A December fire destroyed Chef Yonder's family home. The next day a fizzled business partnership led to the closing of her creole restaurant. Now both chef and eatery are prepared for a comeback.

“I'm in a gray space.”

On a cold, dreary day in early January, Chef Yonder of Way Down Yonder, seated in the Linden branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library, recounted the deep depression that gripped her amid a string of tragedies that had recently upended her existence. On Dec. 27, a clothes dryer sparked a fire that destroyed the family home at 4895 Grimm Dr. on the far South Side. The following day, a nascent business partnership imploded, leading to the abrupt closing of her creole restaurant, Way Down Yonder, which had been serving out of the kitchen at New Harvest Cafe in Linden since early November.

Now living in a small, two-bedroom residence in TownePlace Suites, a short-stay hotel in Gahanna, Yonder said that most days it was difficult to get out of bed. Over the course of an initial hour-long interview, the chef expressed a range of bruised emotions, ping-ponging between sadness, anger, betrayal and even doubt.

Long a woman of faith, Yonder said she still steadfastly believed that God had a plan for her, but in that moment it was unclear to her precisely what that plan might be, or why God had chosen to test her in this seemingly insurmountable manner.

“My mind was all over the place in the beginning. Once I got through that day of the accident, and I was alone, I prayed, I cried, and then I prayed some more,” said Yonder, whose full name is Yonder Denise Bean-Gordon, seated next to her daughter, Yanda (aka Yonder Miller, which she stylizes Millz), who handles day-to-day business operations for the restaurant.

Gradually, over time, answers arrived. In mid-January, Way Down Yonder landed on a new location, taking over a former Long John Silver's at 3847 S. High St. on the South Side — less than 2.5 miles from the family home that caught fire in December. The restaurant is expected to open late spring or early summer, pending construction, while rehab of the family home should be completed by early fall.

On an unseasonably warm mid-February day, standing amid piles of construction refuse in the future location of Way Down Yonder, the chef said she'd undergone a similar renewal. “I worked hard to get to this place. It was a lot of hurt, pain, loss, misunderstanding, and there were times I almost threw up my hands because I couldn't understand why I was going through this,” she said between tears. “But now I know what it was for. God allowed me to go through it because he was letting me know, ‘I've got something better for you.' … Now I feel like I'm alive again.”

***

Growing up the youngest of eight children, Yonder received her earliest kitchen instruction by observing her parents — particularly her father, a gas station and auto shop owner who handled a bulk of the cooking while her mother worked odd hours as a nightclub owner in the Ninth Ward neighborhood where the family lived in New Orleans.

“They taught me to clean greens, clean chitlins — all of that — from 5 years old. So I'm always put on a chair or a stool, standing over the sink, and then they would show me how to take that leaf and wash them one by one, and how you need to clean it until all the grit comes off. They were very precise on how to get them clean, and I swear to God I said, ‘When I get old enough I'm never cleaning another green again.'”

On the nights Yonder accompanied her mother to the club, which started as the Cadillac Club before her mother “classed it up” and relaunched as the El Dorado, the youngster would spend that time in the bar's kitchen, working alongside staff cook “Miss Mary” Gordon as she dished up steaming helpings of pig's feet, turkey necks, smoked sausage po' boys and the like to the largely black clientele.

The combined income from the night club and auto shop enabled Yonder and three of her siblings to attend a private Catholic grade school. At age 7, Yonder moved with her family from the public housing projects to a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom house on Albert Street, which slept 11, including eight children, two parents and an uncle (the five sisters shared a single bedroom). Likely because of this, Yonder appeared to have little difficulty adjusting to life in the short-stay hotel suite, where five are currently sharing the cozy two-bedroom space.

While finding any semblance of privacy within the small New Orleans house proved a formidable challenge growing up, Yonder encountered most of her difficulties when she stepped outside of the home, which was located in what was then a largely white neighborhood.

“We had to go through segregation really, really bad. I got eggs throwed at me. I was spit on,” Yonder said. “But my mom taught us how to be productive citizens: ‘Keep walking. Don't say nothing. Stick together.' And we did.”

It wasn't all bad, though, and Yonder said a majority of her childhood was filled with joy, much of which stemmed from the city of New Orleans and its rich cultural and musical heritages, as elemental to the city's denizens as water or air.

“We'd dance at the sound of a drum,” said Yonder, who played clarinet and trombone in the middle school band. “We didn't even have to have a whole band. We'd make up our own music, hitting pots and pans. … That's our culture. We celebrate everything.”

This celebratory spirit remains central to Yonder's vision for Way Down Yonder, and will be present in everything from the decor — the inside walls of the restaurant have already been painted in bright shades of purple, green, orange and yellow, and Yanda recently commissioned artists Hakim Callwood and Bryan Christopher Moss to paint a New Orleans-inspired mural in place of the 1950s, Norman Rockwell-esque painting currently visible at the front of the space — to the gumbo, po' boys and etouffee dished up by the kitchen.

According to Yonder, it's the spirit with which her cuisine is prepared that separates it from the field rather than the technique or the quality of the ingredients, though both, she said, are also top-notch.

“It's the soul. It's the passion. It's the love. It's the prayers that you put over the food,” said Yonder, who repeatedly described her kitchen work as her “ministry.”

“When people come and support us, they feel all of that,” Yanda said. “It's not just going into a restaurant and ordering a meal. People love it because we put our all into our food.”

If this all starts to sound a little too precious, or like an advertising tagline for a budding soul food franchise, consider the chocolate chip cookies baked by this writer's grandmother.

