The Artist and Chef DeVonn Francis Is Reinventing the Dinner Party
As the son of Jamaican immigrants growing up in Virginia, DeVonn Francis hated being the kid who showed up to his middle school cafeteria with oxtails in his lunchbox. “I just didn’t embrace it,” he says about the fragrant foods—loaded with ginger and allspice—that colored his childhood and alienated his classmates. It wasn’t until he was a teenager, watching Food Network with his mom and working at his dad’s fast-food jerk chicken restaurant, that Francis became curious about the ingredients in his parents’ pantry.
Today, the 28-year-old artist and chef has completed his about-face, throwing Caribbean-themed dinner parties through his New York City–based event production company, Yardy. (The name derives from the patois term of endearment yaadie.) Francis founded the company in 2017 as a way to interrogate his own Jamaican heritage, while encouraging others to seek joy in their identities. “I based it off a model that I grew up in,” he says. “We had block parties and christenings and weddings. We were just a household of Jamaicans who loved to entertain and to have people around.”
Francis moved to Manhattan when he was 19, and spent much of his early adulthood poring over the books of James Baldwin and Audre Lorde. After supporting himself through art school at Cooper Union by checking coats and waiting tables for predominantly white male bosses, he decided to center more Black and brown queer voices in his own endeavors. For Yardy events, he curates everything from the menu (spicy snapper escovitch, carrots with a Scotch bonnet aioli) to the music (a mix of SZA and live performances by friends) to the staff (largely queer and trans). Guest lists, too, are eclectic by design: At one of Yardy’s roving, pop-up dinners, guests might find themselves discussing condiments with the drag performer (and hot sauce maker) Shaquanda Coco Mulatta or roller skating in Bushwick with the art critic Antwaun Sargent. (Francis’s parents are also regulars.) Despite their apparent glamour, his gatherings are built for inclusivity, and often feature a sliding scale of entry fees. “It’s really about storytelling and knowing that some of your characters allow for a better event to happen,” he says.
Since the pandemic, Yardy has begun selling takeaway meals out of the SoHo café Smile to Go. Francis started a new role, too, as a host on Bon Appétit’s popular Test Kitchen YouTube channel, which was overhauled in October after claims of inequitable pay for its contributors of color. It’s a tricky pivot for Francis—among other pitfalls, he mistook monk fruit sweetener for granulated sugar while making a banana cake in his first video—but one that he sees as an opportunity to further his mission. “I always envision some young Black queer person living in the middle of nowhere who only has the internet or TikTok as a reference when they’re looking for someone who looks like them,” he says. “If this is an opportunity to amplify those references, then it’s something I would like to pursue.”
Grooming: Sergio Estrada.
Photography Assistant: Glenn Lim.