When conceptualizing one of his dinner parties, the question “Why not make it a show?” consistently animates the planning process of DeVonn Francis, the 27-year-old, Jamaican-American chef and event producer. Since 2017, his Brooklyn-based company, Yardy World, has brought teens jumping double-dutch into a Harlem gallery for a dinner with Gucci, a cavalcade of skaters to a roller disco party in Bushwick, and a dance performance by the artist called “an only child” to Artsy’s summer barbeque, where diners sipped tropical cocktails under custom-built cabanas.
After lockdowns in New York put event-production as we know it on pause, Francis spent the summer and fall creating recipes and videos for Bon Appetit and his own social channels, where fans have watched his hair color mutate from a blue-green gradient to dirty blonde to fluorescent tangerine to hibiscus red. He started a food-delivery service with items like rye turmeric crackers and polenta cakes, partnered with local nonprofits to bring meals to Black families struggling with food insecurity, and ran a pop-up, take-out spot out of a storefront in SoHo, the shopping district eerily quiet after the disappearance of office workers and tourists from around the world. Francis’s constant hustle throughout a truly twisted year means that when the city finally returns to some new type of normal, at the nerve center of culinary excitement in the new New York, visitors and locals will be sure to find Yardy.
The name of the brand references the Jamaican patois word “yardie,” used by diasporic Jamaicans to address one another while pointing toward the homeland. Francis’s project seeks to make that gesture his own. His events and the dishes created for them—black rice with squid and black garlic aioli, oysters in pink salt with pineapple mignonette—are an attempt to answer questions like, What does home mean to a queer, first-generation, Jamaican-American chef, who split his childhood between Brooklyn and Virginia Beach? What does home taste like for someone who learned as much about food from his mom’s cooking as from a childhood glued to the Food Network, who takes as much aesthetic inspiration from anime as he does sampling the latest fine dining in Manhattan? And how could his vision of bringing Yardy into every American home help shape a more equitable food system? Prior sent writer Zak Stone to catch up with Francis and find out.
Zak Stone: What are some of your earliest memories around food?
DeVonn Francis: I was the kid who was into playing video games and reading Harry Potter. I didn’t really want to go outside, so my mom was like, “You’ve got to do something.” So I started cooking. Cooking looked like combining Nilla Wafers with Hershey’s chocolate and honey and thinking I had made something really fab.
Then, my dad had retired from the Navy and, when I was around nine years old, he decided he’d start a restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia, 30 minutes outside of my hometown, and he ran it for maybe six to eight years. It was my first taste of anyone doing anything entrepreneurial, and that was super formative for me.
The food was based on his own experiences growing up in Jamaica. He was just making the food that he really cared about. It was very much that immigrant mentality of “all hands on deck.” Everyone—me, my brother, sister, mom, even my aunt—came and helped at one point. He had me do everything: cleaning the bathrooms, doing the cash register, doing produce, doing every fucking thing. I was there after school and on the weekend; I would stay there until closing, until they were ready to leave. I would do my homework there.
He eventually expanded the restaurant, so it went from this counter-service, mom-and-pop, hole-in-the-wall kind of place to a lounge where he had a bar and music and parties outside. It became a community hangout in a lot of ways, which was kind of fab. He had been a DJ when he was younger, so he would throw these really insane parties outside, and have jerk chicken and a drum on the grill, and would be making just all this crazy, amazing food and also teaching himself how to cook as he went.
Were you already creating your own dishes as a kid?
Yes, well, I grew up watching the Food Network. I would come home from school and watch Oprah, then switch to cartoons, then switch to Food Network. It was all the classics: Emeril, Martha, Giada De Laurentiis. Also, my mom always collected books and recipe cards, and she would use them as a way to kind of travel. That was the best part about it: I was tapping into these little worlds, all these little viewfinders through cookbooks and through the TV.
Eventually, you moved to New York and attended Cooper Union for a bachelor’s in visual arts. Were you still involved with food in some way?
I was like, okay, waiting tables is the only thing I know how to do. Eventually, I started working at Estela because I was like, “I think I want to cook.” And they were like, “Well, you don’t have enough experience, so you could be a waiter because you’re hot.”
Then the rest was history. I was working at this soon-to-be world-famous, world-renowned restaurant. It was where everyone ate. You have to understand, it was my first or second year living in New York, and I still wasn’t 21. I couldn’t go to the club. It was my first time being social in a dining space, and all the it-girls and the celebs would go eat there. I was just like, what is happening? It was really cute. I felt very fab. And I was going to art school at the time, so it was nice to be able to pay my bills with a waiter’s budget in New York, which is actually super substantial.
At what point did you start to make the connections between what you were doing with your art practice and your interests in cooking and events?
Basically, I was just trying to figure out what I really found interesting at school. My drawing professor was like, “I heard you’re a chef, why don’t you just cook for a class.”
