One month after opening Contra (138 Orchard Street, 212-466-4633), their exciting Lower East Side restaurant, chefs Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone ceded their kitchen to another chef. Friends since Stone’s time spent in southern France, Christophe Dufau of Les Bacchanales “was in town for a day, and we said, ‘hey, want to do a dinner?’ and it just kind of happened.”
“Now that we’re settling down and finding our clientele, this is something we want to do at least once a month” says von Hauske, and tonight, Contra will host Ben Suckle of Birch in Providence for a $70 six-course tasting. Suckle’s stint is followed by a $75 six-course meal from Ari Taymor of LA’s Alma on February 25 and 26. Future guests may include Justin Yu of Oxheart in Houston, Estela’s Ignacio Mattos, and former wd-50 sous chef J.J. Basil. The dinners typically hover around $15-$20 higher than Contra’s $55 prix fixe, but the chefs see them as a way to try food diners wouldn’t otherwise get to experience.
Von Hauske and Stone are no strangers to sharing stoves with friends and colleagues, let alone cooking in the kitchens of strangers. Thanks to association with the French dining collective Omnivore, the chefs participated in several guest dinners of their own before opening Contra, cooking in the kitchens of Commis and Commonwealth in San Francisco and Hotel Herman in Montreal. “That Hotel Herman dinner, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” says von Hauske. “It was very interesting, we had a similar background — the chef Marc [-Alexandre Mercier] also staged at Noma. All the creativity, and bouncing ideas off one another — it was really cool.”
A week before Owen Clark packed up his kitchen and escaped Gwynnett St., the leaking, drug-filled canoe of a progressive restaurant that he’d paddled to great acclaim, he stopped into Contra for dinner. The chefs hit it off, and von Hauske and Stone invited Clark, who is on the hunt for his next project, to take over the restaurant’s kitchen for a night. “It was very interesting, like a chameleon kind of thing with our cooks,” says von Hauske. “We would jump in the kitchen and they would be doing things differently than they would otherwise. It was very fun to see how they interacted with him. We even sat down and ate dinner.”
Dinners come together organically, and every chef brings with them their individual preferences. “With Ben [Suckle], he’s very proud of being in Rhode Island, so he wants showcase things that he can only get from Rhode Island, and in that way it’s very similar to his restaurant,” says von Hauske. “Whereas when I was talking to Ari, he was like, ‘We should do something where people are like, ‘this was awesome, but it wasn’t something that we could have had at either Alma or Contra.'” That J.J. Basil dinner mentioned above will be a test run for a restaurant, 00, that the chef hopes to open in Washington D.C. “They loved it in New York!” is a pretty great selling point for a chef on the hunt for investors. Both von Hauske and Stone have spent time cooking abroad and hope to eventually bring some of their intercontinental friends into the fold.
Increasingly, chefs are using temporary venues to promote upcoming projects, work out kinks, and to pal around with friends and like-minded contemporaries. This feels especially in tune with the atmosphere that von Hauske, Stone, sommelier Linda Milagros Violago, and the rest of the Contra team have cultivated, a daily hand-guided trip to the greenmarket by way of iSi canisters and sous vide baths. Above all else, von Hauske hopes to engender camaraderie among progressive chefs. “We’re focusing on bringing younger chefs who are maybe not as as well-established. It’s like we’re trying form this community…hopefully it creates something like that.”