Yannick Benjamin - Currently the Head Sommelier of The University Club & created "Wine on Wheels."
How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I am currently the Head Sommelier of The University Club and a proud New Yorker from Hell’s Kitchen. I was blessed to be born into a family of French restaurateurs, and I have worked in the hospitality industry for over 25 years. My career trajectory has led me to numerous highly regarded restaurants, including Le Cirque, Oceana, Jean-Georges, Atlas, Felidia, and Atelier at the Ritz-Carlton. Additionally, I worked for over ten years for Le Du’s Wines, one of the top wine retail stores in Manhattan. In 2003, a car accident left me paralyzed from the waist down. However, my passion for hospitality drove me to quickly adapt. I outfitted my wheelchair with a table, which allowed me to continue to work as a sommelier. I went on to create “Wine on Wheels,” one of New York City’s largest and most exciting wine events. “Wine on Wheels” brings hundreds of esteemed sommeliers together to pour over 180 wines from around the world for noble charity. The event is going on its eighth year. My objective is to bring awareness and visibility to seldom-heard voices in the wine industry while simultaneously championing inclusivity. I am bringing that same energy and passion to East Harlem, as I plan on opening my first restaurant, Contento NYC in spring of 2021. Contento will be a barrier-free restaurant where wine and food come together, stories of who we are will be shared, and where social sustainability will be practiced. We also plan to utilize our experiences and location to offer enriched programs that will enhance the quality of life for people living with disabilities.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
I am often asked about what my “aha” moment in wine was, and to be honest, I never really had one. I always loved everything about hospitality and wine. Growing up, I loved watching the sitcom Cheers, and I told myself that I wanted to own a restaurant just like that, that’s to say, one surrounded by a bunch of characters that would make my job a real pleasure to go to. The truth is, by the age of 13, I dedicated myself to the craft of being a great hospitalian, and I always loved the concept of serving great food and beverage to people that would appreciate it. When I told my 7th grade teacher that I wanted to be in the restaurant business, she truly thought I was crazy, as everyone else in my class either wanted to become a doctor, lawyer, or work in government. I was blessed to have spent my summers in France so food and wine is truly a connection to my roots and my family. I could never imagine doing anything else. I am now 43 years old and I still feel like a kid in the largest toy store in the world, because there is still so much to learn and enjoy along the way.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is that the more I see, the more I taste, the more I read, and the more I travel, I realize how little I actually know. We work in an industry where it’s impossible to know everything. The possibilities are infinite. It truly is remarkable the amount of knowledge that is out there, from the anthropology of food to the different soils types of vineyards that play a part in the flavor of wine. As long as you have the desire to better yourself and the curiosity to learn more, you will always go to bed knowing that you learned something new.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry?
I have an interesting perspective because I was able bodied up until my car accident at the age of 25, which left me paralyzed from the waist down. Not having the use of my legs was very difficult to accept, especially in an industry that is so physically demanding. Even when I was told by the doctors that I was never going to walk again, I knew that I wanted to stay working in this industry. I worked very hard to get back on the restaurant floor, and I was told by a lot of people that it was just going to hurt me that working in a restaurant on the floor as a sommelier would be almost impossible, and that in order to do so, I would need to to build my own restaurant around my specific needs. I applied to many establishments and even offered to work for half of what they were offering, only to prove to them that I could do the job. I was even laughed at once when I came into the interview for a position at a posh place in Midtown – you can only imagine how defeated I felt. However, passion and desire will always win, and if you're motivated, you can convince yourself to do just about anything. Trying to convince someone that has an unconscious perspective on what someone with a disability can or can’t do is not an easy task, let alone trying to convince an executive to hire a sommelier who is paraplegic. I was very fortunate to have met Mr. Dorman at a sommelier competition, who would later become my boss at my current job as the Sommelier of The University Club. I took a job as a floor sommelier that likely no one wanted, as the pay was not very good, but I knew that I would make it my own and that I would simply keep my head down and work hard. There were certainly challenges, but I was happy to have a job that gave me pleasure and a sense of purpose. Now, almost 18 years from the date of my car accident, I am going to open a restaurant in East Harlem that will have no barriers. Stay calm, breathe, and push forward, because you’re never too old to dream and believe in magic.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by advocating for diversity and inclusion?