I was like, “What are you talking about?” She said, “Literally, you worked your ass off to get in here; you might as well do what you want to do.”
I was also interning at a gallery at the time, and I asked the gallery director if I could use the space to host a dinner. I invited my whole class, and that was my first time doing an event, before I even understood what pop-ups were. Eventually, I started doing a supper club in my apartment.
How did all of that evolve, up until the point where you started Yardy?
After I graduated Cooper in 2015, a good friend of mine was looking for a chef to do this project in the UK. His family has owned this dairy farm for generations, and they wanted a chef to use all this produce we were gathering while traveling. We spent two-and-a-half months between England, Scotland, and Wales, doing dinners on farms, creating an al-fresco-style dinner experience for people, and shooting this documentary about the farming industry in the UK.
That was the first time prior to Yardy where I was like, “Right, food can be more than just restaurants. It’s also about how people travel and the way people think about the world.” But I was also thinking—“Cool, I’m in Scotland, but there’s no black people. No one can appreciate how good of an oxtail I can make.” Obviously half-joking, but that was what inspired me to think about my own family history, and what cooking and home meant to me. That’s how Yardy came about.
In an early piece on Yardy, you told the New York Times that the name—which comes from a patois term for people of Jamaican origin but also “home” or yard— represents “finding your way back home, a sense of belonging, loving who you are, and helping others get to where they need to go.” Is that still the mission of the brand?
Somewhere along the line, I’ve realized that the project was less about just making really fab dishes and more about entertaining: putting on an event that felt indicative of my queer, black experience; thinking about the history that has inspired people like my dad to start his restaurant; diving into the history of where block parties and rent parties—or even carnival—come from; using those as tropes and motifs to tell this larger story of Caribbean history, lore, entertainment, oral tradition, and music; folding it all into one environment; creating an experience in that environment where people can feel another perspective of dining that we don’t necessarily always get to be a part of.
How has doing this project changed your relationship with Jamaica? Have you gotten to go back?
I guess I would say, one of the biggest failures of the experience up until a certain point was that I had never gone to Jamaica as an adult. That was problematic for me. It wasn’t just enough to talk about it and fantasize about it—I also wanted to go there. Not just to have food, but to also be in proximity with people who were having a very different experience than I was—to actually have conversations with my parents’ families, with my mom’s dad, who still lives there in the same house my mom grew up in.
Also, as a queer person, it’s always been taboo to go to Jamaica, because you hear all these stories about homophobia. There’s a lot of wealth disparity there, too. It was important for me to understand what that meant, to collect my own images and have that conversation when I finally went a few years ago. What I realized is that Yardy wasn’t just about capturing a food history, but also figuring out how to actually do more real work with people that are there in the Caribbean—for instance, working with the Haitian peanut-butter company, Lavi, for a Bon App video that I just did. Being able to actually use that video as a way to communicate what people are working on and also bring wealth to those communities.
How do you feel like your vision of how food and politics intersect? How has that evolved from maybe a more youthful, idealistic place to now, having been running your own business, and just seeing everything that’s gone on in the past few years in America? Obviously, you’ve maintained a lot of optimism with your work and your brand and even just the food itself that you create.
When I first started, I was like, “Food is about celebration.” I still think that it is. Food is really fun. But it’s also just this really interesting marketplace. Thinking about turmeric, for instance: turmeric has been white-washed to God, by so many different health brands, who are not the people who are growing the turmeric. Or even seeing how chefs are getting called out for recipes—for calling them “ethnic” or calling them “Chinese” but with no specification—has allowed me to realize just how political this all really is.
Recently I was talking to Dan Barber who owns Blue Hill at Stone Barns. One thing he said to me was, “People have blown up as food stars and rock stars because food is one of the only experiences that you have during your day where you feel like you’re actually connecting to a culture.” Not just symbolically, but also, you’re actually putting your dollars and investing in farmers who are producing things on land, and land is an extension of property. It goes back to conversations about race and discrimination, just like any other conversation.
Hearing that was really interesting to me, because I feel like—aside from just talking about food as just pleasure, fantasy—it’s also a question of, how do you actually redistribute wealth into communities? Thinking specifically about this past summer, and about Black Lives Matter, it’s interesting because while these protests were happening, restaurants were dying. Mostly that’s due to real estate and how untenable real estate is for people who own businesses. These systems aren’t set up to work in anyone’s favor. The things that black people have been experiencing for years, there’s a small iota of it being experienced by people who are like, “I can’t afford this, this is inaccessible.”
I’m like, “Sis, we’ve been making it work. Make it work.”
How do you feel like the different cultures that you’re exposed to in New York inspire what you want to cook?
