When setting out on a journey of self-discovery, the ultimate destination might not be as clear as the need to discover and learn who you are and who you want to be. The identity of a 29-year-old African-American chef with a 13-seat restaurant is now known to food critics in Houston and across the U.S. The outpouring of praise for Indigo over the past year put co-owner Jonny Rhodes in the spotlight.
“This is what every chef works and dreams for, and to have it and have it so quickly is beyond amazing. It’s probably one of the better feelings I’ve ever had,” Rhodes says. He and his wife, Chana, opened Indigo in July 2018. The restaurant has a unique concept that combines a prix-fixe menu with profound conversations. The talks about African-American history, culture and experiences set the stage for Rhodes to reveal his knowledge and culinary artistry. It did not come without a struggle.
“The dream was to just get open. It was so difficult getting open. All the rest that has come with it are things we never could have imagined.” Rhodes describes the difficulty of getting a loan of $5,000 to $10,000 for the restaurant located in Lindale Park. It took almost a year longer than he and Chana thought it would to begin serving five courses twice a night, four days a week in the neighborhood where he grew up. “That was extremely frustrating, having people not believe in you, having investors and other people not see your vision. You begin to doubt yourself,” Rhodes says.
Food for Thought
It took less time for those doubts to be replaced by accolades. Eater Houston named Rhodes 2018 Chef of the Year and included Indigo on its lists of Best Restaurants in the nation the last two years. His approach to cooking on a wood-fired hearth and using traditional methods of smoking, pickling and curing attracts patrons. They come for the food and to hear the chef’s explanations of how the menu reflects such thought-provoking subjects as racial oppression, climate control, the Great Migration and food justice. The cuisine is neo-soul and the conversation rooted in the history of Black people in the Western Hemisphere.
“You get to meet people. You get to share ideas. You get to learn something that you may not have been educated on before,” Rhodes says. Indigo’s chef brought his love of the tasting menu from his exposure to that format at Houston’s Oxheart Restaurant. The graduate of the Art Institute of Houston also polished his cooking skills at New York’s Gramercy Tavern.
Chef Rhodes often felt he was on an island cooking unfamiliar cuisines. He thought about creating a different experience for diners, one centered around an old-fashioned notion so many people have no time for or avoid doing on social media. “That family dynamic or that idea of us sitting down and having conversations about real issues, about how our day was good or bad,” Rhodes says. “Now, I have an opportunity to orchestrate that.”
The chef uses dishes prepared for carnivore, herbivore or omnivore menus to build social awareness. The discussions might involve climate change. Or he might explain how race and class are intertwined in the impact of global warming. “Native Americans have been saying this for hundreds of years,” Rhodes adds. “It’s African-Americans and other people who are living in poverty whose food sources are at risk. As climate changes, food is the first thing that is going to become a problem.”
Indigo’s owner admits he does not know why people are willing to be a part of such weighty discussions while dining at his restaurant. Clearly, the ingredients he sources from no more than 200 miles away are creating dishes and conversations now in demand. Time’s 2019 list of World’s Greatest Places to experience includes the restaurant. Food & Wine and GQ also named Indigo as one of America’s Best New Restaurants this year.
Chef Rhodes suspects that the realness and rawness of dining at Indigo might be part of the attraction. He purposefully chose the location so that patrons could see the reality of the food oppression he talks about outside the restaurant’s windows. “They are going to see that exact same thing about how food is being weaponized and has always been used to attack African-Americans,” Rhodes says. “There are no grocery stores and no other restaurants, just fast food places and liquor stores.”
If what the diners see makes them rethink their assumptions about the neighborhood and the people living there, that is the point. Rhodes uses culinary genius to put his thoughts on African-Americans and their history and resiliency on a plate. For instance, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” inspired a dessert made of preserved yam with molasses and candied pecans. The dish came with a lesson on how the abolitionist’s mother hid candied yams under the floorboards to survive when slave owners withheld food as punishment. “That was something his mother did as a form of combat. You see others doing that throughout the Great Depression and other times in the history of African-Americans and indigenous Americans,” Rhodes says.
Rhodes spent more than three years doing research for his restaurant concept. He still devotes time to studying the African-American experience, including what he prefers to call food apartheid. He sees food deserts as a term that implies quality food choices cannot thrive in low-income neighborhoods. “That takes away from us recognizing food apartheid as a caste system used against people in poverty, African-Americans, and people of color, in particular.
