By Amy Antonation
The Golden Age of Piracy has spawned video games, film franchises, amusement park rides, novels, comics and television shows. (We dare some inventive bartender to repurpose a line from the recent HBO comedy about pirates Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet, Our Flag Means Death,
and create a cocktail: "It's juice from the nose jar.") But to our knowledge, it's never inspired a catering company.
Enter Devon Henry, the founder and chef behind Black Napkin Catering
. Not only does a black napkin connote fine dining, Henry says, but it's a nod to the crews that sailed the high seas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, at the height of maritime piracy. Not to worry, though: Henry isn't interested in plundering anyone's treasure chest. He just wants to play by his own rules in the kitchen.
"The pirate mentality is all about freedom," he explains. "Pirates did their own thing during the Golden Age. Each crew was like their own sovereign nation; they created their own rules. That freedom is what I wanted to capture."
Henry wasn't obsessed with Captain Kidd or Black Bart as a child. He grew up cooking with his mother in Virginia and began working in restaurants as a teenager. He scrubbed dishes and worked as a prep cook in high school before deciding to pursue a four-year degree in hospitality and tourism management. Then, in between his college studies and working his way up the line, he found One Piece,
an anime series based on a manga collection by the same name that chronicles the adventures of captain Monkey Luffy and his Straw Hat Pirates. Henry watched it religiously. "It's definitely where I got my pirate motif from," he explains. Henry describes Luffy as "kind of dumb, but incredibly strong-willed and driven. He's intelligent about what he needs to do to become the pirate king."
Pirate crews should be so lucky to get a plate of short ribs for dinner.
Courtesy Devon Henry
After graduating from college, Henry took a gig cooking at a high-end resort in Virginia, where he met sous chef Simone Dundy; he calls her "one of the most amazing mentors for my life in general." He continues: "She spurred me on to chase my dreams. At that point, I had a very limited mindset." Even after earning his hospitality degree, Henry says, he didn't initially have ambitions to cook his own food or open his own business.
But after a couple of years in the kitchen, Henry was burned out, tired of working for someone else, and disappointed that he wasn't cooking at the level he wanted. He recalled Dundy's advice — don’t sell yourself short, don't sell your soul, don’t take crap from anybody, be kind — and launched Black Napkin in 2016 so he'd be able to cook on his own terms. "I realized this should be my own thing," he says. "[Working for myself] is the only way I’m going to enjoy it." He switched day jobs, getting into tech in order to support himself as he poured his efforts into his own company.
At the same time he was conceptualizing Black Napkin, Henry was also considering a move to Denver. He'd always enjoyed mountains and hiking, and he was intrigued by the city's food scene and more liberal culture. Initially, though, he stayed in Virginia so he could parlay family and neighborhood connections into a client base that appreciated his style of cooking — small plates like purple cauliflower hummus, coconut-butternut-green apple soup and hand-pulled noodles. "My specialty is definitely tapas," Henry says. "I prefer small plates, more variety. ... It was amazing to see the looks on people's faces when they tried my food." But after flying his black napkin in Virginia for five years, wanderlust won out, and he headed to Colorado in August 2021.
Spinach salad prevents scurvy.
Courtesy Devon Henry
It's been an adjustment, Henry admits. When he arrived in Denver, he didn't know anyone, so he's had to build his business from scratch — again. But like any intrepid seafarer, he hasn't let that deter him.
He straightened his eye patch, strapped on a cutlass and took to the high seas (aka social media) to connect with folks in Denver's food scene by putting on free tasting events for influencers and picking the brains of Instagrammers for advice and client leads. It's starting to pay off: While Henry still works in tech and runs Black Napkin as a side gig, he's catered a handful of events and is starting to draw in clients organically. In the meantime, he's still watching the adventures of the Straw Hat Pirates (after 23 years on the air, the series is finishing its twentieth and final season) and starting to volunteer with hunger relief nonprofit Metro Caring
. "My passion lies in not just cooking, but in making my own way. I want people to know this is who I am," he concludes.