It goes without saying that Yale dining halls are special places. From mahogany tables sprinkled with potted plants, to grandiose chandeliers, to the uniquely delicious food, the splendor of Yale dining halls is evident. But like any great achievement, our dining halls would not exist without the herculean effort that occurs out of sight.
The dining hall staff at Davenport certainly embrace a kind of amicable chaos. Nevertheless, three times a day, without fail, they serve a wonderful meal. At the center of it all, towering above most of the staff and many of the students, stands Shaffrona Phillip-Christie. She is the manager, and without her, the whole place would fold. Her constant smile and her perpetual ebullience come from a life that has presented many less-than-happy moments.
Tucked into the tail end of the Lesser Antilles, several miles off the coast of Venezuela, sits the small island nation of Trinidad. On Jan. 17, 1970, on that slab of Caribbean paradise, Shaffrona Phillip was born.
“I was always the good girl,” Phillip-Christie (now known by her colleagues as Shaff) began. “My mom was very strict. And in the Caribbean, you’re allowed to beat your children; there’s no abuse, of course, but you’re allowed to discipline them. But I never wanted to get into trouble because I never wanted my mom to beat me.” She broke out in laughter.
At times childhood became difficult for her. She grew up poor and with an often absent father. “He was never really there,” she recounts. “And I have not many memories that I enjoy of him. One time he did take us to the movies, Fearless Kid and Lady Tiger, and then one time he walked me to school and gave me some money, and that’s about all the good memories I have of him.” Mostly she remembers her father as abusive, especially to her mother.
The oldest girl in a family without a father, she worked hard around the house. “Saturday was the cleaning and ironing day.” The family got up early and went to the market, then ironed all their school clothes, washed all the sheets and seasoned all the meats. “It was a lot of work, and it was tough, but it helped groom me to who I am today.” Every day she walked to her local school, an Anglican institution where students prayed four times a day.
“Other than that, though, [childhood] was fun,” she recalled with a smile. “It was ridin’ bikes, playing cricket in the front yard — we even would climb up the back of my grandfather’s house and pick cherries out of the neighbor’s tree.”
She also had five siblings. Two of them were older brothers, one of whom was a troublemaker, an inevitability in any family with boys. He specialized in terrorizing Phillip-Christie and getting her into trouble. “And I did not want that,” she said, laughing. “Because I did not want to get beaten, or licked, as we called it. But I miss that. A lot of life went on outside and I have a lot of great memories of how beautiful it all was.”
She also danced. From the beginning, she loved dancing and music, and it followed her wherever she went. She scribbled out lyrics during card games, sang all around the house, and even, at the age of eight, danced at the opening of the new local police station and made the front page of the paper. “There’s a song for everything. And it makes me happy,” she says.
Along with her love of music, Phillip-Christie found a love of cooking at a young age. “We always had to cook when I was young. We learned from my mom, and then when I started to cook in school, I fell in love with it, I don’t know why. I even remember baking my first cake, the outside was burnt and the inside was filled with oil.” For a girl whose mother chased her around their giant front yard, belt in hand, yelling at her to finish her dinner, a love for food seems unlikely. Nevertheless, her adoration for cooking persisted.
In 1984, life changed for Phillip-Christie and her family when they came to America. They moved into their grandmother’s one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment — all eight of them. Eventually her grandmother bought a house in East Flatbush, another neighborhood in the borough; Phillip-Christie spent the next 21 years in Brooklyn. “It was not a good 21 years, though.” She went to high school and hated it. She was older and, as she remembers, smarter than most of her classmates, but thanks to complications with chicken pox and constant flip-flopping between honors and regular classes, she was forced to stay an extra six months before her graduation. “By then I was 19, so I said ‘screw you’ and I left, I just walked out of high school. I wasn’t going to do another six months and graduate at 20.”
