Food & Drink

Is Houston’s Jonny Rhodes the Most Subversive Chef in the Country?

Rhodes was an unproven 27-year-old chef when he launched Indigo, a tiny restaurant with a radical concept in a low-income Houston neighborhood. Now it’s one of the hottest kitchens in the country.

jonny rhodes
Jonny Rhodes. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Jonny Rhodes. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Anybody ever read a slave narrative by Frederick Douglass before?” asked Jonny Rhodes, the 29-year-old chef and owner of the Houston restaurant Indigo.

Thirteen diners—a full house—were about to begin the final course of the evening, a preserved candied yam semifreddo concoction Rhodes had titled “Descendants of Igbo.” A few people exchanged glances.

“Any takers?” Rhodes prodded. There were none.

“Definitely check that book out!” the chef exclaimed. Rhodes was excited to talk about Douglass because he felt the famed abolitionist and author was important for understanding dessert.

Moments earlier, Rhodes had been directing his staff inside a tiny, meticulously organized cooking space that Marcus Samuelsson, the celebrated New York–based Ethiopian-Swedish chef, has said “might be my favorite kitchen of all time.” Then Rhodes had pulled aside the sliding-door bookshelf that leads to Indigo’s only slightly bigger dining room and greeted the diners, all of whom were seated around a horseshoe-shaped concrete counter. He could have been mistaken for any other member of the staff—five-foot-nine frame; charcoal apron over a plain white shirt; heaven forbid, no toque—and he made easy small talk with an absence of pomp. But after a few minutes, he stepped toward the middle of the room, and his demeanor changed. He clasped his hands together, straightened his back into his ex-Marine’s commanding posture, and projected with theatrical gusto. “All right, good evening everyone. Hopefully we’ve all enjoyed our meal,” the chef began. The restaurant’s sound system—until then, blasting Bobby Womack’s soul classic “Across 110th Street”—went silent.

Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
Jonny Rhodes chatting with guests at Indigo in January. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Rhodes had been happy to hear that his guests enjoyed the sweet, smoky flavors of “Descendants of Igbo,” but he was anxious to reveal the layers of meaning behind the dish. With all eyes trained on him, the chef launched into a wide-ranging oration, darting across multiple continents and centuries, through history and folklore, his pace building into a hurried cascade. Rhodes started by riffing on the cultural and economic primacy of the yam among the Igbo people of Southeastern Nigeria. Then he described how enslaved West Africans had filled the void left by the absence of the African yam in the New World by making the American sweet potato into a new dietary staple. And finally, Rhodes’s extemporaneous essay moved into the early nineteenth century, when Douglass first encountered the sweet potato as a young boy.

“Douglass talks about his grandmother making candied yams and hiding them under the floorboards, Rhodes said. (The term “candied yam” was often used for a roasted sweet potato in Douglass’s time, whether or not it was slathered in sugary syrup.) “When the slave owners would withhold food from African Americans, to stay ready and be combative against that, they would have candied yams.”

Rhodes wanted the dish itself to taste like the combination of history and passed-through-the-generations stories he had just unspooled. “This is why we gave you preserved candied yams,” he said, to finish.

That wasn’t Rhodes’s first speech of the evening. His rich, umami-packed pecan soup, “Afrofuturist,” had come with a commentary on “how African Americans have always had to try and survive off of foraging.” (Rhodes foraged and roasted the pecans himself.) His “Slow Feet Don’t Eat” appetizer, featuring rabbit pâté and homegrown mustard greens, had spurred him to tell the story of the young black men of so-called “Muck City” (an area on the southeastern shore of Lake Okeechobee, in Florida), who had been locally renowned for their ability to chase rabbits and catch them with their bare hands. Now those young men were getting snatched up by NCAA football programs, and some have gone on to make millions in the NFL. Rhodes saw this as a kind of tragedy. What had once been an “African American form of surviving agricultural oppression” had been turned into just another “tool for capitalism,” where even the most successful of those young men would end up laboring for a sports-industrial complex that mostly benefited team owners and corporations. There was even an Adidas commercial, “Chasing Rabbits,” to prove it.

Somehow, Rhodes managed to pull all this off without making guests feel like they were being lectured at on Twitter. An old-fashioned hospitality and a scrappy sense of fun suffused the restaurant. The service, led by Rhodes’s wife, Chana, the restaurant’s general manager and tireless utility player, felt familial and just the right degree of good-naturedly harried. (“I do the biscuits, no one else is allowed to make the biscuits, and I’ll be in the front of the house, I’m helping with the plating and prep,” Chana told me.) And Indigo wasn’t a high-concept gimmick: the food was actually good. Finishing his plate of “Slow Feet Don’t Eat,” a Venezuelan-born chef who happened to be dining to my left leaned in and said, “That’s the best bite of food I’ve tasted in Houston.”