Hopefully we can all come together and realize that we are all from the same trunk. A couple of things that I would like to see happen in the world of wine and hospitality: first and foremost, everyone should have universal healthcare. One should never have to worry about going broke when going to the emergency room. The second thing I would like to see happen is a cooperative meeting of the minds, where we create an emergency fund in the case that a business shuts down unexpectedly, or a health care emergency arises. Ideally ,a system would be put in place where one would have a guarantee of some money from his/her pension fund coming in to carry them over while overcoming the obstacles. Hopefully we can step it up and have financial advisors, doctors, and legal teams on retainer, as these are important factors for the safety and quality of life for our community.
What changes do you hope to see in the wine industry in the next five years?
I often hear the word “dinosaur” thrown around a lot when talking about someone that is of a certain age, as well as for someone who has been working the floor for a long time in a restaurant. For some reason, this is looked down upon. Instead, I feel that we should embrace those that are passionate about the work that they do and not put down the veterans of our industry. To those who make comments as such, I politely suggest keeping these comments to themselves, and instead, maybe take the time to learn something from our industry veterans. One thing that is guaranteed is that we will all age, so the next time you get frustrated with a new hire that may be of a certain age, or you are losing your patience because they are having difficulty putting the order in the POS, remind yourself that they bring so many other variables to the table. Ageism is a massive prejudice that is plaguing our industry and we need to start talking more about it and stop pretending that it does not exist. I believe that if we have that right balance of young and experienced people working alongside industry veterans together, perhaps restaurants would have weathered the storm better during COVID. I want to see us embrace those that have experience and who can bring a lot to the table, rather than viewing them as dinosaurs.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
Equality is sharing your resources with those that may need help or have less than you. It also means respecting each individual regardless of their place in the world. The moment we will start embracing each other’s differences, the stronger our industry will be.
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
My objective is to bring awareness to the disability community and shed light on how we can do better to create better opportunities for them. The second objective is to create hospitality spaces that make it comfortable for all people with disabilities to enjoy themselves at any given location.
What message do you have for anyone now entering the wine profession?
Set yourself on the journey that is going to allow you to grow. You should never take the easy path, rather the one that forces you to be creative. Be sure to appreciate every second that has been gifted upon you. Passion is what will give you direction in your journey, but your desire will allow you to push through unexpected obstacles. On your journey, many mistakes will be made, but that is the only way to achieve your goals. You must fight your own fears and not be afraid of failure. I have always embraced my failures over my accomplishments. A lot of great things can come from failure, but nothing will ever get accomplished if you remain in fear. Personal evolution can't happen if you refuse to adapt and live in complacency. Life is about overcoming challenges and defeating our own limitations.
What other industry heroes do you admire and why?
My two industry heroes are Sirio Maccioni and Jorge Nunez, both of Le Cirque restaurant. I was very fortunate to have been hired by the late and great Sirio Maccioni. I am not sure where I would be today if he had not hired me at the very unripe age of 18. I still have dreams of working at Le Cirque, as it gave me the foundation needed to survive in this very difficult industry. The older I get, the more I appreciate the honor that I had to work with such a legendary restaurateur.
When I first started working at Le Cirque, I was a deer in headlights. This was back in 1997, and Le Cirque (at least for me) felt like it was the center of the universe. I was completely overwhelmed, even though I had worked in restaurants prior to that. Looking back, one of my greatest mentors was Jorge Nunez, who really taught me how to be a great waiter. I was too scared to ask anyone else questions, but for some reason, he had the patience to answer my queries and show me the ins and outs of what it takes to be a great waiter. I am so blessed to have met him as he really is one of my personal heroes.
The two people that I admire the most in the industry are Kilolo Strobert and Patrick Mata. I always had a deep admiration for Kilolo Strobert because of her transparency and her ability to tell it like it is.
Coming from the BIPOC community, Kilolo has had many obstacles to overcome, but she never gave up and was always able to maintain a positive frame of mind. I always learn from her, and she brings a refreshing perspective to the table. She has been an instrumental part of my non-profit and has given so much of her free time to our cause. Without her sacrifice, we would not be where we are today.
Patrick Mata is the co-founder of Olé & Obrigado, an importer of soulful wines of exceptional quality from Spain and Portugal. Mata is also behind Liquid Geography, a rosé from Bierzo in Spain. Olé & Obrigado donates 100% of Liquid Geography's profits (in equal parts) to the TJ Martell Foundation in its search for cancer cures, World Central Kitchen, an organization devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters, and Wheeling Forward, which helps people with disabilities experience life to the fullest. He is a true entrepreneur with a generous heart. We certainly could use more individuals like him in our industry.