IN CONVERSATION: DEVONN FRANCIS, CULINARY TASTEMAKER
DeVonn Francis, Founder of Yardy. Photo courtesy of Emma Trim-min.
NYC-based DeVonn Francis, a queer first-generation Jamaican-American artist, founded the creative studio Yardy in 2017 as a way to explore his own heritage and to redefine, reaffirm and share the importance of food and culture. DeVonn is part of the MYKITA family, collaborating together in February for a pre-quarantine fête held at the MYKITA Shop New York. Earlier this summer, MYKITA JOURNAL held a candid conversation with DeVonn in which we spoke about his upbringing in Norfolk, Virginia, his creative vision and his generous approach to cooking and hospitality. We also spoke about the ‘new normal’ under COVID-19 and the challenges of being isolated in the city he loves so dearly.
MYKITA JOURNAL is about discovering a shared creative vision: where it comes from, how does it begin, how it evolves. For you and Yardy, where did your love of cooking start?
For Yardy it has been about participation and a familial connection. In my family I was always the type of kid who stayed inside a lot. The shy kid. I wasn’t a sports kid, I didn’t really like to go outside, as opposed to my brother, who loved dirt biking, skiing, surfing, or paintball. My sister was out with her friends at the mall; I was the kid who wanted to stay home with my Mom. We would spend a lot of afternoons cooking together. I’d stand by the stove and watch her make breakfast, watch every step.
When my Dad retired from the Navy, he had this ambition to open a space of his own. He was inspired by his childhood in Jamaica, where he was raised by aunts on a farm. He has all of these incredible stories of being connected to the land, so he started his own family business, a restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia. It connected him with his upbringing and history. The restaurant was there for a decade: it started as a counter service space, then he knocked down a wall and it then became a lounge with music, playing Caribbean, calypso, dance hall and reggae. And in that way food and cooking has always been in my orbit.
This is something that I’ve been writing about. Cooking is a relationship with my identity and history. I’m slowly understanding myself and what it means. Looking back, I was the nerdy art kid; I wasn’t the cool kid. I was always interested in art and drawing, and my parents encouraged me to be creative. I cooked and ruined our carpets with splattered paint, but they encouraged all of it. So that was my background and foundation in food.
In 2011, I moved to New York City to go to art school at Cooper Union. I also started working in restaurants. My first restaurant job was at Estela. At first I was in the kitchen but then I realized I couldn’t balance it with my class schedule or with my skills. It’s an amazing restaurant and I’m a strong chef but at the time I wasn’t ready to take it all on. Instead I became front of house and was a runner and waited tables. I built a great relationship with the head chef Ignacio Mattos, the owners and managers, who all became mentors. Ignacio and I would go to the market each morning and talk about ingredients, look and observe together. This was important, because besides cooking on the daily I realized cooking was a creative practice that happened to be tied to dining and hospitality but also is about creating something beautiful and compelling, too. Something important clicked in between going to art school and going to those spaces like Estela.
Also related to the creative practice and hospitality is the drama of restaurants, like their capacity to be a form of theatre, or at least evoke glamour through just gathering people together.
Completely! Estela was a scene. Iconic people would come in and sometimes I wouldn’t even know them, but you could definitely feel the energy. All these people, these musicians that I love, the whole room had energy. David Byrne at the table. David BYRNE! Obama! What’s her face from Sex and the City…? Just from the gravitational pull of the space, I understood that food could be something creative, challenging and transportive.
How did you get the courage to start your own creative vision? Was there a tiny glimpse, a spark? Is there a moment or more a series of moments where you realized it was your time to create Yardy?
After I left Estela, I had other stints in between that life and this one. I travelled. One summer a friend who went to Cooper with me reached out and said, “I know you’ve been hosting dinner parties. Would you be interested in traveling to the UK? My family has a dairy farm and we’d love to refurbish some of the spaces and equipment… we could go on a food tour around the UK and speak about what we do.” I was like… are there black people in Scotland?
Hahaha… I mean there are the Black Irish… but that’s Ireland!
