Interview with artist and chef DeVonn Francis by Christopher Schreck

all images by Khary Simon. shot in West Village, New York. all clothing, models own.

Yardy is a New York-based food and media events company highlighting queer and migrant culture. Founded in 2017 by artist/chef DeVonn Francis, the project has unfolded as a series of intimate, carefully curated dinners, each centered as much in education and community-building as cuisine. To mark Yardy’s first anniversary, we spoke with DeVonn about the project’s origins, lessons learned along the way, and what to expect in the year ahead.

 

Your parents immigrated to the US from Jamaica as teenagers in the early ‘70s. As you were growing up, were you able to go back and visit the island with any frequency?

You know, not really. In the entirety of my young adulthood, I only went to Jamaica maybe two or three times at most. My parents immigrated to New York before eventually winding up outside of Norfolk, Virginia, where my siblings and I grew up. My dad was in the Navy, so he was always traveling because of that, and then he and my mom were busy here, working full-time and taking care of me, my brother and my sister. So we really didn’t have the time to go back to Jamaica very often, but we went when we could. Actually, I just went back this past May with my friend Gerardo [Gonzalez], who’s also a chef. That was really the first time I’d been back as an adult.

 

How was that?

Really good, but really intense. It was beautiful and inspiring, but I was going through some other things on a personal level, just thinking about my place in the food world, or even just in the world in general. I’d been reflecting on those things anyway – I mean, I always am – but being in Jamaica really brought it to the forefront. Here I am, doing all of this work in New York that deals with West Indian sovereignty, using food to raise visibility – but to actually be there, surrounded by that food and culture, was pretty crazy.

 

So how were you introduced to traditional Jamaican cuisine? Was it primarily through dishes being cooked at home?

Yes, absolutely.

 

What kind of role did food play in your house?

Growing up, when my mom was able to make time to cook at home, she would make the foods she’d grown up with. A lot of traditional Jamaican cuisine is about stews and one-pot meals, so she’d always use curried fish, or make an oxtail or goat stew. She also really liked seafood, which, depending on where you are on the island, is a pretty important part of the diet. She loved fish head soup, and would always make things like that for us – which, growing up, I would sort of roll my eyes about: “I don’t want that, I want Hamburger Helper like all my normal friends.” [laughs]

 

Was the food a source of embarrassment for you at the time?

Well, I was a bratty little 9-year-old, so I would always be like, “What is that?” At that age, you really just want to be like all your other friends, so these “foreign” foods with strong smells didn’t help. But the thing about immigrant households, the reason they move and shift around, is that they really want their children to experience something other than what they themselves had known – the things they’d been born into, the ideas around cultural modernity (or lack of it) that they’d grown up with. So my parents were always working really hard to be sure I didn’t have to experience the same difficult circumstances, the lack of resources that you find in many parts of Jamaica. They were open about wanting a better life for me, so I didn’t really hesitate being vocal about my own misgivings.

At the same time, I always felt comfortable asking about the food and the culture behind it, too. All of that was a big part of how we related to each other: me asking about spices, talking about how food was treated in Jamaica. Growing up, there was always this cabinet full of ingredients that I didn’t understand – where they came from, how they were used. But as I grew up, I became more interested in that as part of my own journey with food, and it definitely influenced my own cooking later on. So food’s always been in the back of my mind, always been an important part of how I’ve formed my own sense of identity.

 

We talked about your mother’s cooking, but your father had his own take on Jamaican fare as well, eventually opening a Caribbean restaurant called MoDean’s.

Right. That was really interesting too, because it was very much based in his own Jamaican heritage, giving these small food offerings to the world. He had retired from the Navy, but before that, his secret passion from when he was young had been being a DJ. So with MoDean’s, he really wanted a space that was almost like a lounge, where music could be a big part of the experience along with the food. It ended up becoming a fully formed and successful restaurant, but really, he’d been doing it to create a space of culture for people, and to celebrate his heritage.

 

Was he catering to an existing Jamaican community in Norfolk?

Yeah! Places like Boston, or where I’m from in Virginia, have large Caribbean constituencies. Norfolk is a pretty big naval base, which I think has lot to do with it.

 

While your mom had learned certain recipes growing up, your dad entered the restaurant business as a self-taught cook.

