IT’S 2:00 IN THE AFTERNOON, a dead zone of fine dining, and there are already people peering in through the windows of the not-yet-opened Contento in East Harlem, curious about the new darling that’s helmed by disabled entrepreneurs and community advocates Yannick Benjamin and George Gallego. I walk in as one of the other partners, Mara Rudzinski, is offering a glass of cold water to a passerby. The kitchen is prepping a staff meal to power the team through weekend service and a flurry of reservations.
To the untrained eye, Contento is a beautiful, small Peruvian restaurant in East Harlem. But pay more mind and you’ll notice an ease to your experience even before you order. The tables are an ideal height for good posture. And as Yannick rolls in from outside to greet me, the height is also perfectly aligned to his chair so we can dine at equal level. George comes down the block moments later to join us. A longtime Harlem resident, he is keen to tell me about building a restaurant for the people he knows and lives next to.
Shortly after I sit down with the co-owners, both para-athletes and founders of disability advocacy nonprofits, I witness the weeknight rush, vibrant with people from all walks of life: people with disabilities and the able-bodied eating side by side, excitedly discussing the wine list with Yannick, who is also a sommelier; Black and Asian families celebrating a birthday or long-awaited reunion; well-to-do tourists dressed formally for their meal at a place lauded by all the food critics. They sit neatly alongside new regulars being greeted by name from far off, well before they reach the door. Plates of perfectly fried panisse with uchucuta fly out of the kitchen at a high-speed staccato, followed closely by plates of the prettiest purple corn focaccia and duck liver mousse. Fragrant entrees emerge too: salmon with black barley and zucchini pico de gallo; duck leg with green rice; and crispy pork katsu with fresh daikon slaw. Before service starts that night, I learn more from Yannick and George about what they’ve created here.
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Passion is not enough. You have to be able to show up and make things happen.
To be able to use community-building knowledge to open up a restaurant is to directly engage with conversations about class and belonging. How did you find your team? What were the instincts that guided you to pick your major players, those who understood what you wanted to offer diners?
YANNICK: You have to love food, love wine, but you have to have the curiosity to want to learn more about other people and their backgrounds. Passion is not enough. You have to be able to show up and make things happen. George had no experience in restaurants before this one, but he has always served people, and helping those that have less than him is a form of hospitality. The act of sharing something to fill the void, whatever that may be. It can be as simple as a glass of water.
It’s an act of care.
YANNICK: Yes, and everything else is secondary. I don’t care if someone doesn’t know the difference between a chicken and a turkey — if you’re willing to have curiosity and to learn the difference in taste, asking questions and offering space, you’re showing up. It’s a culture of generosity that we’re trying to create — not just for people with disability, but for everybody. This is a minority-owned business. You have a woman, two people with disabilities, and three out of five owners are part of the BIPOC community. It’s important to us that we’re reaching out to populations that have been ignored or taken for granted by the hospitality industry.
George, you’ve got strong roots here in the neighborhood and that’s a huge strength when it comes to starting any restaurant. You planned this location well before the pandemic. When it began, did you have any regrets?
GEORGE: I didn’t have any regrets. I sat on the community board for this neighborhood, CB 11, for many years. I was chair of the House Committee and Language Committee, so developers had to present their projects. From that, I knew we were going to have a major influx of neighbors within a matter of time, so I always thought that this was an ideal spot to create any type of restaurant. I have never been involved in the restaurant industry before this. I’ve primarily spent my time helping folks who are in desperate situations. My goal has always been to create a position so that folks can flourish, whatever that may mean to them. As long as we have folks to fill the void of skill sets that I don’t know, then we would be fine, because we can support each other.
You’re planning to integrate job training programs and classes for locals and the disability community, right? How far along is that process?
GEORGE: We’re in the process of building that out, but we’re already involved with and connected to several projects in this vicinity. One is called the Axis Project. It’s a health and wellness center and media center for folks with disabilities that we’ve built. Within that space, we’ve already done resume writing, job-training sessions, and a hospitality job fair.
