After years of accolade after accolade, sommelier and restaurant owner Yannick Benjamin still needs a bit of time to process when amazing things happen to him.
“I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” admitted Benjamin. “I'm truly one of the luckiest human beings on the face of the earth. … I was given a second chance, maybe even a third chance. I just try to live every moment and every second to the best of my ability.”
On Oct. 20, Benjamin learned that he was awarded the $1 million Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize, an award for those pushing boundaries while living with spinal cord injuries. Benjamin, who uses a wheelchair, is an influential advocate for disability accessibility in the restaurant industry, not just for guests but workers as well.
“We all want a sense of purpose, and that's what I want to create,” says Benjamin. “I knew what it was like to not have a sense of purpose and to just be home. … When you have a sense of purpose, when you have a mission, an objective, it's quite exciting and liberating.”
Raised in Hell’s Kitchen by French parents who worked in the hospitality industry, Benjamin started his first restaurant job at the age of 13, moving between front-of-house and back-of-house roles. He became entranced by the sommelier position. Working Le Cirque 2000 at 18 years old, Benjamin remembers seeing a young gentleman on the floor tending to bottles of wine. “He’s engaging with the customers; everybody seems to love him,” remarks Benjamin. “And here I am, working in the kitchen as a food runner, and I'm getting screamed at by the chef and things thrown at me. It was brutal. I wanted to learn more about [wine] already, so I started to trail him around.”
Benjamin enrolled in wine courses even before he turned 21, moving up through the ranks to become a high-profile sommelier at some of America’s most prestigious restaurants, such as Jean-Georges and Atelier at the Ritz. He was determined to stay in the field after his mobility-altering car accident in 2003, taking a position at New York City’s University Club and co-founding the charitable organization Wheeling Forward, which hosts Wine on Wheels programs across the country to raise funds for spinal cord injury (SCI) research.
In June 2021, after years of planning, Benjamin and his business partner George Gallego opened Contento, a Peruvian-French bistro in East Harlem that is built for everyone. Menus are offered in Braille, tables are raised but bars are lowered for wheelchairs, adaptive silverware is available by request—and none of this comes at the expense of an elegant dining experience. Benjamin has also just opened Beaupierre Wines & Spirits, an accessible neighborhood wine shop in Hell’s Kitchen, in the same building in which he grew up; the shop specializes in responsibly made wines.
The $1 million Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize is given to those living with SCI who are leading by example, overcoming barriers and “whose contributions have improved the lives of those with the condition.” The Craig H. Neilsen Foundation is the largest private donor to SCI research and education. When he learned that he’d won, Benjamin turned to the group he was with and said, “These past few years have been very hard, but I look forward to sharing this news with [my family] ... I certainly did not do this on my own. Without them, I’m nothing.”
Benjamin spoke to Wine Spectator editorial assistant Julia Larson about the honor of receiving this award, his strategy with the Contento wine list and what accessibility truly means in the restaurant world.
Wine Spectator: Why is accessibility such an important topic in the restaurant industry, perhaps more than we give it credit for?
My objective right now, especially with Wine on Wheels, is to make the industry aware that there are 61 million Americans that have a disability. It's a spectrum of so many different types of individuals: You've got people on wheelchairs, but then you've got people who are paraplegic and people who have neurological conditions like Parkinson's and MS, ADHD and autism.
We need to make a better effort and educate ourselves on how we can make our industry more inclusive, not just for people with disabilities to come in, but to also make it more inclusive for people with disabilities to work in. We have this incredible labor shortage. People are always saying: “I can't hire anybody,” yet less than 20 percent of people are financially secure in the disability community, and there are hundreds of people that want to work. Why don't you do some research? Or let me assist and let's figure this out.
There are so many people with disabilities that have so much to offer and so much talent. We're simply not providing them with the resources needed. Can you imagine if we didn't provide Stephen Hawking with the resources that he needed to achieve his goals or objectives? We would have missed out on one of the most brilliant minds. … I do think that there's someone out there, that if provided with love, care and support, they're going to make a big difference in our industry as well.
You designed Contento with the intention of being as accommodating as possible to those living with disabilities. What have been some of the challenges with making that vision into a reality?
The biggest issue is that every square foot that you have at any restaurant is money, right? One of the things that we did consciously is that we sacrificed space. We could have piled up more tables, and we could have made the design different, but we chose not to. We did this for two reasons: One, I can work in the dining room with dignity without any obstruction and be able to serve my guests. I think people even now, when they come to the restaurant, get surprised when they actually see me rolling around the restaurant, opening and serving wine. Like, what did you think this was?
[The other reason] is so that other wheelchair users or other people who use walkers, or any other medical devices, could get around the restaurant without any kind of real challenge or obstruction. … It's about being able to hold your head up high and go into a place where you're actually executing your dreams. All I ever wanted was to be able to implement and show the hospitality world that if you make it right, you do it right, and you create it to be physically, socially acceptable. Then people will start to come. … How much spending power do they have in that demographic? $500 billion. If you can't get emotionally incentivized, well, you better get financially incentivized.
People with disabilities want to go out. They want to have an experience. They want to be able to forget about their troubles, and from the etymology of restaurant, they want to restore themselves, right? But they're not going to go to restaurants that they have to be carried into, where they don't have menus in Braille or they don't have QR codes on their menus or the bathrooms don’t have grab bars. It's simply not accessible. … Nobody likes rejection. If we create that environment, I think we're going to create a much better industry and more sustainable industry.
How does your work with Contento’s wine list reflect the overall ethos of the restaurant?
The ethos of the restaurant is we are a barrier-free establishment. … We want to make sure that we have wines that represent all different types of philosophies and all different types of people. We have wines that are made by people with disabilities, wines that are made by BIPOC, people that are also making wine with the environment in mind. I didn't want to make a generic wine list. I feel like there are a lot of templates, right? This wine list is a reflection of all the wineries I’ve visited, people that I've become friends with and people that I really admire and respect. … I always had this dream of creating a wine list where we would represent producers that maybe don't get the spotlight that they deserve.
The one section that is really near and dear to my heart [covers] the state of New York and East Coast wineries. If I'm going to talk about reducing my carbon footprint, then it's really important that I represent wineries within a 100-mile radius.
[We don’t] use terms like Old World and New World. They're antiquated, and in some cases harmful; these are old colonial terms, and I don't want to use those. So I broke it up with wines of the ancient world—countries like Lebanon, Turkey, Armenia, Georgia. Having a section dedicated to these really wonderful producers is really awesome.
You mentioned that the perceived cost is one thing keeping the restaurant industry from becoming more accessible. What else do you think is holding back people from actually changing their restaurants?
I think it's stigmatization. There's this subconscious perspective. And I think no one purposely tries to do it, but their brain is conditioned. They see someone on a wheelchair apply for a sommelier position and go down a rabbit hole thinking, “How are they going to carry a bottle of wine?” … I have people that work in the restaurant that can do a lot more than I can do because they're not disabled, but there are a lot of things that I am able to do that they can’t. We all compensate for each other.
Keep in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act was only passed in 1990. It’s only been in the last 10 years that people have been really starting to implement it and executing the rules and regulations. One in four people here in this country have a disability, 26 percent of the population. Eventually, either you or someone that you love will have a disability. We have a moral obligation to really start to implement social acceptability and physical accessibility. It's not easy, it takes time even. We need to recondition our brains to really make a difference and that takes practice.