When Rhodes opened Indigo, in July 2018, many of his industry friends wondered if he was crazy. He was a young black man only four years removed from culinary school, planting his flag in an industry dominated by far more-seasoned middle-aged white guys. His business model was more or less unprecedented. He would lure well-to-do diners to a boutique fine-dining establishment in the heart of the low-income neighborhood of Northline, a mile and a half north of the Inner Loop, then ask them to shell out serious cash (now $125) and time (around two and a half hours) for a five-course tasting menu that he would occasionally interrupt to deliver minilectures that went well beyond the typical locavore tableside patter. Rhodes had a deeper story he wanted to tell—about African American culinary traditions; African American survival in the face of slavery, racism, and institutional poverty; and how he had tried to distill it all into his cooking. This mash-up of haute soul food, mom-and-pop warmth, and provocative racial and cultural commentary has improbably turned an 819-square-foot, thirteen-seat, four-night-a-week restaurant into a national sensation.

First, in December 2018, five months after Indigo opened, the Houston Chronicle named it one of the best new restaurants in Houston. Then in February 2019, Texas Monthly placed Indigo on its list of top ten new restaurants in the state. Not long after, Eater Houston honored Rhodes as its chef of the year, and the James Beard Foundation named Rhodes a semifinalist for its annual Rising Star Chef of the Year award. Then came GQ, Food & Wine, and Eater’s national website, each of which anointed Indigo one of the best new restaurants in America. Last August, Time magazine elevated Indigo to its loftiest honor yet, declaring the restaurant to be one of the one hundred “greatest places” in the world, alongside a dark sky sanctuary in the Pitcairn Islands and an eco-resort in Cambodia. (San Antonio’s Ruby City art center also made the cut.)

“We talk about obesity, the cost of health care—this is ground zero right here,” Rhodes said.

These write-ups have lavished praise on Rhodes’s food. (The Houston Chronicle’s Alison Cook wrote that Indigo’s dishes “can be as lovely as a bonnet of ember-roasted autumn squash outlined in sunflower petals, filled with two-year-old gourd pickles and grounded by a spicy benne-seed sauce; or as funky as a shrimp and wild boar andouille gumbo with Carolina Gold rice.”) But critics have focused even more on the fact that Rhodes seems to be up to something radical: reimagining what a contemporary restaurant can be. “Indigo’s very existence is part of the work: a fine dining restaurant in a historically underserved neighborhood, serving food that unabashedly claims its purpose,” Eater’s Hillary Dixler Canavan wrote. “In a more equitable dining culture, none of this would be revolutionary, but today it is; diners simply don’t see restaurants like this very often.”

Rhodes knows that all the hype has heightened expectations, and by meal’s end, after posing for a selfie with a group of eight smiling patrons, he was ready for a few moments to himself. As the diners spilled out into the parking lot, the chef slipped into the side garden where he grows watermelon, okra, and collard greens. He sat down on the wall of a raised vegetable bed and gazed out at the night. Across the road were a small gas station and an auto-repair shop encircled by barbed wire. Sharing a parking lot with Indigo was the A&B Grocery, a stripped-down convenience store. On the other side of Indigo stood a government-assisted affordable housing development, Oxford Place Apartments. A few residents strolled by. The fluorescent lights bathed the parking lot in a white glow. A hot rod growled somewhere in the distance.

Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
The restaurant’s exterior.Photograph by John Davidson

“The Hardy Toll Road becomes drag-racing central at two a.m.,” Rhodes said, with a smile. “The neighborhood is coming alive. It’ll be more so on Friday.”

His grandmother’s house, the closest place he’d had to a consistent home growing up, was just a couple miles away, off Jensen Drive. Greenspoint, where he’d gone to high school, was a few miles north. As a kid, Rhodes had occasionally driven by the building on Berry Road that now houses Indigo when he’d helped his uncle cut grass in the area. When the young Rhodes had a free moment, he’d climb up some of the nearby fig trees and pick fruit to take back to his mother and grandmother, to use for dessert. Rhodes wanted to make clear that this childhood tale spoke to harsher realities.

“It’s a cute story; people like it,” Rhodes told me. But having enough food on the table sometimes meant that everyone, even a little kid, needed to pitch in.