Well, we’re all just a bunch of immigrants who are trying to figure it out, period, because we’re on stolen land. Look, I feel like for me—“inspiration”—I don’t even think about. I feel like the way I get inspired is not through culture-gazing. I’m more inspired by pop culture and looking at music and fashion and art as ways to talk about what’s going on or to connect with your senses.
I’m watching all the old Ghibli anime, and looking at all the ways that they render food. Looking at all the Miyazaki movies—all the ways in which they use food as a way to talk about the transition of a day, the way that it’s placed, the color of it—or thinking about movies like Tampopo, for instance, which is all about ramen culture. The ways in which they theatricalize eating is super fun. When they go, for instance, to etiquette classes for women, they’re like, “This is how you should eat.”
It’s just fun to look at film as a jumping off point, because I think that, for me, when I look at a dinner table, it’s more about performativity. Anime is so big and hammy when it comes to eating—like, there’s an anime called Food Wars, which is so fun because people are having orgasms and crying when they eat something, or having flashbacks to memories. I feel like that’s always been kind of my vibe. I love illustration; I love that idea of a flat picture-plane telling stories that you couldn’t in a real world context.
What can we expect from Yardy in 2021, once we’ve all gotten vaccinated?
I’m currently working on a new project to turn Yardy World into an online marketplace where we can actually identify black farms and queer farmers across the nation, and use it to allow people to actually buy directly from the people who are making things. For instance, if someone’s growing a really great product in Jamaica—let’s say it’s goat milk or greens—then knowing where that is is a first step to being able to place it and to generate income for different communities.
That’s kind of what’s got my attention right now, is to be able to think about us as a map to show people where to put their dollars and where to invest. Just because, I feel disillusioned with the fact that, yes, events are really amazing, but are we actually doing real work where people can have groceries or take food home? It’s less about being a chef that everyone looks up to, and more so about giving people the necessary tools to have a relationship with health and wellness through the process of cooking in their own homes.
Not to say that people shouldn’t be going to restaurants, but I do think there’s something really special about being able to make your own day-to-day decisions, and know your body and your health enough to know what makes you feel good. And to use that as a way to liberate the way you feel about your wellness and how you invest in it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Where DeVonn finds food that feels like home—anywhere in the world.
A&A Bake Doubles and Roti | 1337 Fulton St, Brooklyn, NY 11216
It was started by two Trinidadian people who brought really incredible roti, doubles, bake and chana—which are all classic Trinidadian dishes—to Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. They won the James Beard award in 2019, which is iconic because there aren’t a ton of Caribbean-owned establishments that get that award, and it’s super affordable.
The Food Sermon | 141 Flushing Ave Building 77, Brooklyn, NY 11205
It’s a counter-service type space—very small, very cozy restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, started by a chef called Rawlston Williams, who’s from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. The food is a mix of jerk chicken, goat and lamb, done in a way that’s contemporary, but very much so in the same vein of comfort food.
Summerhouse | Harmony Hall, St. Mary, Jamaica
Started by Jamaican sisters who have been in the dining and food media game for a very long time. Their food is really cool, it’s all very simple applications of traditional Jamiacan dishes that cross over into the English and Indian influences. It’s really beautiful. They’re giving you fantasy; they’re giving you country home.
Drax Hall, Ocho Rios, Jamaica
You can buy jerk chicken or jerk pork that’s done on a grill over pimento wood, which is the traditional way of making jerk. It’s less a restaurant and more like a very chill hangout spot, counter-service, lunch-plate-type food. One of the locations is hidden in a shady, tree-lined area—super gorgeous.
STUSH In the BUSH | 111 Bamboo Way, Freehill, Jamaica
Started by a couple who’ve started building a farm on their land. You actually have to book a reservation and drive up the mountain in Jamaica to get here. It’s all vegan. They’re doing a lot of incredible takes on traditional Jamaican food for a plant-based demographic. They’re doing fresh pasta, baked goods and delicious, plant-based Caribbean-style pizza in a small, intimate space.
Tillie’s | Palm Heights, 747 West Bay Road, Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
A restaurant started by a couple friends of mine. It’s not just Caribbean cuisine; you’re getting lots of different inflections, a very transcontinental, grifter, expatty vibe, all inspired by local Caymanian ingredients.
Da Fish Shack | 127 N Church St, George Town, Cayman Islands
Counter-service type space. You’ll find things like curried snapper over rice and tomato, and all the local fish in a home-like plating. Super, super simple, very indicative of the local way of eating.
Negril | 132 Brixton Hill, Brixton, London SW2 1RS, United Kingdom
A restaurant in Brixton, it has a lot of incredible Caribbean food. You have your jerk chicken, your standard stew dishes, fish, a really incredible selection of beverages. Super emblematic of the Brixton food scene and the way that food from the UK and India have inspired Caribbean food.
Zak Stone is a journalist in New York. His work has appeared in The New York Times, New York, The FADER, Pitchfork, and more.