Fabián von Hauske Valtierra still remembers seeing New York City for the first time at the age of 8. His father traveled for work frequently and often brought Fabián and his brother along. After settling in, Fabián remembers, they walked out of the hotel lobby and right into Times Square.
“I remember getting lost in the moment, with all the lights and all the people, and feeling uncomfortable but excited,” Fabián says. “I knew I had to move here.”
The feeling only grew stronger as Fabián grew older. Born and raised in Mexico City, he felt the city to be stifling compared to New York. “Everything was very controlled, like living in a little bubble,” he says. “[Whereas] it felt like in New York, so many more things could be achievable.”
When his older brother moved to New York to study graphic design, Fabián went with him and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). He had always been happiest when he was creating or working with his hands, whether he was drumming, doing photography, or cooking; after working in several restaurants and bakeries while in high school, Fabián decided to pursue formal culinary training.
He entered the U.S. on a student visa, but staying after graduation was challenging. “Cooking isn’t taken as seriously as other careers, so it proved very difficult to get a visa when I decided I wanted to stay,” Fabián says.
Despite a promising start to his career, which included an internship with culinary master Jean-Georges, Fabián could not find a way to stay. “Everywhere I applied [for a job] would want to hire me until they realized I had to be sponsored for a visa,” he says. Fabián made the best of the situation by continuing to hone his skills at renowned fine-dining institutions around the world: Noma in Copenhagen, Fäviken in Sweden, and Attica in Melbourne.
He could not resist the siren call of New York, however, and finally devised a way to return—this time on an investor visa, as the co-chef and co-owner of the New American restaurant Contra, a collaborative project with his friend and classmate Jeremiah Stone.
Located on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Contra is a love letter to New York City. “I wanted to open a place that represented how I see New York,” Fabián says. “Somewhere with no specific cuisine, but a place where I could experiment and create something [of] my own.”
As chefs, both Fabián and Jeremiah draw heavily from their backgrounds for inspiration. “A lot of things are inspired by my childhood and growing up in Mexico, or by my partner’s childhood growing up in a Chinese household,” Fabián says.
One popular dessert, for example, is a puffed amaranth mousse served with yogurt sorbet, coffee, and grains. It’s evocative of a Mexican candy known as Alegria, consisting of a puffed amaranth covered in caramel and chocolate, that Fabián’s father used to have with a cup of coffee for breakfast on Sundays.
The result of this shared artistic endeavor is a menu that is simultaneously highly personal and a reflection of the melded cultures of the Lower East Side. The combination has proven to be a hit; shortly after Contra opened in 2013, more restaurants followed, all in the same neighborhood: Wildair, a casual sister to Contra serving wine and a pared-down menu, opened in 2015, and Una Pizza Napoletana, serving modern Italian and wood-fired pies, in 2018. This fall, they plan to open a wine shop and bar located in a 40-vendor food market, also on the Lower East Side.
The duo has received glowing reviews and accolades for their restaurants, most notably a Michelin star for Contra in both 2017 and 2018. Fabián has been named to the lists of Eater’s “Young Guns”; Zagat’s “30 Under 30”; Forbes’“30 Under 30”; and Food & Wine’s “Best New Chefs”; last year, he and Jeremiah published A Very Serious Cookbook, a well-received collection of recipes, stories, and banter between the two friends.
Despite this streak of accomplishment, Fabián still had trouble securing a green card and had to leave the U.S. for a month out of each year in order to renew his visa. This left his restaurants understaffed and without guarantee that he would be allowed to return.
He received his green card on Election Day in 2016, and the extended process—unfolding over six years and with the help of five lawyers—coupled with the political rhetoric around immigration in recent years, impressed upon him how difficult an immigrant’s life could be.
As a result, Fabián has made it a priority as a business owner to help others going through the same process. Of the approximately 40 jobs he and Jeremiah have created since 2013, one-third are filled by immigrants, and when he can, Fabián tries to help by sponsoring visas and by training and promoting promising immigrant workers so that they have a stronger case for staying in the U.S.
“I believe people should be valued for their principles, their work, and what they bring to their community. Not by where they came from,” he says.
After all, what initially drew Fabián to the industry was the experience of going to restaurants while traveling with his father. No matter where in the world they were, Fabián and his family were made to feel at home through the hospitality of chefs, managers, and servers. “The hospitality—the way you can make a person feel in a restaurant—is something I really fell in love with,” he says. “That’s what made me want to open a restaurant.”
Now, as the proprietor of his own establishments, it’s important to him that both his guests and his employees feel this sense of hospitality, of being at home and at ease. And to be able to use his restaurants to create that for other immigrants like himself is empowering: “You can actually create change, and for me, that’s something special.”