The Jensen Supermarket, on the outskirts of Houston’s Trinity Gardens, is housed in a drab corrugated metal building with “checks cashed” advertisements on the sides.  It serves as the local grocery store for Rhodes’s grandmother’s neighborhood. “I consider it more of an oversized gas station,” Rhodes said as we stood in the parking lot one morning.

Inside, the block-type signage looked like it had been unchanged for decades, and painted illustrations advertising produce and seafood were largely obscured by stacks of cardboard boxes. Yet Rhodes was less preoccupied with the store’s appearance than with the void he saw on the shelves. He sped past several rows packed with cake mix and cereal, canned beans and salad dressing, then came to a halt at the back of the building. There was a deli counter filled with wheels of sausage and a refrigerated shelf holding lettuce, corn, and some other basic produce. “There’s one aisle with meat and vegetables and nine aisles with snacks,” he said.

It was clear you could make a decent dinner with ingredients from Jensen Supermarket, and the staff was friendly. “The people are nice; they’re not the problem,” Rhodes said as we began to walk back toward the cash registers. “Compare this to the Central Market on Westheimer.” That Central Market—serving River Oaks and other wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods—offered towering stacks of exquisite vegetables and teams of butchers and fishmongers. Jensen Supermarket—catering to mostly lower-income Latinos and African Americans—had so much less. “We talk about obesity, the cost of health care—this is ground zero right here,” Rhodes said.

“I wanted something where I felt like I could self-express,” Rhodes said, “and I had watched way too much Food Network at that point.”

Rhodes knew that if you plopped a Central Market on Jensen Drive, the city’s stark inequalities in wealth, education, and health care wouldn’t magically disappear. But he believed with evangelical fervor that simple, healthy, tasty food was the place to start. Give disadvantaged communities better grocery stores, encourage them to cook, make them proud of their culinary traditions, and the ripple effects would be huge. Rhodes is fond of the adage “wars are won and lost on food,” and while that might be a reductive analysis of both battle and massive social change, if you look at a USDA map of Houston, there’s plenty of evidence to support Rhodes’s view. According to the latest government data, nearly all of Houston outside those neighborhoods west of downtown has problems with convenient access to wholesome food. Rhodes used to call these zones “food deserts,” the common term for neighborhoods where residents lack easy access to good groceries (or, in some cases, to groceries at all) and fast food dominates. Then Samuelsson visited Indigo to film a segment for his PBS show No Passport Required, and in a conversation about neighborhoods such as Trinity Gardens and Northline, the older chef suggested Rhodes adopt the more politically potent phrase “food apartheid.”

“I was born in the desert. I know what a desert looks like,” Samuelsson told me. “The food shortage we have in America is there by design. This goes back to laws that were created. This goes back to highways that were put into certain neighborhoods. This is deep tissue that we are still fighting ourselves out of.”

Rhodes sees part of the solution in the past, which is why he didn’t only want me to see Jensen Supermarket, he wanted to take me to his grandmother’s house. A few minutes after leaving the grocery store, we pulled up to the tidy white bungalow where Rhodes had spent his middle school years. Tropical Storm Imelda had ripped through Houston a week earlier, inundating the neighborhood, and the still-visible flood line on the house reached a couple feet up from the ground. Rhodes’s grandmother had temporarily moved in with one of his aunts. The drainage ditch that separates the house from the street still held a few inches of stormwater. “We used to catch crawfish in this ditch,” Rhodes said, peering into the murky trickle.

Rhodes considers his grandmother a model of food self-sufficiency. When Rhodes lived with her, he remembers, she “never bought meat at Jensen Supermarket,” Instead, she would barter for it with her neighbor, Mr. Lamb. She grew vegetables and harvested figs and pecans. Mr. Lamb raised chickens and pigs on a small plot adjacent to the railroad tracks, a few blocks away. When we passed by Mr. Lamb’s house, Rhodes laughed.

“I can’t tell you how many windows I broke of his,” he said.

I asked if that was from overthrown balls.

“Skipping rocks, throwing balls, being a bad kid,” Rhodes said, grinning.

Rhodes grew up mostly with his mother, moving around as a kid across Houston’s Northside. For as long as he can remember, he was acutely aware of what he didn’t have. His parents weren’t together. (For a time, he lived with an Igbo family, inspiring his candied yam dish.) No one around him had any money. On TV, he would watch sitcoms like Family Matters, which showed intact African American families living middle-class, home-for-dinner-at-six suburban lives. Rhodes thought it looked idyllic. “I never experienced that, I wanted to replicate that.”

