Seated at the counter at Dimes Deli, a favorite eatery of downtown’s au courant glitterati nestled into a comfy-cozy corner on Division Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I watched a candle burn. Seeking severance from form, its flame became a light in a sea of wax — an island of sorts — and I began to think of home, my Hawaii and the island chain from which I, too, am from. I was not alone with these sentiments as the man in the kitchen, from where scents of thyme, spices and citrus wafted duly into the dining area, was also an islander, not by birth but by nature. I catch glimpses of him as I sip on a sorrel punch he prepared — a bright, Hibiscus winter spice-based beverage that West Indians traditionally drink around Christmas time. He wears a black beanie and a white apron around his waist; his skin is the color of a starry night sky, black but rich with the luster of generations spent under a Caribbean sun.
DeVonn is a Francis, but he is also a queer, first-generation Jamaican-American and the founder of Yardy NYC, which in his own words is “a food events company centered around the making of exquisite food with a penchant for social justice and ethical practice.” The creation of educational platforms and the uplifting of marginalized communities to give them a place in the greater context of fine dining are the pillars on which Yardy stands. When I ask him where he’s from, he tells me, “Virginia,” and while this is true, it is not his truth. On the island of Jamaica, DeVonn is called a “Yankie”, meaning Jamaican by blood, but not Jamaican by birth. Marked by his American accent, I read in the melon-colored menu/pamphlet in front of me that it is “a term of endearment” placed upon him by his relatives because they do not want him to forget where he is from. “When Jamaicans say ‘yaadie’ they usually mean a Jamaican-born citizen — a ‘Jamaican fi true,’” and while DeVonn is not that, there is nothing ironic about the fact that his company is called Yardy. “Yardy, for me, is like a question, it’s asking people where they’re from essentially and do you understand that you’re connected to other people by where you come from?” explained DeVonn. Yardy is more than a tribute to Jamaica, it is a way home.
A group of 17 of us were gathered here at Dimes Deli on a surprisingly warm December evening to bear witness to this homecoming. The front of the menu bore an image of DeVonn’s own mother, taken when New York bestowed on her the radiance of a seemingly perpetual youth. “It speaks to an energy of uniqueness, resilience, that comes from being an immigrant, brown woman in the world, and that’s the image I want to put forth into the world about Yardy. It is about the experience of care I received from my mother,” said DeVonn who was busy in the kitchen but remained far from the clutches of distress. His father, on the other hand, opened a Jamaican restaurant, much to the family’s surprise, when he was ten or eleven years old. “He had this really extensive record collection and grew up DJing basement parties for his dad at the age of 13. He had no food background whatsoever, didn’t know how to cook at all, and we were all like, ‘Are you sure? Are you okay?'” mused DeVonn fondly before stating that he was at the restaurant “so much that [he] wanted to cry” before giving this eulogy:
“My dad taught me how to make jerk chicken as dark as the tar-caked grill we used to prepare it on, which almost always flared up to greet the raw protein. Dad’s restaurant was the story of broken bottles in the alleyways and people peeing in the back courtyard by the fence — you couldn’t help notice when you went to take out the trash. Whose job was it to clean that up? The end of day aroma was grease trap sticking to your hair and coming home with some odd semblance of kitchen-sink perfume. This wasn’t a classically beautiful story, but it was beautifully our story. It was a labor of love, the cause of many happy faces and full bellies. At the same time it was intense, emotional labor and nights wide awake. I was pretty young when it was happening, but it was the kind of thing that would stick with me for a lifetime.”
Groups of strangers were seated, pressed up upon each other as they patiently waited for the first course in the four-course meal to arrive, passing the time in bouts of laughter and humming along to SZA’s “The Weekend” when it oozed from the speakers. As the servers (including Ana, DeVonn’s event manager, and the Dimes crew) brought out the first course of the evening, an eggplant escovitch with pickled carrot, curried chickpeas and roti aka buss up shut, I watched as my fellow diners dove unafraid and fingers first into the dish, wrapping and rolling the eggplant and chickpeas with the roti, crafting the perfect bite. There was no observed hesitation, no mutterings of “What is this?” and, although DeVonn wasn’t there to watch as people’s faces lit up, I was smiling for him. Cooking, for him, wasn’t always an outward-facing passion and growing up, it was instead merely an activity that gave him a valid reason to stay indoors to mull his preadolescence over as he would grow into an understanding of his identity.
Growing up in Virginia, DeVonn recalls having a challenging relationship to Jamaican food because it reminded him that he was of an immigrant background. “I was always the darkest-skinned boy in school, so everyone was always like, ‘You look funny, you talk funny because you’re black, but you sound white.’ I wanted the things that my normal friends had. I didn’t want to be reminded that I was different,” he said. Yet in those formative years, not only did he learn that identity had an anomalous flavor, but in watching his father navigate the world of business as a black man, he would learn that being a person of color often meant not having the same connections, opportunities or privilege afforded to his lighter skinned counterparts. “A lot of unfortunate things happened based on race, timing and economics, but my dad learned a lot and I learned a lot too,” DeVonn said, his voice catching a breeze, “I was 14 when the restaurant closed, and I realized that there is a way for it to happen. You can be whoever you want to be by being honest about who you are, and that was the food too. I wanted to do Jamaican food. I wanted to do the food that I cared about growing up.”