She eventually got her GED, but soon became “sidetracked” and began having children. She had twins, two boys, first. “I had a hard life then, and I wasn’t working. And then I got pregnant with my daughter. I just thought something’s gotta give, so I went back to school.” She earned a certificate in certified nursing and started working in a nursing home. Then, with three young children, she left her boyfriend. “He was such a playboy and I didn’t know it. And I thought, ‘No, I’m just not gonna deal with this,’ so I let him go.” Meanwhile, upon arriving at the nursing home, she found the nurses in the midst of a fight over unionization; “This is how I met my other ex, he was fighting for the union too.” The nursing unit let her go because of the union conflicts, but the union found her another job, one that happened to involve her lifelong love, food. “And suddenly I realized I was back doing something I love,” she said.
She then had three children with her new boyfriend, but “he also led a double life. After that I didn’t want to do that anymore, I wanted to do things for myself.” At that time she was working in food service at a local hospital. “I thought that I didn’t want to be an employee for the rest of my life, I want to do more.” So she spoke to the registered dietitian and asked how she could become a manager. Soon she landed her first manager’s job at the Wartburg Home in Mount Vernon, New York, a three-hour commute from her home in Brooklyn. For two years, she took a bus to the subway, the subway to Metro-North and then a cab to work, five days a week. She then decided she wanted to go back to school again. She had a job and a live-in babysitter for her six children, and saw, somewhere amidst her jammed schedule, the opportunity to go to college. She applied and was accepted to Monroe College, whose New Rochelle campus was an easy commute from Mount Vernon.
“I was a single parent of six,” she said. “I would get up at 5 in the morning to be at work at 8. I would then leave work at 4, and then leave school at about 10. And I would travel back home and I would get back home at midnight. Then get up and do it all again.”
Eventually, she landed a job at detox facility in the city, a one-hour commute from home. She then increased her course load, taking seven classes four days a week after work. She got home at 11 p.m., and woke up at 6 a.m.
Meanwhile, her six children stayed at home with a babysitter. “I believe in being honest with your children,” she said, and she sticks by her sayings. When she began to attend school again, she sat her children down and told them, “I’m not going to spend very much time with you for three years.” She sacrificed those years to get her bachelor’s degree. “And I told them, I’m doing this so I can get something better for you, and something better for me.”
Honesty paid off, despite the hardships her family often faced. A single mom, she often could not afford many things for her kids, and Brooklyn often proved a dangerous environment for them. When her children refused to listen, she disciplined; when they wouldn’t share a bed, she reminded them of how fortunate they were; when they disrespected her, she locked them out. At 16, she mandated that every child work. “Nothing is handed to you, you have to earn it all. And it worked.”
Phillip-Christie is now a grandmother; her two oldest sons, the twins, are local policemen, while her two youngest boys will graduate high school in the next two years. She also has a husband of eight years, Vincent, a custodian at the School of Management. With the exception of one stressful week, she claims they have not fought once. She still wakes up every morning at 5 a.m., gets her kids up for school, and arrives at Davenport to “hit the ground running.” She fills in for sick employees, makes sure her cooks have everything they need and watches over her students when they arrive.
“I love food. I love feeding people.” And she will never deny anyone that. If someone doesn’t have a meal swipe, she offers her own. It may come from her underprivileged childhood, or come from that innate generosity. For her, the fun is in the doing, in taking care of people. “To me, when I put out what I put out there, and I see the smiles and the appreciation, I’m on top of the world, I don’t even care if they know that I did it, nobody does. What makes me get up and come here every day is you guys. When I know that my students are happy, I can go home singing.”
Just as in her childhood in Trinidad, in everything she does, Phillip-Christie dances. Without instruments, lyrics or melodious voices, she fills the room with music. She not only helps prepare and present delicious food, but also creates the ideal environment for enjoying the dining hall’s many creations. She imbues her ebullient spirit in everything she does and everyone she meets. Without knowing her story, one would pass off her brilliance as mere happenstance, instead of the natural, well-thought and hard-earned response to a litany of challenges. But her smile never fades, and one can’t help but feeling full of it in her dining hall.
So the next time you take a meal in Davenport, if you see the tall, impeccably dressed woman with a faint accent and a big grin, throw her a smile — it will mean the world.