Talking about the problem with Indigo’s diners is not enough for Rhodes. His ambitions include transforming his childhood neighborhood into a place where people grow their own food. In his view, it doesn’t matter how many doctors or lawyers we have as a race if we are unable to feed ourselves. Rhodes believes our communities could learn from his grandmother, who has never eaten food from a grocery store. “She’s in her 90s now. When I was growing up, she would take us walking every day. We’d walk three miles a day. She used to trade food with neighbors and other people who grew stuff too.”
Cultural History Cuisine
Rhodes hopes to influence his patrons and people in the Northline community to have more appreciation for how people of the African Diaspora grew, prepared and ate food centuries ago. The chef is one Spanish class away from earning a bachelor’s degree in history. He applies his studies of the past to the present at Indigo. A dish more commonly seen in Arab and Greek cuisine gives the chef a way to explore what Muslim slaves might have dined on because they did not eat pork. He can share the story of Omar ibn Said, an Islamic scholar kidnapped from what is now Senegal and enslaved in the U.S. in the 1800s. “Thirty percent of African-American slaves who landed in the United States were Muslim. We don’t talk about that,” Rhodes says. “We wanted to recognize that so we did venison shawarma with ash cake with condiments on it.”
Indigo is a platform for Chef Rhodes to share other views he has about African-Americans and the food we eat. He likes to teach diners about the diversity of Black people and the fact that our culinary experiences are soul food, whether we grew up in the South, the North, the Caribbean or Africa. It is the quality of the food we choose that he would like to change. “If we can convince ourselves to spend more on how we eat, that is us committing more money to self-love and self-care. It is what we talk about so often but hardly ever actually follow through on. I include me in that.”
Rhodes, his wife and their staff took the quality of Indigo’s food to New York in August for a dinner at the James Beard House. The herbivore menu included pecan soup with crispy grains, cured, smoked and pickled carrots with yellow barbecue sauce, milk and butter-warmed Carolina Gold rice, braised collards with vegetable ham and preserved and smoked beet red velvet cake. “We showed up, and we were well prepared,” says Rhodes. “I’m really big on leadership, communicating and staying organized. We did just that. We took care of business.”
Indigo as a Stepping Stone
The James Beard Awards recognized Rhodes this year as a semifinalist in the category of Rising Star Chef of the Year won by Kwame Onwuachi, another African-American getting applause from food critics. The Houston restaurateur makes sure others know his wife deserves equal time on the stage, even though she avoids the limelight. “I do all the cooking and everything in the restaurant as far as organizing and leadership. But when it comes to anything and everything for the front of the house or administrative side of things, that’s all her. That’s 100 percent all her,” Rhodes says.
He and Chana share the biscuit-making and the raising of their children, two-year-old Elijah-Jerreau and eight-year-old Athena. The couple also has plans in the works to open a second restaurant in the same neighborhood. It will not have a tasting menu, but the food will be Afro-soul influenced.
The couple considers Indigo as a stepping stone toward expanding food awareness in the Lindale Park area. They intend to add a micro farm, greenhouse and a grocery store to the neighborhood. This past September, Rhodes collaborated with three other African-American chefs in Houston on a Food Apartheid series. He and Dawn Burrell of Kulture, Chris Williams of Lucille’s and Dominick Lee of Poitín each hosted a dinner at their restaurants. They raised awareness about the lack of healthy food choices in low-income communities, along with $10,000. “We had a big block party in my neighborhood outside of my restaurant. We cooked all the food for free, and we gave away big grocery baskets with fresh fruits, vegetables and fresh-caught shrimp,” Rhodes says.
If his influence takes hold, the restaurateur will begin to see backyard gardens sprouting up in Lindale Park and other communities. He and Chana are already plotting strategies for Indigo and their vision to have a long-term impact. They’ve had patrons return with their children, and diners inquire about making okra seed coffee or the ceramics made by Carolina slave potters. “We’ve had so many people reach back out after they’ve eaten with us. It’s been absolutely amazing.”
Awareness, however, is not the ultimate outcome Rhodes and his wife seek. They want to witness change taking place after their dinners are served. “We ask everyone to act. We’re not waiting on policy or permission to build stepping stones so we can do things for our community.”