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In New York wine industry circles, Yannick Benjamin is known as one of the top sommeliers. He learned his trade as a young man at places like Jean-Georges and Le Cirque. His work in hospitality took on a new meaning in 2003, when he was in a car accident at age 25 and became paralyzed from the waist down.

After receiving a sommelier certification the next year, Mr. Benjamin began to throw some of his energy toward supporting other people with disabilities. He and a friend, Alex Elegudin, started the nonprofit Wheeling Forward, which offers a variety of services and programs. Another nonprofit, Wine on Wheels, grew out of that, with Mr. Benjamin using his connections to help raise money and “bring awareness to the hospitality industry that people with disabilities need to be treated with respect and dignity.”

In 2021, Mr. Benjamin put his vision to the test by opening Contento in East Harlem with his friend George Gallego. The restaurant quickly became known as a model for accessibility in dining, with modifications for wheelchair users, a menu in Braille and adaptive flatware.

Mr. Benjamin, 46, was raised in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan by French immigrant parents, and last year he opened Beaupierre Wines & Spirits in the neighborhood with his wife, Heidi Turzyn Benjamin. The couple live in a two-bedroom apartment in the Concourse section of the Bronx with their dog, Amélie.

EARLY RISER I love waking up in the morning. From 4:30 a.m. to about 8:30 a.m., I’m free of any kind of anxiety. It’s the time that I own. I don’t have to worry about a phone call or anything like that. The first thing that I always try to do in the morning — I have one of these little timers — I try to practice the “pomodoro” method. I’ll put it on for about 20, 25 minutes. I go straight to my water cooler, have a glass of water, electrolytes, brush my teeth. Then I go straight into what I call my own form of meditation.

ANCIENT TEXTS I’m a big practitioner of Stoicism. The weekends are my time in the mornings to read. I often read a lot of books: “The Discourses of Epictetus”; I’m doing a lot of reading on Marcus Aurelius; I love everything that’s from Seneca. I’ll highlight a lot of their stuff.

What’s key for me is writing to myself in the same way that Marcus Aurelius did in the book “Meditations.” When he wrote that book, he wasn’t really writing it for other people to read — it was a journal to himself. It’s a way of self-improvement, of questioning, “Whoa, Yannick, why did you get upset because the elevator was broken?” Or, “Was it really necessary for you to snap at that person?” Just questioning and making sure that you’re picking up good habits.

ADAPTIVE TRAINING Sundays and Saturdays are the days I like to really push my workouts to beyond the limits, exhaust myself. At least well over an hour of cardio, which is my hand crank — equivalent to a Peloton bike, but only for someone who only has upper body, because I’m paralyzed, right? I do adaptive jumping. I do my adaptive burpees. I go to the Access Initiatives, the wellness and physical fitness center, to see my colleague and friend George Gallego [the founder]. We’re going to do the New York City Half Marathon [on Sunday] together. We’ve done a bunch of marathons together, full marathons. He’s also my business partner at the restaurant Contento.

STRATEGY SESSION We like to go to Contento; it’s closed on Sunday, and it’s just nice to be in your own little spot. We like to talk about what’s going on in the nonprofit world, what’s our next goals. But also to talk about the restaurant.

I mean, there’s ups, there’s downs. Especially right now, the restaurant business has been a little bit challenging. Fortunately, we don’t have a high overhead; we’re a small space, so it’s good. But we realize that we’re in a city of 26,000 restaurants. And one day you’re like a cool kid, and the next day you’re kind of forgotten.

NOTRE DAME I usually like to stop by the Church of Notre Dame. If there’s no Mass I just kind of sit there and just do a little meditation, stay in silence — more of a gratitude for all the good things in my life. I like the feeling of the church. It brings me great joy to go there to find that serenity.

One of my favorite quotes is from “Sound of Metal.” It’s about someone who’s going deaf, and in one of the scenes it says, the world can be a damn cruel place, but it’s those moments of stillness — that’s the closest thing to the kingdom of God, and those moments of stillness will never betray you. We need those moments just to get some clarity. Because we know we’re going to go back to the rat race the next day.

FANCY CHICKEN One of my go-to restaurants is a place called Benoit. I might go there, have a little brunch or lunch with a friend. And I like to always organize a good, solid meeting with someone that I haven’t talked to in a while. Usually, it’s in regard to Wine on Wheels and what the future holds. Their roasted chicken is the greatest thing on earth.

WINES AND SPIRITS It gives me comfort that I was able to open a store in the same building that I was born and raised in. Most people, sometimes they have trauma. They just want to get out of the place that they grew up in. And I understand that. But in my case, what an opportunity to be so close, next to my sister who lives one building over, see my nephews all the time. My mom comes down, always bringing me food. I’ve had some tough breaks in my life, but at the end of the day, I’m one of the luckiest people on earth.

MAMAN’S SPECIALTIES I know it’s not everybody’s taste, but I always say my mom is a master at organ meats. She’ll do either kidney, liver or something like tripe. It’s so good. She always surprises me. And then we catch up, and as you can imagine, we have a lot to talk about because my father has just passed away. But she’s in great spirits. She’s one of the strongest individuals I’ve ever met.

NO-JUDGMENT WINE I really don’t drink that much, even though I’m in the wine industry. It’s the one night of the week that I can actually have a glass of wine and not dissect it or judge it and just enjoy the simplicity of it, the stimulation of it. Me and my wife, we just enjoy each other’s company. And with our little doggy, Amelie, we watch whatever’s on TV, have nice conversation, and just keep things really simple. We really don’t talk about politics. We just talk about really nothing, but nothing is great sometimes.

Sunday Routine readers can follow Yannick Benjamin on Instagram at @yannickbenjamin.



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