Co-founder of Wine on Wheels & Wheeling Forward
Proprietor of Contento Restaurant NYC and Head Sommelier The University Club
Yannick is the proprietor of Contento Restaurant opening in Fall 2019. He is also the Head Sommelier at the University Club. Born into a family of French restaurateurs, Yannick is a proud New Yorker who knew that hospitality was his calling from a young age. In 2003, a car accident left Benjamin paralyzed from the waist down. He quickly learned to adapt, outfitting his wheelchair with a table that allows him to work the floor as a sommelier. Benjamin met his best friend Alex Elegudin in rehab and they co-founded Wheeling Forward, a powerhouse nonprofit driving progress in the disability community. Today, Wheeling Forward helps hundreds of New Yorkers get back to living active lives with the resources, community, and inspiration they need to make their dreams a reality. To support Wheeling Forward’s growth, Yannick created Wine on Wheels – a fundraising event that brings together over 500 of New York City’s leading wine industry professionals and wine aficionados for a tasting of over 300 fine wines for charity. The annual event, now in its 9th year, has gained so much interest that Wine on Wheels has become an independent community of its own, hosting dozens of wine seminars, tastings, and events each year to raise money for Wheeling Forward. Yannick has been recognized among Wine Enthusiast’s ‘Top 40 under 40’ and was named ‘Person of the Year’ by New Mobility Magazine in 2017. In 2015, Yannick starred in ‘Uncorked’, a documentary series about sommeliers on Esquire TV. Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times calls Benjamin ‘the new star of New York’s gastronomic firmament’ and The Wine Spectator talks about Benjamin revealing a ‘kinder, gentler side of the profession’.
"Triumph over Tragedy: How Hospitality and Wine Saved my Life"
My goal for the speech is to focus on the hardships that will come our way and what methods I have used to overcome them. My main message is not to allow ourselves to become victims of these challenging life circumstances. I will also talk about my experience as a professional hospitalian before my car accident at the age of 25 and what I did to overcome the news that I would never walk again. Despite my paralysis and the fact that things were going to be different in my life going forward, it was the lessons that I learned during my years of working in the hospitality industry that allowed me to succeed.
After spending over 4 months in rehabilitation, I was ready to take on the world in a wheelchair but nobody wanted to hire me as a professional sommelier. I was told several times that it would be in my best interest to give up and that if I ever wanted to be a sommelier that I would have to build my own restaurant to meet my own specifications. Instead of getting angry, I learned a lot about myself during those moments of rejection. I knew that one day I would open my own restaurant with my own vision. 16 years later, I am opening my own restaurant in New York City in the fall of 2019.
Every day I live by the following quote from Chef Yoshikazu Ono, “Always look ahead and above yourself. Always try to improve on yourself. Always strive to elevate your craft.” We work in an environment where everything happens so fast but we need to understand that it takes patience, perseverance, preparation, and passion to succeed in achieving our objectives. Every day we must wake up in the morning and ask ourselves, “How can I do better than yesterday? Am I living my best life?” We should never lose our curiosity for the wonders of the world nor should we ever take them for granted.
I have never once regretted the career path that I chose and every day I try to learn something new. I always look ahead and never behind. I consider myself the luckiest human being in the world, and I want everyone in the room to realize that they too are the luckiest person in the world if they make the most of their gifts and use them to serve their calling.