Caribbean Flavors to Shift the Palate, from Yardy

A report by Hannah Goldfield for The New Yorker.

During the pandemic, the event company founded by the artist, model, and chef DeVonn Francis has pivoted to Instagram Live gatherings and takeout with tropic-inspired ingredients like chayote, tamarind, and culantro.

The chef and artist DeVonn Francis, who runs a food-centric event-production company called Yardy, has spent the past few months taking steps to expand his brand, starting with takeout.

The other day, as I ate a salad that I’d ordered from Yardy, an event-production company started by the twenty-seven-year-old artist, chef, and model DeVonn Francis, my brain kept short-circuiting. Every time I bit into a cube of yellow fruit, dusted with Francis’s riff on Tajín (a Mexican chili-and-lime seasoning powder), I expected pineapple; in fact, it was mellow, sunny-fleshed watermelon. Between the cognitive glitch and the heat of the spice mix—heavy on dehydrated Scotch-bonnet pepper, ubiquitous in West Africa and the Caribbean—it was a dish that reframed my palate as much as it brought me pleasure.

Reframing the American palate by skillfully wielding pleasure, not to mention style, is one way to describe what Francis aims to do with Yardy. Before the pandemic, the company was focussed on food-centric gatherings, some public—a one-night roller disco in Bushwick, an Afro-Caribbean-themed dinner at the Lower East Side restaurant Dimes—and some private, for companies such as Gucci and Squarespace. Francis, whose Jamaican-immigrant parents owned a restaurant in Norfolk, Virginia, when he was a kid, waited tables at the restaurants Estela and Café Altro Paradiso while he was in art school, at Cooper Union. After he graduated, in 2015, he chose food—woven together with event production and design—as his medium for exploring the threads of his identity as a queer Black Caribbean-American.

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The small menu, currently available for pickup at the SoHo café Smile to Go, includes grilled shrimp skewers.

Parties may be on pause, but Yardy is not. In some ways, Francis told me recently, this strange new world has motivated him to move faster toward his biggest ambitions. “For a long time, I was, like, ‘Imagine if Yardy could be in everyone’s home,’ ” he said. “I spent so much time watching food shows that helped me get to where I am right now. Wouldn’t it be great if Yardy could be a beacon of what it meant to be a queer Black chef who has hit a certain amount of notoriety?”

Although the past few months have been “a huge challenge,” Francis said, “it’s been a really great way to amplify our message.” His “Living Room” series, which, until March, took the form of ticketed dinners featuring discussions with artists, poets, and chefs, has moved to Instagram Live, where anyone can watch. He’d like Yardy to be a household brand, offering Caribbean-inspired ice cream or condiments made with ingredients grown by Black farmers, packaged so that “a little Jamaican kid walking down the aisle” at Whole Foods will feel an immediate sense of recognition. As a precursor, he’s offering takeout from the SoHo café Smile to Go.

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A salad of yellow watermelon dusted with a seasoning powder heavy on dehydrated Scotch bonnet, a pepper ubiquitous in the Caribbean, was inspired by baggies of sliced and spiced fresh mango sold by Latin-American street venders.

The menu is short and features essential-feeling dishes found across cultures, made with Caribbean ingredients that Francis wants to spotlight and demystify for a broad audience. The blackened skin of his roast chicken is coated in tamarind and ginger; his brown-rice bowl is dotted with cubed mango, black beans, and pickled cabbage, and comes with a papaya vinaigrette. He reimagined the chayote squash of his childhood, usually boiled in chunks in soup, as a thinly sliced filling for a rich, savory tart, delicately arranged atop caramelized onions, in a thick but flaky pâte brisée, and garnished with culantro, a tropical cousin of cilantro. He’s also collaborating with the Black Farmer Fund, which supports Black farmers and food entrepreneurs in New York State, to source produce to use in his prepared dishes and to sell as grocery items.

“Making things that feel like they just live with you, and are accessories to what you’re already doing, is a great way to introduce people to unfamiliar food concepts,” Francis told me. The watermelon salad was inspired by his favorite food to buy from a street vender: a plastic baggie of ripe mango sprinkled with Tajín. “It’s such a beautiful gesture of convenience and utility, to have a snack that you travel with that’s in a bag,” he said, clearly nostalgic for life as we knew it before March. I finished the watermelon in minutes. Most everything else I ordered from Yardy kept well for a least a week, playing happy accessory to life as we know it now. (Dishes $8-$32.) 

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