DeVonn Francis of YARDY, a fresh gastronomic concept challenging the food culture of today weighs in on the ‘American Dream’, instagramming your meals and what’s the perfect first date dish.
“Well I think that the act of cooking for someone else builds a relationship and always has.”
YOUTH and ROLEMODELS
Growing up did you have a role model that influenced your passion for food and social justice?
My dad is what really started it. He told me this really beautiful story about his auntie in Jamaica who grew her own fruits and vegetables on her land, up on this really incredible hill with all the fruits and foliage you could ever want – mango trees, sugar cane, stuff like that. Seeing my dad have the candor and passion to start a restaurant in my hometown was really incredible. I didn’t realize how radical that was and still is to this day. He’s a Jamaican immigrant. He’s got brown skin and a background in the navy doing this really compassionate gesture. That’s what his restaurant did for me. He was bringing his love for food to other people despite how the world views black men and immigrant communities. That was really powerful for me.
The social justice aspect came a little later when I was in college at Cooper Union. During summers I would farm in Alabama with some of my good college friends. They weren’t just farmers though, they were gleaning fruit from farms that had surplus and making sure that a product that would typically be thrown out was of benefit to someone else. To top it off I saw other black and brown people farming and it reminded me of the stories I grew up with. My food is inherently connected to my people in that way.
Do you remember your first crush?
Oh God. Hmmm… Yeah, I had a crush on my best friend in middle school. I won’t even mention his name but he was the quintessential boy-next-door type with dirty blonde hair, on the soccer team, skateboarder. Also definitely straight. I just remember those awkward moments in the locker room where I would avoid eye contact with him and he didn’t understand why. Kinda wonder what he’s doing now.
What advice would you give your adolescent self?
You’ve got incredibly beautiful skin. Don’t apologize for being yourself. Be patient. You don’t have to have all of the answers right this second. STOP EATING SO MUCH CANDY.
What is the perfect first date meal?
Something light so you can go on a walk afterwards… or run away if you hate the date? But in all seriousness I think it depends on the season. I love citrus. Something plant-based. Something you can use your hands and fingers to get into.
“I really like what Baldwin has to say about the American Dream which is, “Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble.””
Can you tell us about Yardy and the motivation for creating it?
Yardy started as a way for me to challenge the food culture that exists today and celebrate the reasons why I love eating and dining. For a long time, food culture has said that “ethnic” food is less valuable than what cis, white, Eurocentric chefs are doing and I think that’s incredibly destructive. I want to change that with Yardy.
What’s your personal relationship with being queer and food?
On a pragmatic level, cooking is what I did to keep myself safe and to feel valued within my own household. Instead of going out I really just stayed in and watched The Oprah Show and whatever was on the Food Network. Lots of emotional processing and Iron Chef reruns.
How can someone get involved with the project?
We will be hosting dinners all over the city, so if someone wants to get an idea of what my food is like they can do that. In January I did a series of dinners with Dimes and then in February I lead some workshops, classes, discussion groups. Check out our website if you want to learn more. Also I’m always looking for writers, photographers, and designers to collaborate with. I’m generally pretty open and excited about new ideas and coming together to make something new happen.
What’s your take on ‘Food Porn.’ Do you think it’s an ignorant privilege or a meaningful behaviour now ingrained in us?
Well I think that food and desire are inextricable, so I understand where ‘Food Porn’ comes from at its core. But I think that there’s got to be a better name for that. Yes, there is a lot of privilege in dining culture and being able to put what you’re eating on social media. I think all of us have really complicated relationships to representation through photography but specifically through social media. In a lot of ways it feels like Yardy would be nowhere without the help of images, but at the same time I always wonder how we can create intimate and sincere engagement with our audience without being gimmicky.
What role do you think food can play in queer identity and empowering minority groups?
Well I think that the act of cooking for someone else builds a relationship and always has. To trust someone with your stomach is really, actually a lot to ask.
“For a long time, food culture has said that “ethnic” food is less valuable than what cis, white, Eurocentric chefs are doing and I think that’s incredibly destructive.”
Does the American Dream still exist?
Did it ever? And if so whose dream was it? I mean if anything, I think living in Trump’s America for the past year has proven that, yes, in fact some people have a very specific dream of what America should be but at the detriment of others. I really like what Baldwin has to say about the American Dream which is, “Unless we can establish some kind of dialogue between those people who enjoy the American dream and those people who have not achieved it, we will be in terrible trouble.”
I do believe that the ways in which we make an effort to connect with people who are not within our communities or sphere are seriously lacking effort and sincerity. I want to change that though, through my work.
Is the tradition and relationship with food changing because of new technology and new business models?
I think so? Maybe? I feel like my tech knowledge is very limited but I think in terms of business, people are becoming more community oriented and want to find purpose beyond making money. I hope?
What physical or mental exercises do you do to look after your wellbeing?
Actually, this past October I had a panic attack because of all the work stress and being in New York. It was an important moment though because it made me realize that I was spiralling out of control and that I needed to connect to other aspects of myself that had nothing to do with growing my business and everything to do with making sure that I was putting my best self forward. So now I meditate every morning around 6 or 6:30am. It’s really changed my whole mindset and the way I look at spending my day and spending my time with people. I think being alone with yourself is really really important.
Are there any young creatives that excite or inspire you for the future?
Hmmmm. Yes! I love what Kimberly Drew is doing and talking about and saying in the world. She gives me life, hope for how women of color are represented in all industries, not just art. My friends Angela Dimayuga and Gerardo Gonzalez and Andy Baraghani – fantastic chefs and thinkers who constantly remind me that there is indeed a place for queer people of color in the food world and to not take myself to seriously.
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
“You can do it put your back into it.” Ice Cube