Totally not Black Irish! But I was IN. We started a Kickstarter to do this project together and the long story was that it was a moment for my friend to connect with his Scottish heritage and for us both to think about the global impact of food production starting from the local business level - the small farm to the macro level. And you know, it’s funny but the same conversations are happening right now in terms of the food supply chain. In that situation we spent three to four months traveling from Scotland, England, Wales back to Scotland cooking on farms, over open fires, building tents. I saw that there was a robust food history in each country, each region, I saw food linking nationality and identity. I felt really inspired to reach back to my own identity.
And so that’s how Yardy came about. I came back to New York City and sitting on my bed going through family photos I found pictures of my Mom growing up in NYC and there was something about that energy in the parties and events, seeing her in the dining hall, seeing the family history and then wanting to connect that history to eating and entertaining. I unofficially started Yardy in the summer of 2017 and then officially in 2018. I held salons in different spaces: in Williamsburg, at Saipua, at Lee’s in Chinatown, it was a way to have people come together and have a single menu.
DeVonn's family. Photo courtesy of DeVonn Francis.
There is this moment of the independent chef, where you are still a chef but without a restaurant, and yet still not a caterer. Not even sure if there’s a word for that. What did you want to accomplish with Yardy that was different from others – other restaurants, other chefs, other caterers?
My biggest thing was to do something that wasn’t so institutionalized or had a transactional feeling that you get at so many restaurants. You know: you go to the restaurant, you look at the menu, someone comes over, you pick appetizers, mains, desserts, your friends talk, you tip the waiter, that whole routine. There are a thousand of those. I thought, ‘What can we do to challenge how we think and know?’ That’s important to me. The first thing I would say as someone who didn’t formally study food – I would say that in the process there are barriers to entry to get into the restaurant industry. To engage with the restaurant or food industry takes time and labour in a specific, extreme way. You are making everything by hand, it’s a responsibility to so much.
Those barriers to entry made me think about having art-parties or think about alternative spaces to dine and gather. Salons. It was important to me to make Yardy salons more like a home experience – and that world has coincided with my Mom and my Dad bootstrapping his way to a lounge space. It was important for me, the word “home”, and to make the experience porous and not institutionalized. My network is diverse and robust. I’m curious to know what inspires me. When I make a menu, I don’t look to other chefs. I look at fashion, I look to music, I look at what’s happening in sustainability — things that help me create something that is its own special thing.
At my first Yardy salon, maybe in 2018, there was an incredible gathering of people from diverse lives, diverse fields and backgrounds. The tone was real, it felt homey and different. And with the people you invited to speak at the dinner… I actually learned something new.
Yardy dinner parties were initially an homage to get people in a room to talk about their own networks and to make a difference. There was Arielle Johnson who is a flavour scientist who worked at Noma and now M.I.T. university. Here was Zwann Grays, a sommelier and wine director of Olmstead. There was Shaquanda (Andre Springer) a drag queen who makes hot sauces; she’s funny and talented and from Barbados. That was all part of wanting to make a Yardy salon - like you’re listening in to a good ass conversation with your aunties in a living room. That’s how it always felt growing up; that’s how learning happens. A fly on the wall moment in my family of listening and then evaluating. When people started to follow our brand on Instagram or when we first got coverage in the news, I kept thinking I want people to come to this dinner and learn, while also making the meal affordable. That’s why we have public events: we want to make sure people can access them and have a good meal, and also learn.
I also want to make sure I ask you this important cultural question, what’s behind the name Yardy?
In Jamaica when you say “yardy” the term defines who you are. If you’re “yardy” it means you’re from Jamaica, you speak patois, the local dialect. For me it’s a term of endearment. If you say to someone “you’re yardy” there’s a sense of pride, a pride of place and identification. But me being the nerdy English vocabulary person, then ok, “yardy” also refers to “yard”, owning something. Property. You own it, it’s about land, it’s about a home. I think of the name Yardy as a hybrid between where you are and where you came from. It’s a kind of space that holds identity. Yardy is also a kind of declaration of place, pride and curiosity: What does it mean to invite someone to your home?
When I started Yardy it was crazy. Trump was elected. I was like, if people feel crazy like I do then maybe throughout the world, I’m sure people are feeling displaced on the daily. Based on the current administration and the climate of the world, I wanted to make a signal through my brand: it’s fashionable, artistic, smart, young and with good food. But at the core, for me Yardy is about being comfortable wherever you are and making space for people; a home.
Can you speak to the pleasures of cooking, the daily pleasures of working with your hands, the daily rituals and the nuts and bolts that you use on the daily?
