DeVonn Francis Is Bringing Jamaican Flavors to NYC's Queer Food Revolution
“The intentions you put into a dish, what kind of olive oil you're using or what kind of salt you want to finish a dish with––that same attention should be given to people."
All photos by the author
DeVonn Francis stands in the open kitchen at New York Chinatown’s Lalito, using all his weight to slice his knife through a roasted durian. He’s putting the finishing touches on tonight’s event, presented by Yardy, his pop-up Jamaican dinner series. The meal is a collaboration between Francis; Gerardo Gonzalez, Lalito's head chef and owner; and Pati Hertling, co-founder of Material Vodka. In one way or another, every person involved with tonight’s dinner is part of New York’s blossoming queer food scene.
Fifteen years ago, Francis sat in his Virginia middle school’s cafeteria hoping his parents hadn’t packed oxtails or curry goat in his lunchbox again. His classmates weren't kind about the fragrances of ginger, allspice, and Scotch bonnets that wafted from the food his parents cooked. Francis did everything he could to distance himself from the identity—that of a queer, first-generation son of two Jamaican immigrants—that set him apart from his peers.
Now 25 and far from those dreaded lunches, Francis has built a business which celebrates individuality, queerness, and his family's immigrant story.
Ana Velazquez, Yardy’s event manager, dims the lights and turns up the music. Francis’s friend Jezenia, a DJ who goes by Cheetosbaby, has put together a playlist of dance hits, and thumping bass fills the room. At the bar, a few early diners sip bright green cocktails while they pore over the menu. Like any great gay party, it seems like almost everyone knows each other somehow. Waiters hug guests as they arrive, and before the dinner rush begins, friends poke their heads into the kitchen to say hello. By 7 PM, Lalito’s dining room is packed for the first of two seatings.
“The intentions you put into a dish, what kind of olive oil you're using or what kind of salt you want to finish a dish with—that same attention should be given to people,” Francis says, At the beginning of each dinner service, Francis gathers with his staff to check in. If there’s a new member of the team, everyone says their gender pronouns as they share their hopes for the night’s service. “People are then invited into this space and see that that’s how we want things done.” Francis says. “Not just want—that’s how we are demanding things be done.”
Francis supported himself through art school by working in a handful of Manhattan’s high-end restaurants. He started as a coat check boy at Mario Batali’s Lupa. There, and at many of the other restaurants where he worked, Francis met chefs and managers—predominantly straight white men—who did not leave much space for the experiences and voices of people who did not look like them. In this restaurant culture, there didn’t seem to be room for a young, queer son of immigrants to find his seat at the table.
Francis’ parents emigrated from Jamaica to the United States in the early 70s, and eventually settled in Virginia to raise children. In the years before Francis moved to Manhattan, his father opened a Jamaican restaurant in the city center, a short drive from their house. “He wanted a space to entertain and do something that was fun and wasn’t a 9 to 5 job,” Francis explains. His father, who had served in the Navy, “wasn’t a cook by any means, but he taught himself and was really ambitious.” Francis pulled his weight at the restaurant, and watched as it went through it’s fair share of success and failure. “A lot of those skills tempered my understanding of how I would make my way in my own career in New York.”
Last year, having finished college and returned from travels across Europe, Francis launched Yardy. With this pop-up, Francis is taking matters into his own hands, introducing diners to the Jamaican flavors he is now so proud of, as well as creating new space for the queer community to gather. “It’s fascinating,” he marvels, “that people can come together as queer people, or women, or people of color to be, like, ‘This is our space. If you're not going to raise me up, we’re just going to do it without you.’”
In tandem with the #MeToo movement, which has shaken the restaurant industry to its core, a wave of young, queer food-lovers like Francis, Hertling, and Gonzalez have launched restaurants and businesses where things are done on their terms. These entrepreneurs and restaurateurs—the ones behind New York-based Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, and Meme’s Diner, to name a few—are offering a new kind of work experience for queer chefs and waitstaff. To diners, they present a new queer social scene, as well—like old school gay bars, they offer a sense of community, only with quieter music and excellent food.
The resounding message coming from these restaurants: If you’re tired of supporting businesses that don't have your best interests at heart, tired of working for someone who doesn’t value you, our doors are open. You’re welcome here.
If nothing else, Francis hopes diners leave his meals with a new understanding of how Jamaican immigrants relate to food and culture. His take on the Jamaican Run Down is an example. The coconut milk stew traditionally consists of mackerel, tomatoes, onions, and yams. But when Francis visited family that emigrated to the UK, he sampled a version adapted for lamb—much easier to come by in the European markets than mackerel. “It’s about making do with what you’ve got,” he says.
Back in New York, Francis played off of his UK family’s version, and started making a Run Down featuring tender pulled lamb in a coconut tamarind broth served alongside a chickpea and cassava pancake; the pancake is an offering on Lalito’s normal menu.
“The children and grandchildren of the island don't want to erase the food culture that they are connected to,” says Natelegé Whaley, a Jamaican-American journalist. “Instead they carry that on by introducing something new to it. I think that means they see the value in it, and that's powerful.”.
Lalito’s dining room is full when food begins to arrive on each table. It is not what diners might expect of a Jamaican menu. There is no jerk chicken, no curry goat, nor are there oxtails. Instead, think “carrot steak.” The carrots are carefully sliced, and tied with twine into neat bundles. “Bondage carrots,” Francis calls them, laughing. They are cooked sous-vide, and served with a Scotch bonnet aioli. “You don't have to spend a lot on ingredients for [your food] to be delicious,” he says. “It doesn't necessarily have to be the best cut of steak for it to be dope.” In this case, the steak isn’t a steak at all.
Francis doesn’t spend hours obsessing over menus for the week, nor does he have much interest in opening a brick-and-mortar location. He’s content, for now at least, with the flexibility Yardy allows him. If he’s not at his own dinner party, he’s likely cooking for another event, in the kitchen with a group of like-minded queer chefs. At one recent event hosted at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis in Hudson, New York, Francis could be found cooking alongside Angela Dimayuga, an iconic figure in the queer food scene, and the former Executive Chef at New York’s Mission Chinese Food.
And now, Francis is expanding his reach. Next fall, Yardy will move outside, teaching cooking classes at East New York Farms, an organization which teaches food justice and operates a youth-led farmers’ market.
Much like his father once did with his own restaurant, Francis launched Yardy as a way to bring his community together. The story of his immigrant parents, his queer identity, the artistic streak that first brought him to New York––they became the building blocks for the pop-up, and a way to share his life with others. He embraces the fragrances of his mother's cooking now, and every once in a while, mixed into the mostly queer crowd at one of Francis’ dinners, you will find his father sitting happily at the bar, enjoying a bowl of Run Down.
On Yardy promotional materials, Francis uses old photographs of his mother. She stands tall, shoulders relaxed, pink scarf neatly tied around her neck and tilted to one side. “There’s a spirit about those photos that reminds me of young, beautiful immigrants coming into a space and doing the damn thing,” says Francis, clapping his hands with each of his last three words. Yardy, and other operations like it, aren't just competing with more conventional restaurants. Francis is using food to tell his story. It’s not a story that he has always wanted to tell, or that came easily.
But when he was ready to speak, his community came to listen.