How to Cook with Natural Wine in Mind
When Contra opened in 2013 on an unassuming block in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, chefs Jeremiah Stone and Fabian von Hauske succeeded in bringing refined, thoughtful tasting menus to a demographic the culinary tradition had previously excluded. To pair with their whimsical fare? A beverage program rooted in natural, organic, and biodynamic bottles overseen by natural wine savant Jorge Riera. That beverage philosophy carried over to their second joint venture: the à la carte tavern concept two doors down called Wildair, where they’re serving up everything from quince toast with lardo to air-light fried squid with lemon and spring onions alongside juicy Chenin Blancs from Agnès et René Mosse and “Vin Anticonformiste” from Eric Pfifferling and Jean-François Nicq.
This week, we revealed that Stone and von Hauske are 2016 Food & Wine Best New Chefs. Just ahead of the announcement, we caught up with them to find out how natural wine inspires their work in the kitchen.
When you were first coming up with the concept for Contra, was natural wine a part of the equation?
J: All of our ideas were based around what we were really into at the time. And previous to opening Contra, I was living in France, and Fabian was living in Denmark—both places where there is a strong movement going on in terms of small, natural producers. Then, when we started looking for restaurant spaces and getting serious about the planning process, we pretty much set up shop at The Ten Bells [the Lower East Side natural wine haven]. It became our impromptu meeting place where we could sit, decompress, have a glass, talk, and figure things out. So, we took it as kind of a sign.
F: It was something that really spoke to us—from the kind of people who are involved in making the wine, to the prices (which are approachable), to the drinkability. The food we like to cook tends to be quite simple and organic and fresh. We like to use a lot of raw ingredients and a lot of acid, so that naturally lends itself to having these fresher organic and biodynamic wines.
Then at Wildair, beyond the fact that the flavors in the food work well with natural wines, there’s also this more raucous, convivial atmosphere, which seems to mirror the spirit of the natural wine movement. Was that conscious?
F: Well, it’s all about small plates there, right? We have things that are raw, then snacks, salads, and some heartier dishes, but everything is meant to be shared. Just like the wines—it’s all about having a good time, having fun, trying to keep it simple and not take ourselves too seriously. Was it conscious? More or less, in the sense that we wanted to create a place where, if you wanted to just come in and drink wine, you could, and if you wanted to have a full-blown dinner and try everything on the menu, that was acceptable as well.
Because the wines tend to be about brightness and freshness, do you find there are things you need to avoid in the kitchen so as not to overwhelm them?
J: We tend to steer clear of heavy sauces and meats. The dishes should all be in that same family of minimal ingredients, with an emphasis on herbaceous, green, acidic flavors. So we focus on lighter dishes and seafood, with vegetable- and fruit-based sauces.
Take something like a Pét-Nat, for example. What works with that?
J: When we see people that we know come in to Wildair, we like to start them with Pét-Nat and crudo. We’re doing a black bass version with fermented pineapple, pine nuts, and nduja that goes really well with a lot of Pét-Nats, which can similarly be fruity and funky. Or our sweet potato salad with tahini, fresh cheese, and punchy green herbs... all those little fun bites to start with.
And red wine? Many natural reds—like Gamay and Pineau d’Aunis from the Loire Valley—are fresh and fruit-forward but can also be quite gamey…
J: Well, we use ingredients that can add an unexpected punch. You don’t want the pairing to be too obvious or literal, like serving offal just because there’s an irony, meaty quality to the wine. It’s more a matter of playing with things like spice or textural components that can be crunchier—like turnips and radishes. It’s elements like those that work well with the funky reds we have.
What would be your advice for the home cook who’s into natural wines?
J: Keep it as simple as possible. Get really fresh ingredients—be it fish or simpler meat preparations. Focus on bright flavors and bitterness. Avoid things like stock-based sauces. Make salad-like items and maybe incorporate some things that are cured or preserved: lardo, bottarga… Having that kind of mentality would be the direction rather than doing whole roasted meat or anything overly complicated.