Honesty in Yardy’s case was synonymous with difference and a learned acceptance. “Being different means a lot of things, and being able to express that difference is important because you have something to say from a very specific standpoint. That’s what art does for me, and that’s what food does for me and that’s how they come together,” said DeVonn. He first found a harmonious union between food and art when he went to study at the Cooper Union. The year was 2011, and the streets of New York writhed with protest and upheaval. “Occupy Wall Street would come by my dorm every morning, and it was like who are these people that are yelling outside? This is weird,” recalled DeVonn with a hint of giggle in his voice. As he took classes in everything from performance art to 2-D drawing, he found his way back into the food industry taking up work at places like Estela and hosting dinners at his apartment much like the one where we found ourselves at Dimes. People began to tell him, “You should charge for this.” And his reply was, “Are you sure? You like it? That much?” Eventually, people were like, “Will you do my party? Will you host this thing?” said DeVonn as he found himself staring down his father’s shadow.
These initial inquiries and catering requests morphed into DeVonn’s first culinary endeavor dubbed Enroot. Its initiatives focused on local and sustainable agriculture. After he graduated from Cooper in 2015, Enroot took him to Europe, where he traveled namely across the UK and rural parts of Scotland. There, DeVonn was taken out of his own cultural context and often found himself to be the only black person in many a setting. With a heightened sense of cultural awareness, DeVonn began to think about the agricultural practices that informed his own understanding of food, which was rooted in New York’s “farm to table” movement. “It was juice, tapas style, getting the best reservation, but also realizing that only a very specific person can entertain and be a part of those ideals on a regular basis. I come from a community where Jamaica’s food economy is informed by this problem of debt, being indebted to other countries, which makes it impossible to think about food in a free way or even Jamaicanism as the backbone of how things happen,” explained DeVonn. This realization would change the course of his journey, setting him on a path that would lead him to phase out his work with Enroot start Yardy and give substance and flavor to the pride that was once absent in his father’s restaurant’s kitchen.
What did that pride taste like? Can you bottle up? Does it have to be chewed, or could you swallow it? I imagined the discoveries people were having as they bit into the seared red snapper served for our second course. Did it conjure up feelings of nostalgia? Were old memories that had become dusty under time’s weight revived by the flavors of toasted coriander and roasted garlic? By accessing the senses and essentially our bodies, DeVonn is able to transform a shared space into a shared experience, using food to cross boundaries and to make connections. These connections, though, are bigger than, “Hey, that tastes like that,” instead they ask you to trace the footsteps of migration and the evolution of flavor to tell a story of enduring cultural authenticity — and to question that authenticity in itself.
As I bit into the last course of the night, dessert, a black cake with guava and sabayon, Ana tells me this is one of DeVonn’s mother’s recipes, of course with his own spin, the same spin that he puts on what it means to be a Yardy. In DeVonn’s manifestation of the word, being a Yardy is more than about where you come from, it’s what you can do for your community. “Marginalized communities need to understand that your voice matters, and that’s why I wanted to shift things for myself because I have the tools to gain people’s trust through food. People really like what I do, but I want people to like what I do because it’s connected to this bigger history and wanting to support people in systems and societies outside of myself,” said DeVonn.
With transparency as a virtue, DeVonn creates a dialogue that encompasses the totality of his decision-making process. The Dimes dinner, for instance, was a partial benefit for East New York Farms, an intergenerational farming community that addresses issues around heritage, access and food justice through education about local, sustainable agriculture. When sourcing ingredients and selecting partners, DeVonn not only considers whether it’s local or not but takes it a step further asking, “What are the labor practices of this place? How many women are working there? How many people of color are working there?” This transparency enables his guests to walk away with not only a satisfied stomach but with deeper knowledge and an informed awareness enabling them to also make decisions based on sustainable and ethical practices. “If I can recruit kids who are working in Brownsville, living in underserved communities, that’s the team I want. I want to be able to give those resources and I, as a business owner, have the ability to do that. Because we are a company participating in capitalism, the least I can do is to help reallocate the ways in which resources are given to other communities so that maybe other businesses can be inspired to do the same thing. I try to do all that I can, when I can, for as long as possible, for as many people as possible,” said DeVonn.
As Yardy allows him to experiment with life’s ingredients, DeVonn has found the courage to stray from tradition in order to reflect the authenticity of his own experience. As the last of our dishes are cleared away, I take the last sip of my sorrel punch just as Anuhea’s, “Come Over Love” takes over the airwaves. It’s a song that every local person back at home probably knows and I find myself smiling, knowing that just because New York can feel like home, doesn’t make me any less of a kama’aina (the Hawaiian word for local). As DeVonn emerges from the kitchen at the end of the night, I can hear his voice in my head as he once told me that the Jamaican Coat of Arms bears the words “Out of many, one people.” These tones of a singular identity could never mark him as anything other than himself. The “yaaad” could never be forsaken, but DeVonn Francis is already home.