Right. It’s funny – basically, it had gotten to the point where my mom was like, “I’m not cooking for you anymore!” So he had to figure it out, find his own way of cooking this food – but when he did figure it out, it sparked something in him. He realized that not only was he really passionate and driven about it, but here was a situation where he was completely in control: how the food looks, how it tastes, how it’s enjoyed. So he loved it, and people really responded. It was actually pretty incredible to see, because he was doing everything, which is kind of how I feel right now, too: being at the helm of each part of your business, paying attention to every detail.

 

For your dad, part of finding his way into this cuisine meant taking certain liberties with traditional dishes. It seems like you’ve been equally open to incorporating personal touches into your own cooking.

Oh yeah, for sure. I do think that came from my dad, at least initially. Really, when I think about what my family’s taught me about food, or even just about how to be in the world, it’s that as people approaching things from a different place (literally), you feel like you have to push your own sense of being into this pre-existing and sometimes uncomfortable mold. At a certain point, you start saying, “Hey, where do our spaces exist here? Do they exist?” Even now, with all of this discussion about who does and doesn’t belong in America, it comes down to the idea that we’re all trying to carve out a space to continue our own stories. So looking back at my parents, I’m really inspired by how, even when they were young, they were entrepreneurial, but in ways that created spaces to reflect who they were and where they were from. I feel like it’s pretty evident even in the photos I use for Yardy, which are of my mom from that time. I’m definitely trying to capture and honor that spirit. So yes, in my approach to cooking, but also more broadly, history is really important to me, but so is the idea of adding to that narrative, of opening it up.

 

You worked alongside your dad as a teenager, but when the time came, you moved to New York to study at Cooper Union. What kind of work were you interested in making at that time?

I’ve been in different art curriculums my whole life. My parents were always like, “Well, if you don’t want to play sports, and you don’t want to play outside with your friends, you might as well do the art thing.” [laughs] So even in high school, I was taking art foundations along with the other classes with everybody else, always painting and drawing. When the time came to start applying to schools, Cooper just seemed like a good fit, and luckily I got in. That was a really great experience for me, for two reasons: One, the school was all about community, and what happens when you get a bunch of people in a room who care about the world around them. I think that was really emblematic of the tuition crisis, which was in full force at the time, along with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. All of these things were happening, and they became as much a part of my learning as anything I was doing in the studio. So my education wasn’t just about art per se – it was this other socio-political thing, addressing systemic issues and learning how to take action.

By the end of my time at Cooper, I was being mentored by artists like Sharon Hayes, who taught me a lot about performance, what it is to have ideas and create something in an ethical but meaningful way. I realized that I could do these powerful things with my voice, or with my body, to make meaning, and to find meaning in the things around me. It wasn’t just about making beautiful things. I think especially as a person of color attending a school that was predominately non-POC, it was important to have that perspective, where you’re seeing your work in a larger context, and understanding where you’re positioned in relation to those around you. Those ideas definitely permeate into what I’ve done since then.

 

You’ve definitely retained a sense of performance in the events you organize – but then, even when done privately, I feel like there’s always some performative element involved in hosting a dinner.

Oh, definitely. I always say that the dinner table is like a theater space for me. There’s always some degree of performance when you have groups of people occupying a shared space together. So to be able to orchestrate artistic interventions in that space is really important to the work I’m doing. The more we grow, the more that becomes integral in how we program our events.

 

During these college years, you were also working in restaurants around Manhattan, right?

Yeah. Mainly, I was working at Estela; before that, I’d been working at Lupa as a coat check boy. Obviously, Cooper was free tuition, but my parents didn’t have money, so it was just like, “I’m in New York – I’d better figure something out, or else I’m going to be hungry.” Since I’d been brought up in restaurant settings, it seemed like a logical move. But that experience actually reminded me of what I loved about those spaces to begin with – and as I was taking these classes at Cooper, I started looking at food preparation and presentation as an artistic medium as well: thinking about the different economies of food, and how you materialize that through different forms, or through language.

 

As these ideas evolved, were there any particular artists or foodmakers you were looking to as points of reference?