For the better part of two decades, my aunt has been trying to replicate my grandma's sweet, salty, perfectly crisp cookies — a long-celebrated Christmas staple in my family — always falling short. She has gone so far as to poach the ingredients from my grandma's kitchen, purchase identical baking sheets and even theorize that it's the oven itself that gives my grandma the edge. And each year I joke with my aunt that it's simply because she's baking out of jealousy while my grandmother bakes with love, a detail that received an immediate nod of approval from Yonder as I relayed her the story.

“You know, that probably is it,” she said, and laughed.

***

Yonder is with her family. They're all seated in a Chevrolet Astro van, stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, trying to escape New Orleans. The van is trapped in the middle of a bridge spanning a fast-rising river, and panic is starting to set in. “I remember saying, ‘I can't swim,'” Yonder said, as the water rose and started to swallow the van's tires.

Not long after that dream, which Yonder recounted in vivid detail, Hurricane Georges hit New Orleans in 1998. During the evacuation, with the family stuck in highway traffic, Yonder was reminded of the sense of panic she felt in that vision. She resolved to leave the only city she'd ever known, relocating to Columbus in 2000, since she knew other family members who also lived in the area. Five years later, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, submerging much of Yonder's Ninth Ward neighborhood in water.

In Columbus, Yonder initially worked in the nursing field, in addition to taking classes at Columbus State Community College, falling three credits short of earning her nursing certificate. (“I couldn't get past the math,” she said.) Throughout that time, she continued cooking, catering weddings, birthday parties and other social events, finally opening Way Down Yonder in January 2017 at the Columbus Food Hub at 1117 Oak St. in Olde Towne East, a space that served as an early home and business incubator for eateries such as Hot Chicken Takeover and J Hot Fish.

In 2018, the building that housed the Food Hub was sold to a developer, which subsequently announced plans to demolish the space and erect a three-story, mixed-use structure. Way Down Yonder relocated to New Harvest in Linden, where it was quickly embraced, Yonder said.

The good fortune wouldn't last. In the early morning hours of Dec. 27, Yonder went to the laundry room in her home to retrieve her work uniform from the dryer, where she noticed a small flame, almost like a pilot light, in the lint trap. By the time she ran upstairs to wake the rest of the family, the fire had engulfed much of the laundry room, rapidly spreading to the rest of the house and leaving little time for escape.

“I ran outside in an undershirt, my pajama shorts, my socks on, no shoes,” Yonder said. “My son had on no shirt. My grandson had a diaper with no shirt; they had to grab a blanket for him. We ran out that quick.”

While all of the family members made it out, Sky, Yonder's 2-year-old dog, died in the blaze. By the time firefighters arrived, roughly 10 minutes after Yonder discovered the initial spark, she said, everything in the house, including family photos, clothes and keepsakes, had been destroyed by either fire or smoke, leaving both home and family gutted.

“Since the fire, I've been locked up in this hotel, confined, and I've been in a slump,” Yonder said, seated beside Yanda in her hotel room in late January. “In the morning, I may try to get up and move around a little bit, but if I'm going into my dark space, where I'm depressed, I'll just sit here and think about all the things that I could be doing, and that I'm not. I'm used to working every day, and now I'm not doing anything. I'm just praying to God, saying, ‘Show me. Guide me. Lead me.' And that's it for me right now.”

Yonder credits both her faith and her large family with helping carry her through the hardest times (Yonder has 5 children and 17 grandchildren), particularly those first few weeks after the fire. “There's a lot of people who, when they lose everything, it's hard for them to bounce back,” Yanda said. “But we know our mom is strong.”

Under usual circumstances, the kitchen would have been another place of healing for Yonder, but the day after the fire, the restaurant's business relationship with New Harvest owner Kwodwo Ababio unraveled, with Yonder alleging that Ababio essentially barred Way Down Yonder from the premises.

“[Ababio] said, ‘Well, you know Miss Yonder, you got to take care of your situation and I'm going to take care of my business,'” Yonder said. “‘This is my building. This is my business. And I'm taking over.'”

On Dec. 28, Way Down Yonder posted to Facebook about the abrupt change, writing, “We are deeply sorry that our partnership at this location will no longer be.”

Reached by phone, Ababio didn't want to discuss specifics of the split. “They just moved on and I wish her the best of luck,” he said.

After losing its second location in as many years, Way Down Yonder could have folded. Instead, Yonder drew upon her deep reserves of resilience, which the chef said were instilled in her by her sometimes-down-but-never-out New Orleans hometown, emerging from the setback determined to reopen, albeit on her own terms.

“Going into the next space, we wanted it to be our space,” Yonder said — free from the whims of business partners, landlords or developers.

Initially, Way Down Yonder focused its building search effort on the Linden area, having grown a deep attachment to the neighborhood in the months it served the community. The hunt soon expanded, though, with Yonder touring an East Side space on Main Street before being pointed toward the South Side by her son, Hakeem Gordon, who hit upon the former Long John Silver's off South High Street.

The beige building is set in front of a massive shopping center and surrounded by various fast-food retailers, all of which offer a different experience from what Way Down Yonder promises. Standing inside the location in February, Yanda described tables draped in white cloths and attentive servers fueling an atmosphere akin to a spirited Sunday family dinner. And the vision is still bigger than that, including eventual franchise expansion to Ohio cities like Cincinnati and Dayton, and perhaps, Lord willing, to cities and states far beyond.

Standing next to her daughter in the future location of Way Down Yonder, surrounded by scattered detritus from a demolished wall and torn-up flooring, Yonder is finally in a place where she can see the vision, too.

It's a sea change that's further reflected in a more recent dream the chef has been having, one that again features a long, slow-crawling line. But this time, rather than a traffic jam being gradually swallowed by a rapidly rising New Orleans river, her vision features a row of customers snaking out from the door at a lively, newly re-opened Way Down Yonder, each person grinning and laughing, waiting to be fed, body and soul.