Fabián von Hauske Valtierra Vilcek Dropdown Arrows
Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Culinary Arts
Fabián von Hauske Valtierra

Fabián von Hauske Valtierra fell hard for New York City when he was just 8 years old. His family had traveled there from Mexico City for vacation, and the rush and energy of the city’s lights and crowds exhilarated him. Most of all, though, he loved New York because it was so different than home.

“In Mexico City, because it wasn’t the safest of places, everything was very tightly controlled in a little bubble and there wasn’t much going on,” he says. “Here in New York City, I felt there was so much more going on and that things were so much more achievable.” 

2019 Creative Promise Prizewinner Fabián von Hauske Valtierra

Indeed, in the years since he realized his childhood dream and moved to the U.S., von Hauske has steadily accrued a list of achievements. Contra, his New American tasting-menu-only restaurant in the Lower East Side, was awarded a Michelin star in 2017, and retained it in 2018. His two more recently opened restaurants, Wildair and Una Pizza Napoletana, have earned rave reviews in national publications and have quickly become hits, with tables booking up weeks in advance. In the fall, he will expand even further by opening Cubmare, a wine shop and bar in a 40-vendor food market, also in the Lower East Side.

Von Hauske’s interest in restaurants developed around the same time he discovered New York City. His father often took the family along on business trips, which usually entailed visits to the best local restaurants. Von Hauske delighted in the fact that no matter where in the world they were, he and his family were made to feel at home by the cooks, managers, and servers they met. “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 attracted me to the industry and made me want to open a restaurant rather than just cook on the line for years and years.”

2019 Creative Promise Prizewinner Fabián von Hauske Valtierra

In 2007, when von Hauske was 17, he moved to New York City to pursue that dream. He enrolled in the French Culinary Institute and found his way to the kitchen of Jean-Georges, where he shadowed the pastry chef and perfected his craft. When it came time to find a full-time job, however, none of von Hauske’s would-be employers wanted to sponsor his visa renewal. “I got into a very hard spot in my life,” he recalls. He had no option but to leave the country. Yet he made the absolute best of his time abroad, working at Noma in Copenhagen, Fäviken in Sweden, and Attica in Melbourne. 

In 2013, he finally got the chance to come back to the U.S. to open Contra. As at his other two restaurants, the menu is seasonally driven and draws on memories and inspiration from von Hauske’s childhood. For example, an amaranth mousse served with yogurt sorbet, puffed grains, and a touch of coffee recalls a type of Mexican candy that von Hauske’s father used to eat with his morning coffee every Sunday. “My partner and I set out to do something that really reflects who we are, with food and an atmosphere you can only get here,” von Hauske says. “At the same time, we wanted to create a space that feels very much New York.”

Food at Contra RestaurantPhoto courtesy of Matty Yangwoo Kim from A Very Serious Cookbook

Though Contra was an instant hit, for the first two years, von Hauske was in and out of the country to renew his visa, leaving the restaurant understaffed. Finally, in 2016, he was granted permanent residency. “Getting a green card based on my merits is perhaps the greatest reward I’ve gotten in my time as a chef in this country,” he says. 

Von Hauske now strives to mentor, enable, and empower his employees to follow their passions, as others did for him. Around one-third of his kitchen crew are immigrants, and he is well aware of the plight many of them face in trying to stay in the U.S. “I want to make that process easier for other people, so they don’t have to go through what I went through,” he says. “Hopefully, they can then pay it forward to someone else, and the change just keeps going and going.” 

Food at Contra RestaurantPhoto courtesy of Matty Yangwoo Kim from A Very Serious Cookbook

Winning the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise, von Hauske says, is a validation not only for him personally, but for all immigrants and foreigners in the U.S. This is especially true now, he says, at a time when immigrants’ places in society are being questioned more and more, and many foreign-born individuals are feeling pressure to give up on their dreams and move home. Von Hauske urges them to keep striving. 

“Being an immigrant here, you can do something good and real for the community and you can create jobs,” he says. “You can create change, and for me, that’s something very special.”

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