From an early age, Rhodes yearned for a more stable, more affluent life. First, he thought he’d get there by becoming an engineer. Then sports took over: boxing and especially basketball. Despite the significant disadvantage of his sub-six-foot frame, he dreamed of playing in the NBA. (“I didn’t play delicate like, ‘Don’t touch me’ basketball,” he told me. “I was like Pat Beverley out there.”)

Rhodes was no Boy Scout. He got into fights. He blew off studying. He found himself running from the cops on more than one occasion. He remembers an older cousin telling him she didn’t think he’d live to see his seventeenth birthday.

Rhodes’s high school friend Jonathan Rocha told me that he saw the teenage Rhodes going in two directions at once. “He loves to clown around, and sometimes his clowning gets him into trouble,” Rocha said. “But he had goals. He was definitely ambitious and persistent. For all the years I’ve known him, he always had something he wanted to do, and he made sure he did it.”

Rhodes played point guard on the basketball team at Nimitz High School, but during his junior year, he got kicked off. “I was a troublemaker, and I wasn’t taking care of business in the classroom,” Rhodes told me. “If I was a better player, they might have found a way to keep me on.” Rhodes decided to join the school’s JROTC program. It quickly turned into his calling. He admired his instructor, a retired lieutenant colonel who “yelled at all the kids,” including Rhodes, “for not pulling their pants up,” and he liked his fellow cadets. Six days after graduating from Nimitz, Rhodes enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was shipped to San Diego for boot camp, and then to North Carolina to get further training as a supply specialist, at Camp Johnson. One night, Rhodes went to the smoke pit, a barracks hangout spot. There, he spotted Chana Gohier, a ponytailed fellow Marine from Georgia with a Native Hawaiian background. They got to talking, Rhodes told me, “and the rest is history.” When Rhodes was sent to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, California, Chana stayed at the base in North Carolina, and they kept the relationship going, flying to see each other during breaks.

Rhodes loved being a Marine, and he was vocal about his ambitions to be a lifer. Then in January 2012, Chana gave birth to their daughter, Athena. Rhodes had risen to the rank of corporal and deployed to Afghanistan, but three years in, he no longer saw the Marine Corps as his future. “I wanted to have a family,” he told me, “I wanted to be able to spend time with my kids.”

But Rhodes wasn’t exactly sure what else he wanted. When he left the Marines, in October 2012, he was 22 years old, a new father, and newly unemployed.

When Rhodes talks about the challenges he’s faced, he likes to invoke an old Marine dare: “No balls.” (As in, if you don’t accept a challenge, you have no balls.) When Rhodes’s cousin told him she thought he would die before he turned seventeen, Rhodes said he took those words to be a “no balls” taunt. When Rhodes left the Marines and moved to North Carolina, to be with Chana, who still had several months left in her enlistment, he remembered his old battle buddies needling him with doubts about his future prospects. “You hear the typical stuff about how hard it is when you get out, and I was just like, ‘Oh, it’s hard, huh?’ ”

None of Rhodes’s friends or family members saw culinary school coming. Sure, Rhodes had occasionally manned the grill for the men and women of his regiment when he was stationed at Twentynine Palms. But he’d never talked about wanting to work in a professional kitchen, much less run a Food & Wine–recommended restaurant. Chana told me that, up to that point, the future James Beard semifinalist had never once cooked for her.

Rhodes barely saw his next move coming himself. “To be honest with you, man, I was just looking for something,” he told me. “I wanted something where I felt like I could self-express, and I had watched way too much Food Network at that point.”

Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
Rhodes stoking the kitchen fire. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Rhodes aimed the nozzle of a blowtorch toward the base of the stovetop, igniting the bed of charcoal with a hissing flame. A 100-gallon pot full of a wild-game-based stock resumed heating. Rhodes had been slowly cooking down and concentrating the liquid for weeks. He planned to use it as part of his take on sofki, a traditional Native American stew.

It was an off day at Indigo, which meant Rhodes was prepping in the kitchen alone. The tiny space was stacked with orderly rows of jars of preserves and powered almost entirely by live fire. When Rhodes began cooking at Indigo, he couldn’t afford a gas line, so he decided to build the kitchen around its absence. Under a massive hood vent that had been left over from a long-defunct Chinese buffet, heaps of ash had collected under the metal stands that served as the restaurant’s stove top. Rhodes, moving with an athlete’s nonchalant efficiency, pushed the debris into neat piles with a small shovel. He was already planning its next use. He would bury cured and smoked potatoes in the ash, then use them to make a traditional flatbread.

