Din Yates is bringing a taste of the Crescent City to the Lower East Side. His sandwich joint Cheeky’s specializes in po’boys, fried chicken biscuits, and all the other classic comfort food that your mom makes. If she’s from New Orleans.
We caught up with Din at his spot to get the word on his history with New Orleans, his career as a model, and his passion for a meaty, saucy sandwich.
Hey, Din. To start, can you tell me where you’re from?
I’m from New Orleans. I’m from a area called Village de L’Est. It’s like a village. It’s on the edge of New Orleans and it’s still kind of swampish. I went to school uptown, so I’m half-uptown and half where I’m from.
Did you grow up with food in the house?
My mom didn’t know how to cook when I was young. I watched her learn how to cook but my grandma was a really good cook. I was always in the kitchen. I would always clean the shrimp.
What was a typical dish in your home growing up?
For us, it was different. My dad was healthy, we would eat brown rice. But the family on my dad’s side would eat gumbo, a lot of stew dishes. For holidays we would do the famous restaurant dishes like stuffed eggplant, stuffed mirliton, christophine, and oyster dressing.
What brought you to New York?
My job, but I wanted to move up here. I like that you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to ask anyone to take you to the airport. And whatever you want is here. If you thought you were weird in your town, here there’re about a hundred other weirdos that look just like you. Everything you thought was awkward about you, New York is the place to nurture that. New York is like a playground.
Where were you working?
I worked in this business called fashion. I was a supermodel.
Heard of that before. How did you make that decision to change careers?
I don’t know if you know the business of modelling, but it’s kinda the rush to wait thing. You have a lot of free time on you hands. We use to do these dinner parties and a lot of people would always say I should open up a restaurant. I thought that was lame. Then after awhile I wanted to go work in a restaurant to see if I would even like it. So I trialed at a restaurant to see if I was good at it. I was and they gave me a job. So I would work over there when I wasn’t doing model work. Then I was in and out of the country and I had to put it to the side, but a couple of years went by and it came up again. My friend opened up a place, and then the market crashed and then I took all my savings and got restaurant equipment. I figured if I got a space it was going to force me to open, so I got a space.
Did you think about New Orleans when laying this place out?
I actually didn’t think about that at all. The only thing I thought about that was the potato chips and soda: we used potato chips and soda that are only found in New Orleans. I liked sandwiches so I wanted to do a sandwich shop. I never had a po’boy outside out of New Orleans. So we contacted bakers from New Orleans and that were able to ship bread so us. That’s the New Orleans part. Other than that I just wanted to make sandwiches that I liked.
What is a sandwich for you?
A sandwich is obviously something shoved in between bread, but to me it has to mesh well. I don’t like really heavy bread. If it’s too meaty of ingredients, or too heavy, then the outside has to blend with the inside. I also like sauces. I like a meal in my sandwiches. Put a meal inside some bread and let it all blend together.
What makes a great sandwich? Like really break down layer by layer…
There’s not one perfect sandwich. Texture is a big thing for me. The blends of ingredients makes a good situation. A perfect sandwich is when one ingredient doesn’t out do any others.
When did you open?
December 14th, 2009. 7 years.
How do you remember the day?
Because people keep asking.
Some people would say this is like a kitchen in your house…
Sorta, but this kitchen is more functional. I built a professional kitchen: I hate the smelling like food, so this kitchen has a proper exhaust.
Tell me about the atmosphere in here?
It’s comfortable. My mom used to live in a house that looked like this. It was shack. I figure I was doing things that were already on my brain even though I didn’t think them. The artwork on my wall is our friend Blue. We wanted to have a bunch of friends on the wall so the place was always friendly. You don’t even have to eat, just come say wassup. It’s just a place where there’s comfort.
Has anything changed?
We didn’t change the menu, we changed the way we did things. We use to do specials but we noticed everyone always came for the same things. Every once in awhile we do a special. We do pop ups and will do a different sandwich.
How many sandwiches do you make?
I’m not sure-a few. I’m worrying about how many smiles come out.
Do you still have the same passion for food you started with?
Passion, yes, but then you have to worry about other things. Like broken fridges. For the first few years that wasn’t fun, but then it became a business and I had to start thinking about like a business.
Hear that, man. Best of luck with everything here at Cheeky’s.