YANNICK: Right now, we have to put everything in the restaurant because this place will give us the platform to launch projects and offer them more credibility. We’re not yet at the 90-day mark of being open, so we’re still establishing how to train people in the right way. I’m getting a lot of people in the restaurant business saying that they want to be involved, but that they don’t know how. But we don’t want people to just check off a list, operating like people are quotas. A lot of individuals who have a disability haven’t worked — how do they get to the job? A lot of them haven’t taken paratransit. They need to get work stamina built up. The reason why they may not be successful at a job isn’t because of the disability, but because of the lack of accommodation.
GEORGE: We’re rebuilding the Axis Project Community Center. It’s a 3,200-square-foot space complete with a warming kitchen and open space to create different scenarios and different training programs. One program feeds into the other, and they work together. Contento will be catering our community space. All our programs serve the same population; we’re just offering specific programs towards the same mission.
I wanted to ask about resilience and design for these spaces — how to make access possible. I can see that the floor of the restaurant lets you roll your chairs directly into the space with no ramps, there are no steps to the counter, the tables are a perfect height to make us eye level sitting down, and your knees don’t hit the table. There had to be a lot of trial and error to make this seem effortless.
YANNICK: To make a perfect universally accessible restaurant, we would have needed a massive space. We had lemons, and we were going to make the best lemonade. We couldn’t make the perfect place, but we wanted to set a trend. It’s a small restaurant, so we wanted to make sure first that George and I could work here comfortably. But secondly, there are 61 million people with disabilities in the United States and it’s a broad category. We can’t claim to know everything. I ask people in the low-vision community what we can do better. We wanted to create a safe space where people with disabilities could come and be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. If we can do it, why can’t others with 20 times the amount of money?
GEORGE: We based this space on all the bad and good experiences we’ve had as folks with disabilities. There are plenty of times we’ve had to move from one place to another because we can eat somewhere, but we didn’t have access to the bathrooms. The tables are higher here than the average because otherwise it hits your knees in the chair. We chose a flat table base because it’s easier to roll underneath the table. Our doorways are wider than average to accommodate different chair widths, and the doors are much lighter than the average door. We chose a pocket door for the bathroom that slides closed automatically. And we have adaptive flatware we offer when folks sit down.
YANNICK: Everything is a matter of inches. You don’t see it, but we feel it, getting around. The smallest things are the most important. Something else I’m really excited about is that we’re also going to bring in braille menus over the next few weeks. And I’m going to be able to connect this resource to other restaurants, and say, “You no longer have an excuse.”
GEORGE: Most owners will not go through the extra steps needed to make sure the space is accessible because they don’t realize the disabled community is so large. That’s a huge revenue stream people miss out on. There was a night where we had over 20 wheelchair users utilizing the outdoor seating area. An inside guest pulled me aside and said, “George, I didn’t realize there were so many disabled people in New York.” Ordinarily, you don’t see so many of us in a public space.
The inclusivity is also part of how you’ve shaped what is on the menu, I’ve noticed. Your wine list puts European producers in the back catalog.
YANNICK: Terms like “New World, Old World,” they’re colonial. We wanted to highlight different categories. Plenty of restaurants focus on “sustainability,” but not one producer they use is from within a 100-mile radius. How does that version of sustainability contend with carbon footprints? So we wanted to highlight local producers and wines that are being made by marginalized communities, people who don’t necessarily look like me. One wine on this list is from Kishor Winery. Everyone who works there has special needs. Kitá Wines is a vineyard owned and run by Native Americans. And the prices are affordable. It’s easy to create a wine list of the top expensive wines in the world, but to offer variety at a good value? If there’s not one wine under 60 bucks, a restaurant should be ashamed of themselves.
I wanted to create a list that was easy for people to understand, and that had its own story, that put locals at the front. Food is political, and we wanted to highlight people having an impact. So we did that. And we highlight where fermentation began and put Europe last, because it’s always in the front.
Arabelle Sicardi Writer
Arabelle Sicardi is a writer and brand consultant who focuses on the intersection of beauty, technology, and power. They are the author of "Queer Heroes" and the forthcoming "The House of Beauty." Their work has appeared in Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Teen Vogue, The Cut, and Vogue Business.
Stebs Schinnerer Photographer
Stebs Schinnerer is a Bay Area director and director of photography. He specializes in documentary storytelling for commercial and editorial clients around the world.