A really important reference for me is Glenn Ligon – specifically, his text-based paintings, where he uses a screen printing method to make the words disintegrate as he repeats the process. So there’s the idea of simulacra, systems of repetition – how many times you can copy something, how the mold changes each time. That has pretty obvious implications for what I do. But I was also really interested in the deterioration that comes as a result of the tool he’s using to create the image. He’s giving language a physical form, implicating deterioration as part of the process – which directly relates to ideas of black bodies, how language relates to violence and deterioration. Especially at that time, I was thinking about those things, too – the degradation, and just the exhaustion, of having to explain yourself, to vouch for yourself and your body.

 

Upon graduation, you co-founded Enroot, a nomadic farm-to-table catering service. In retrospect, I wonder how that experience informed your work with Yardy?

I feel like a lot of the reasons I created Yardy were because of that experience. Enroot was amazing for me, because it was where I began finding my voice as someone who was working with food. But it was also maybe an example of learning things the hard way. At the time, I was still really tying myself to this idea of “restaurant institutions,” which were all about farm-to-table, “Go local,” “Be seasonal” – all these catch-phrases that sound really good, but which I found out sometimes don’t really mean anything. The project was great, because it had all of these trappings: traveling, nomadism, sustainability, storytelling. I was 22 at the time, so it was really exciting, and those things definitely carried over to Yardy. But now, I’m able to come at it from my own position in the world.

 

Looking at documentary footage shot at the time, it does seem like you were often the only person of color on-site.

Oh, yeah. I got used to being the only black person there, cooking on a farm for a bunch of Scottish people. [laughs] And actually, the only exception was when we were on this farm in England, and this classically, stupidly tall and beautiful Swedish man came up to us and was like, “I’m a fish smoker!” So we immediately said, “Oh wow, let’s collaborate!” But then, like two hours later, this black guy comes up out of nowhere and says, “You know, I’m the one who actually smokes the fish.” That was such a moment for me, because I realized I might need to be looking somewhere else. I just wasn’t learning about myself, honestly – and that’s really where Yardy comes in.

 

From the outset, Yardy was designed to address an absence, to establish a space for perspectives not otherwise being reflected – but I wonder how you felt the project might resonate within extant communities, be they based in cuisine, queer politics, or whatever else?

I didn’t know it would be received in any way. I was actually really terrified to do it. But thinking back to that time, it was right after the 2016 election. I remember waking up the morning after Trump won, and it was like being at that point of exhaustion where your only concerns are getting from point A to point B. You just want to strip away anything that’s not necessary, not directly helping to nourish or sustain you. At that moment, I felt like I really had to make a decision on how I was going to position myself, what kind of stance I was going to take. All I could think at the time was that I wanted to offer something that people who felt isolated or misrepresented in their communities could latch onto. For me, that meant expressing my own queer, black experience in the world, and taking action myself, rather than waiting for someone else to express those things for me. Sure, there are a lot of gay celebrities, and even gay chefs, and black people in visible positions, but none who were representing culture and performance in ways that satisfied me. So in part, it was about building a kind of community, or joining certain conversations – but more than anything, I was really trying to learn about myself, and to confront my own fears about what it means to be isolated, or erased, or forgotten.

 

Still, you do seem to have been lucky in finding other like-minded peers and organizations to collaborate with: Ragga, Queer Soup Nights, Chefs Stand Up.

Definitely. A lot of people I knew – Gerardo Gonzalez, Angela Dimayuga, Andy Baraghani – were already thinking along these lines too, and have gone on to do great things since then. There’s a shared concern with not just expressing one’s ethnic narrative, but then also queering that story, and continuing on with this larger narrative. So we’ve all been out here, championing this shift in culture from both sides. They’ve all actively and openly supported me from the start. I feel really grateful for those people.

 

In the past year or two, there’s been a lot of discussion to the effect that the New York food community is “having a moment”: power structures are shifting, spaces are being more intentionally formed, hiring practices are evolving to include a broader range of voices. I wonder how true those words ring in your own experience?

