs. While some uncomfortably turned him away, Benjamin found work at Le Du Wines, a retail shop, and at the University Club. He traveled the world to continue learning, became a para-athlete, and co-founded the charity, Wheeling Forward, to help individuals living with disabilities.
Now age 43, Benjamin proves that there are no limitations when you are committed to making an impact. He took some time out to speak with Santé Magazine.
Santé Magazine What is the meaning behind the name Contento?
Yannick Benjamin: The name translates to “being in a state of happiness” in Spanish and Italian. We felt it was important to pay homage to the immigrant groups from Italy, Puerto Rico, and South America which shaped Harlem.
Contento’s philosophy is Roots. Respect. Restore. The roots of the word restaurant are ‘to rest and restore.’ You want people to feel relaxed and comfortable. I was inspired by the television series, ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name. We want our customers to feel the respect and dignity they deserve.
Fun fact: Benjamin has a poster of “Cheers” bar owner, Sam Malone, at his home.
Santé Magazine: Tell us about Contento’s menu.
Yannick Benjamin: The foundation for our menu is Peruvian, but we are a little bit of everything. Chef Oscar Lorenzzi was born and raised in Lima, Peru, and has been in New York for twenty years. He also knows a heck of a lot about wine and at one time flirted with the idea of becoming a sommelier. When he creates a dish, he thinks about the wine program. His food has a deceptive simplicity to it, and he is always looking to mix things up.”
Highlights from Contento’s menu include small plates like Ceviche Classico with corn, onion, cilantro, sweet potato, leche de tigre, and Octopus with black chimichurri and chilled cauliflower gazpacho.
Examples of large plates include Creamy Quinoa risotto “Quinotto” with favas, peas, pea tendrils, and parmesan cream; and Nikkei Kurobuta Pork Katsu with spicy vinegar daikon slaw yuzu aioli. The full menu with drinks and wine is here.
Santé Magazine: You also oversee the beverage program. What is your vision?
Yannick Benjamin: My amazing wife, Heidi Turzyn, runs the cocktail program. She has worked in the industry for many years, including as beverage director for David Burke Restaurants and wine director for Gotham Bar & Grill.
My colleague, Mara Rudzinski, oversees the wine list which is broken down by themes. One I am particularly excited about is ‘Wines of Impact,’ featuring wines made by people from indigenous backgrounds, the BIPOC community, leading female winemakers, and winemakers focusing on social or environmental impact. Two examples on the list are Kishor Winery in Israel’s Western Galilee, which hires adults with special needs, and Kitá Wines in the Santa Ynez Valley owned by Tara Gomez, a Native American. She makes some of the best Pinot Noir and Grenache in Santa Barbara County.
We also have a section spotlighting East Coast wineries in New York State, Vermont, Maryland, and Virginia. I have visited many wineries throughout the East Coast and developed some great relationships.
Santé Magazine: Many businesses talk about inclusivity. For you, it’s paramount and deeply personal.
Yannick Benjamin: Yes, inclusivity is important to me for many reasons. I grew up in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in a family of French immigrants. In my diversified school, I was the one who looked exotic. I could not be in a room of people that looked just like me. I need people with different mindsets and cultures.
Living with a disability has made me even more sensitive to the needs of those who feel marginalized. At Contento, we wanted to make sure there were no physical barriers for anyone. We wanted to incorporate everything possible to accommodate everyone.
One of Contento’s partners is an amazing entrepreneur, George Gallegos, who was a mentor to me after my accident and is also a wheelchair user. We wanted to create a design concept to accommodate wheelchair users. This includes a lower bar counter, slightly higher tables, enough space to navigate comfortably, and adaptive utensils. We provide staff training to encourage empathy and patience and will offer sign language lessons to better serve the hard of hearing. I tell my staff, ‘imagine what it took this person living with a disability to get to this restaurant.’
The Contento team plans to offer programming around social sustainability and provide job training for those living with disabilities. We continue to learn, and I like to ask our customers ‘what can we do better?’ We are not trying to be the first barrier-free restaurant. Many have done it, but we do not want to be the last. We want people to copy us!
Featured photo of Yannick Benjamin by Mikhail-Lipyanskiy.