Traeger wood-fired Wi-Fi grills make a fine art of outdoor dining.
The Michelin-starred chefs of Wildair and Contra embrace sweet nostalgia with their pivot to highbrow donuts.
IT'S TEN PAST NOON on a perfect summer Friday in June. Chefs Fabián von Hauske Valtierra and Jeremiah Stone are standing in front of their first restaurant, Contra, a Michelin-starred tasting-menu spot on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Two doors down on Orchard Street is Contra’s sister restaurant, Wildair. Under most circumstances, it’s a beloved natural-wine bar. Today, a line has been snaking down the block since a quarter till.
“People think we’re a donut shop,” the chefs tell me.
These days, every Friday through Sunday starting at 12 p.m., Wildair does become something of a donut shop — that is, until they sell out, which has been known to happen in about 15 minutes. With a covetable new flavor each week, the Wildair donut release has become the pastry equivalent of a Thursday morning Supreme drop, when streetwear shoppers queue up outside to buy the brand’s latest offerings. Here, passersby crane their necks at the line, undoubtedly wondering, Should I wait too? When customers emerge, several take out their phones to snap a photo of the pearl inside the biodegradable takeout clamshell. Behold: the hype bespoke donut.
Diners and natural wine enthusiasts have flocked to Contra and Wildair for von Hauske Valtierra and Stone’s elevated and deeply cool take on New American cuisine since they opened in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
With a covetable new flavor each week, the Wildair donut release has become the pastry equivalent of a Thursday morning Supreme drop.
Their recent pivot to luxe donuts is a result of some post-quarantine problem solving. At the beginning of summer 2020, just as outdoor dining was starting to reemerge, the duo expanded to include daytime takeout, infusing their well-honed cooking philosophy into iconic comfort foods, including that fateful, pillowy brioche spin on the humble donut.
The chef duo started posting their donut creations on Instagram. They’d stage photoshoots with high-flash portraits of the dessert objects, glossy and lush against a cerulean backdrop. They produced ASMR-style videos of disembodied hands, oftentimes Stone’s, tearing the pastry in half to reveal the filling inside. But it was not until they posted a video of Stone tapping a metal spoon against the lacquered top of a crème brûlée donut that the internet truly went wild. They’d had a viral dessert before — Wildair’s signature chocolate hazelnut tart, topped with squiggly piped crémeux, is an Instagram darling in its own right — but this was a different level. In March, Hermès even sent trios of Wildair donuts to editors and VIPs to enjoy while viewing their digital fall 2021 collection. They’ve become a luxury object, with an ideal mix of highbrow and lowbrow: Hermès meets Homer Simpson.
The chef duo incorporates high-low ingredients — yuzu, rosewater, Oreo crumbles, dry cereal. And in typical Contra/Wildair fashion, the donuts themselves are objectively beautiful, coated with sheens of glaze and elegant accoutrements. “Our aesthetics come from trying to channel those months that we couldn’t cook at the restaurant, plating food and making food that looked beautiful,” says von Hauske Valtierra, who oversees the restaurants’ pastry program. They like to flip familiar, well-trodden flavors — tiramisu, creamsicle, or Boston cream pie — reinterpreting them by way of Wildair’s idiosyncratic culinary vernacular, placing emphasis on both ingredients and local milieu. They’ve also collaborated with their network of fellow creative minds, including Noma chef René Redzepi, artist Chloe Wise, designer Susan Alexandra, and actress Kiernan Shipka, to craft flavors for their burgeoning “Donuts With Friends” series. “That’s our way of being inventive and creative, other than, I don’t know, putting foie gras in a donut,” von Hauske Valtierra says. And fans will line up to try them all, each one like a novel Nike colorway.
Hype is a multifaceted domain and in New York City — a place long known for its dwellers’ inclination to wait in line for pretty much anything — downtown is its epicenter. Certainly, “hype food” was born in its contemporary form in May 2013 at a bakery in SoHo, less than a mile from Wildair, thanks to an acutely novel treat created by French pastry chef Dominique Ansel. The cronut, the gastronomic portmanteau of a croissant and a donut, provoked 100-plus person lines down Spring Street, becoming a global phenomenon that eventually spawned its own Dunkin’ Donuts knockoff. In 2015, similar lines formed outside of the Lower East Side ice cream parlor Morgenstern’s, who’d released a menu of Kanye-inspired offerings, and at NoHo’s Kith Treats, a cereal-themed offshoot of Ronnie Fieg’s streetwear empire. Then, 2017 was the year of DŌ —edible cookie dough served in scoops like ice cream. Its flagship store opened, handily, a few blocks from NYU’s campus. For Wildair, selling $8 donuts at noon became an inadvertent drop.
But when does the clout that comes with scoring an in-demand thing devolve the thing itself? According to writer and cultural critic Chris Black, what Wildair has created works because the donuts are “coming from a true chef, [which] makes it more exciting to experience.” He adds, “It’s not hype for hype’s sake. It’s a good product that has garnered a crazy following.” Black co-hosts the menswear and pop culture podcast "How Long Gone" with Jason Stewart, a known foodie who also hosts the culinary podcast "The Stew." According to them, Wildair hits the sweet spot. “You get the traditional parts of the donut with a little bit of modern innovation and funky ingredients, but without going so far that it becomes TikTok food,” says Stewart. The duo’s own “Donuts With Friends” collab featured a milk glaze studded with pleasantly geometric pieces of Kashi GoLean cereal.
The response to the Wildair donut does feel a bit antithetical to the chefs’ organic, restrained approach to cooking. “We created a monster that’s hard to control because we’re not really equipped to make more than as many as we make now,” von Hauske Valtierra acknowledges. “It’s fun for everyone, except for the people that get upset [because they] don’t get one.”
Maybe it’s because there is something about sweets in particular that touches a raw nerve, which in turn lights up the nostalgia receptors in our brains. “We’ve done these donuts with a lot of friends who are comedians or musicians or whatever, and I think people realize that they don’t want to make weird stuff,” von Hauske Valtierra says, laughing. When it comes time to dream up a donut flavor, “that’s what’s been the most interesting: people just want to make things that remind them of memories.” Stone, who usually opts for a plain cake donut sans frosting (he thinks this speaks to his savory side, which also tends to be his domain at Contra and Wildair), says his favorite variation so far was their riff on cookies and cream. This also happens to be his preferred McFlurry flavor. But then again, he laughs, “I’ve tried so few of them, to make sure that people can have them.” As I stood outside the restaurant with Stone and von Hauske Valtierra, the Friday donut line inched farther down the block. A bit amused, they turned to me and asked: “Wait, what is ‘hype culture’?” Naturally, it’s way cooler not to know.
Producer - Eric Davies
Executive Producer - Pepper
DP - Dan Dealy
Food Stylist - Molly Morrow Corrigan
Props Stylist - Kalen Kaminski
Editor - John McSwain
Color - Tristan Kneschke
Special Thanks to Coming Soon NY
Eileen Cartter lives in Brooklyn. Most recently, she was the social and culture editor at Garage magazine.
Blaise Cepis is a photographer and director based out of New York City and Los Angeles.
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