It depends on the day. Some days, I feel genuinely inspired and supported. There’s definitely some amazing people out here, really doing the work. But then there are those other days, where I feel like it’s all fake. Pulling receipts almost become a performance, with everyone in this race to be “woke,” say the right things, have the right kind of Instagram or whatever. In some cases, it has more to do with marketing, with mapping trends, than anything else, which means people’s attention and energy can shift away just as quickly as they came. And just on a practical level, a lot of these restaurant structures that I’ve existed in, which have sustained me – and which, at the same time, have caused me and my friends so much trauma – are in the hands of privileged white men. At this point, even when steps are taken, it’s being done more out of fear than anything else – a fear of not being seen as “woke,” of being called out as non-progressive, etc. That kind of fear is not a generative source of real, long-term change. So I know this sounds really jaded, but I just don’t feel it yet. The thing is, you just have to be really conscious about people’s end-goals with all of this. What’s really at stake for them? I mean, not only do I have to run a business, but I also have to protect my sense of self, and of self-worth. So when I put an idea out, I am being vulnerable and open, but I still have to make sure I’m not just out here doing work for other people who won’t take the time to learn for themselves. It’s hard.

 

We’ve been talking about Yardy’s origins from an emotional standpoint, but what about as a business? On a practical level, how did you build the company up, raise funds, set pricings, hire staff?

Well, the short answer is, I didn’t know what I was doing. I literally jumped in headfirst. Through Andy and other friends, I did have a small group of people who had experience with putting on events related to food and whose advice I could trust. So, for example, as I was putting the idea together, I reached out to the people at Estela and just asked a lot of basic questions: What does it really take to start a kitchen space? Is there a model for this kind of events programming? How do you put together a staff? I’d been paying a lot of attention during my time at restaurants, just in terms of understanding them as businesses, or as structures. But honestly, a lot of it has been me figuring it out as I go. I’ve definitely had to learn how not to be afraid to ask questions, to get whatever it is I want. And really, it’s taken the past year to get to the point where I really know what I’m doing, and the form I want this to take.

 

So as you round the corner on year one with Yardy, what’s ahead?

So many things! First, I’m pursuing investment for building a kitchen. It won’t be a restaurant per se, but I do want a space where I can test recipes, host smaller events. I just want a home base for all of the projects I want to bear into the world. For a long time, I was skeptical about owning a physical space, but now I see how it could be used. I think the food we make is incredible, but at the end of the day, it’s about telling stories through the menu, and I want a space to house those stories. So right now, I’m figuring out how to achieve that. Do you do an X-sized campaign with this given sponsor? Do you create a mini-film series, some platform almost like Munchies? Actually, I am working on a pilot with a company for 2019. The details are still a secret, but I do know that film and video is something I’d like to focus on more in the next year.

So as I’m thinking about these different ideas, I’m working with a financial planner who sort of specializes in restaurants, with the understanding that if I want to take this thing to a new level, I have to have the resources in place. What I’m learning, especially as a young black business owner, is that a lot of people who start projects like these in New York have a lot of money. It sounds silly, but I really didn’t know that, or at least the extent of it. With Yardy, there’s never been capital to work with – it’s just been me working really hard all the time, putting the money I earn from bigger jobs or whatever else back into building the business. That’s been fine, because I’ve learned a lot from doing things that way, but I’m ready now to take the next step towards creating something that can sustain itself and continue to grow.

 

Has your approach, or even your mission, changed at all over these past twelve months? As you enter Yardy’s second year, is there anything you’ll be doing differently?

Uh, yeah. Yes. [laughs] I’m definitely trying to be better about having conversations with myself about value. Especially in New York, where the way things, and time, and labor, and even people are valued can be so crazy. So at the beginning – for too long, really – I was just saying yes to everything, even if my only compensation was quote-unquote “exposure.” I’m trying to be better about assessing what “value” really means, and what it takes to sustain myself. I want to I be more assertive about creating the spaces that I want, and to compete as aggressively as my white chef friends, who have no problem asking for what they want and aren’t afraid to say no. But the flip-side of that is also realizing that I also need to take more time to learn. Mentorship is something I haven’t had consistently since Cooper – I’ve always been too busy scrambling and spiraling and trying to get by. But using words like “activism,” “indigenous,” “decolonization” – what does that actually mean? How do we create real, palpable efforts to make those things actionable and actual for the people who need that support? I want to tap into my network of friends who have really been doing that work and start dialogues with them. I want to be humble, and accept that I don’t know everything, and that there’s still so much I want to learn.

 

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