Inside The 'Barrier-Free' Restaurant With A Special Connection To Lidia Bastianich

In the opening moments of the new special "Lidia Celebrates America: Overcoming The Odds," Lidia Bastianich shares that she's traveled the country to meet people who have thrived despite hardship and obstacles. She likens their experiences to that of her mother, who was forced to flee her home country with her young family and eventually immigrated to the U.S. One of the individuals we meet in the film is Yannick Benjamin, who just this year has opened his first restaurant in New York City. Benjamin's story and the mission of his restaurant are truly inspiring. 

Bastianich has known Benjamin a long time: In the film she shares that he worked in her acclaimed NYC restaurant Felidia as a sommelier. When he was 25, Benjamin nearly lost his life in a car accident, and his injuries left him without the use of his legs. Benjamin shares that while he knew he would be faced with many physical challenges going forward, he didn't expect the social challenges that came with his disability, like going out with friends only to find inaccessible restrooms, or how a few steps can make it difficult to even enter a restaurant. "It's incredibly challenging and stressful," he says. "People with disabilities feel like they're being rushed or that they're a hindrance," he says. Incredibly, Benjamin didn't succumb to self-pity, but saw his challenges as an opportunity: To open a restaurant that was truly barrier-free. Bastianich was thrilled to visit him there and take a tour. 

Here's how this restaurant promotes inclusivity

When Lidia Bastianich visits Yannick Benjamin at his newly opened NYC restaurant Contento, she's so happy to see him — and it's clear that Benjamin holds a special place in her heart. The first thing he shows her inside are the tables with spacious and moveable seating that meets the needs of all guests. He also shows off a lowered, accessible bar area that lets disabled diners sit and socialize eye-to-eye with others. 

Contento focuses on more than just accessibility for those in wheelchairs, however. In the restroom all devices are touchless, to make it easier for individuals with limited upper body movement, and Braille menus are available for vision-impaired guests. Wines are Benjamin's passion, and he even makes these barrier-free by offering his finest selections at affordable price points. The New Yorker shares that he also sources wine from producers who themselves focus on inclusivity. Even the tableware at Contento is designed to be easy to grip for guests who have limited dexterity. And, of course, there's the food, which Bastianich is especially excited to try. At the helm in the kitchen is Chef Oscar Lorenzzi, who creates Peruvian-inspired dishes, and the meals are affordably priced. For Bastianich he creates a ceviche classico with tiger's milk, which she declares to be delicious. 

Benjamin hopes that more restaurants will follow barrier-free Contento's lead, saying, "We've been able to prove here at the restaurant that [for] people with disabilities, when you build it they will come."