Cooking is a daily practice, like writing, where you’re building up a skill set and strength of what your habits and weaknesses are. That’s what cooking has done for me.
Pleasure is important for me: that balance between spontaneity and ritual. When I think about a meal for myself, there’s something comforting in knowing that you have a few ingredients that feel yours, things that you always go to. I love spice, I love citrus. Those are things that ground me. Not only the process of cooking or eating but the nuts and bolts, the priority ingredients. The ingredients that make me feel the most loved for and cared for and empowered. Coconut is important, it’s so diverse: the flake, the water, as milk, it speaks to where I’m from. I use Aleppo pepper a lot, it’s delicious. I love lime. It sounds basic but it’s not. it’s an acid, it’s not like a lemon at all. I’ve had so many conversations about the specificity of the lime. You could replace lime with lemon… but it’s not the same. The distinction is so important because food is tied to a DNA. The magazines will ask me, if you can’t find coconut in the store, can you make it more accessible? NO. People need to find it and use it and challenge themselves.
I’m staunch on specific ingredients. They remind me of my grandmother and my Mom; those are the things that define our identity. These ways are simple but important. I’ve had this fight so many times. When I started out, I didn’t have the agency to fight against that sort of thing… I’ve been challenging myself to dig into that history and think about ingredients more. I used to hate oxtail and green bananas as clichés almost, but now I know why they’re important. They really tie you to a place; they give you a stake in the world.
And also, ingredients are a way for us to talk about the people who labour – famers, farming and distribution – those are important to understand the ecology we all exist in. You can’t switch thing so easily.
DeVonn Francis, Founder of Yardy. Photo courtesy of Ben Rozeweig.
And, how have you been during this time? How do you handle your days? What are the changes you’re going through?
There’s this aspect of humanness that I’ve had to lean into and remember it’s ok to not have all the answers: we’re learning who we are in all different kinds of ways. When my grieving stage ended, I began to dig deeper into writing, and asking myself which smaller processes I could do in my own house? I’ll write or read for an hour each morning, and then maybe 30 minutes of reading before going to bed, if I’m not too tired from the day. Writing has been giving a wellspring of ideas; it has given me a space to think about our mission at Yardy – both as a business and a person in the world. A friend asked me, “Who do you want to be in times of crisis?” and that’s an important question that everyone should ask themselves.
Everyone has their stress response and crisis response; there is no data that quite parallels what’s happening right now. It’s important to understand our own reactions and learn. It’s important to understand the larger societal structures, too: that capitalism is not a naturally occurring thing, it’s a created structure and arbitrary. It’s ok to not have the answers, to slow down and assess where you are.
From a professional standpoint, what and how do I handle the daily COVID-19 days… I had to sit down and think about what kind of imprint we want to put out there moving forward and why. We did a pre-launch for our delivery service. My goal has been to centre more Caribbean, black and brown queer narratives in the food industry. How do you redistribute wealth into the hands of people who are systematically marginalized from different industries, and be able to create jobs and wealth where people can insert their own value? That’s part of our Yardy mission. It’s really important, because when you do big events that mission can get lost. It’s great to have had some time – I’m sitting with my thoughts as a person in the world and if I were to die tomorrow, what would I want to be proud of?
What do you tell yourself when you mess up a recipe or in times of adversity, in times like these?
Don’t take anything too seriously because people and things are susceptible to change. Sometimes you might have to start over. You might be resilient but sometimes you might need to start with a new plan from scratch. Sometimes you can’t depend on what you thought you knew, and you have to do something differently.
Coconut & Avocado Margarita
2 oz tequila
0.5 oz fresh lime juice
0.5 oz agave syrup
1 oz coconut cream
Lime salt for rim (1 pint mix)
Thomas Henry bitter lemon
Add all ingredients to a blender and pour over ice. Garnish with lime wedge.
DeVonn recently kickstarted an ambitious Yardy delivery program, partnering with The Smile NY to transform their Howard Street location into a Yardy residency space. Yardy organized a series of fundraisers to initiate a free meal and grocery program alongside Food Issue Group and Partnership with Children to support and grow diverse communities. As an extension of Yardy’s public events, DeVonn has also launched Living Room, an Instagram Live series, which features inspiring cultural conversations between fellow creatives. Tune in at @yardy.nyc