Last year, the loss of his son shredded Al DeVane’s heart and Hampton Roads has been dining out on his heartbreak ever since.
Article by Yana Samberg with photography by Fitz
Lead photo of Al Devane at Carolina Son BBQ in Virginia Beach
William, DeVane’s oldest son, died in the spring of 2016 from brain cancer at the age of 27. A lifelong barbecue and comfort food fan, William “Booba” DeVane, was the inspiration for Carolina Son, the family run BBQ joint in Virginia Beach. Carolina Son was opened a month after William’s passing and it has been DeVane’s way to cope with the loss of his eldest child.
That kind of loss might have broken a lesser man. But DeVane is a smörgåsbord of juxtapositions. A retired Navy Mess Specialist, his physical swagger and solid frame belie a soothing voice and lively eyes. Don’t let the dreadlocks, ripped t-shirt and chunky silver jewelry fool you; the motorcycle-riding, free thinking bad-ass will play gentle host to guests, and if given a chance, will wax philosophical about food and family. While sitting for this interview, he whipped up a beef tenderloin, salmon and roasted potato medley along with a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon; it was the food equivalent of a hug hello.
Feeding someone is the proper thing to do when someone comes over.
“I didn’t know if you’d had lunch,” he says by way of welcome.
“I grew up with a single mom who cooked a lot,” DeVane said of his childhood in Wilmington, North Carolina. He liked to help and says to this day his mother is his inspiration. Mama D’s cornbread is an homage to mom’s recipe and is served proudly at Carolina Son.
“To me, food translates into love and peace. When you’re cooking, there’s no fighting,” DeVane said.
DeVane knew his dreams were bigger than his hometown and knew he needed discipline. He joined the Navy. Becoming a Mess Specialist gave him an opportunity to pursue what he loved. During port visits, instead of going off with buddies in search of, shall we say, adult entertainment, he would talk his way into local kitchens in Greece, Spain, and Italy. Some places only let him watch, at other places he got to cook and learn the local cuisine.
In 1994, DeVane got married and he and his wife had three children: William, Deven and Abigail. William was born premature. He weighed only one and a half pounds.
“I could hold him in my hand,” DeVane recalled.
William had cerebral palsy; doctors told DeVane and his wife their son might never read or write, and life would always be harder for him. The family was advised to consider institutionalizing their son. DeVane said no.
William proved to be a fighter. He graduated Booker T. Washington High School. DeVane remembers his son would do the best the he could, whether it was trying to help wash dishes or reading Treasure Island.
“He never complained a day in his life,” DeVane said.
The DeVane family, however, was dealt another blow in 2015. William was diagnosed with brain cancer, and DeVane remembers the day at the hospital. His wife broke down. His daughter threw up. In July, William underwent surgery, and the doctors removed what cancer they could. But it had spread too far.
“We decided not to send him through chemo or radiation. No more pain,” DeVane said, gazing into the distance.
They brought William home and DeVane proceeded to ensure his son had the best life he could for as long as possible. That meant cooking William’s favorite food every day.
In April 2016, William died.
“Today around 11:45 a.m. my beautiful first born son William DeVane gave his energy back to this world,” his father wrote in an online obituary. “He left this plane of humanity flanked with his biggest admirers … his mother Charlene and myself at his bedside, in his room where he knew only love, as he took his last breath.”
Initially, DeVane tried to be strong for the rest of the family. But eventually the grief caught up to him. He noticed he was pulling away. Not engaging. To displace his grief, anger, and animosity, DeVane sought solace in the kitchen. In May 2016, Carolina Son opened its doors, focusing on William’s favorite foods, while allowing DeVane to indulge his creativity.
DeVane says he hates cookbooks and has never written down a recipe in his life.
“Cooking is like music to me,” he said. “Ingredients are like music notes. I see the nuances instead of a straightforward approach.”
And it’s DeVane’s freestyle, no-rules approach that makes his food, “stupid good,” according to his friends.
“My motorcycle club is the only MC that has foie-gras in the freezer,” DeVane beams.
His MC brothers call him “Grandma” since he does all the cooking, whether for club events or friends’ weddings.
DeVane prefers making everything from scratch, whether at his club, at Carolina Son, or at home. His kids don’t eat vegetables from cans, he states proudly. DeVane’s food philosophy seems straightforward; give him what you advertise. It’s what he hopes to achieve in his cooking and what he looks for when he eats out. But that doesn’t mean food has to be boring. Take his PB&J sauce at Carolina Son. It may be the best topping for his slow-smoked brisket ever. Or try the watermelon sherbet he and his pitmaster Brent Townsend came up with. If you close your eyes you’d swear you were eating a piece of watermelon-fresh, crisp and summer-pure.
“I don’t know how to be mediocre,” he says. “I try to always give you what you need and more than you expect.”
For more on Al Devane and Carolina Son BBQ visit them at 1920 Centerville Turnpike in Virginia Beach or online HERE