Rhodes’s cooking was full of homespun, vernacular techniques like this—if a neglected vegetable or off-cut of meat could be pickled, smoked, or repurposed, Rhodes was likely to have at least attempted it. The chef had an intellectual justification for this. Preserving and stowing every last bite was how African Americans had survived food insecurity since even before Frederick Douglass’s grandmother’s time. He had a personal reason too: this was the food he’d grown up eating at his grandmother’s house.

The kitchen at Indigo was a testament to this approach. In a small vertical smoker adjacent to the ash-strewn stovetop, Rhodes placed just-delivered beef necks that he would use to make a bone broth for an oxtail soup. As the charcoal under the wild-game stock began to cool, Rhodes grabbed a blacksmith’s bellows and fanned the smoldering embers until they ignited.

  As Rhodes pivoted around his kitchen, minding the ash and flames and smoke, he pulled out a more modern kitchen tool, a Vitamix blender (“I bought it off the back of a truck in Chinatown, in New York,” he told me), to put the finishing touches on a new dish: smoked mushrooms with caramelized vegetable cream. The process had already taken months. He’d been fermenting sunchokes for the dish for a half year inside a dehydrator, and had more recently aged and caramelized the dairy he’d need for the creamy sauce. With kitchen space tight, Rhodes had kept the ingredients inside Indigo’s storage locker, a refrigerated shipping container behind the restaurant that was also filled with air-drying geese and venison and jars full of preserving lemon peels, kumquats, leeks, and strawberries. Now, he was ready to combine  the dairy and sunchokes into a sauce. First he heated them together in a small pot on top of a tiny induction stove—his one non-live-fire cooking apparatus. Then he plopped the warmed mixture into the Vitamix pitcher. As the blender whirled, Rhodes sprinkled in a dollop of xanthan gum, a dash of salt, and a few twists of black pepper.

“I gotta taste it before you taste it,” he said after the sauce had emulsified. Rhodes raised a spoon to his lips, then invited me to give the sauce a try. The sunchokes were tangy and tart, walloping the back of the tongue. The aged cream brought a soft, cheesy funkiness. 

Chana Rhodes Indigo Houston
Chana Rhodes preparing a plate of biscuits. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
Rhodes descaling a smoked flounder for his new pescatarian menu. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Left: Chana Rhodes preparing a plate of biscuits. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus
Top: Rhodes descaling a smoked flounder for his new pescatarian menu. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Though Rhodes gave off the aura of deep experience, these were relatively new skills. He had enrolled at the Art Institute of Houston’s Culinary Arts Program at the beginning of 2013, and for his first years in the industry, he studied and worked as a line cook at Pappas Seafood House and the Houston Astros Diamond Club. Rhodes’s big break came in July 2014, two months after graduating, when he applied for a job at Oxheart, a small New Nordic cuisine–inspired restaurant in Houston’s Warehouse district, that was run by Justin Yu, a then-29-year-old James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year semifinalist.

Oxheart’s kitchen wasn’t anything like the corporate kitchens where Rhodes had previously worked. It reminded him more of the Marine Corps. Yu was earning rave reviews for his precision (Pete Wells, the New York Times’ restaurant critic, had written that Yu paid “the kind of attention to vegetables that a mountain climber gives to rock ledges”), and he demanded flawless execution and rigorous attention to detail from his staff. Every slice and mince and sear had to be just so. Towels were to be folded neatly and tucked into the small of the back. Debris was to be carefully wiped off tables into hands, not pushed onto the floor to be swept up later. The hours were brutal. Cooks worked from mid-morning until the end of dinner service, prepping and executing every dish themselves. “It beat the shit out of me,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes and Yu soon butted heads. “I was very abrasive back then,” Yu told me, “I really wanted something a very specific way, and when people struggled with it, I let them know.” Rhodes, headstrong and outspoken himself, seemed to take those criticisms personally.

Ten months into Rhodes’s tenure, Yu sat him down and made it clear it was time for the younger chef to move on. Rhodes didn’t take the news well. “I was super bitter, because I felt like I had so much to learn.” Rhodes resented what he saw as Yu’s almost-militaristic approach, but he couldn’t help but also admire it. When Rhodes looked around for a new job, he felt that no other Houston restaurant seemed to have the “same drive and the same focus.”

On winter break from Oxheart in January 2015, Rhodes had traveled to New York City to do a cooking internship for a few days at Gramercy Tavern, one of Manhattan’s most-established fine dining meccas. Michael Anthony, Gramercy’s James Beard Award–winning executive chef, had offered Rhodes a full-time position if he ever wanted to move to New York, and soon after leaving Oxheart, Rhodes decided he did. “We’re not always looking for people who have experience in our comparative set of restaurants; we’re looking for people who love what they do, and that’s what I remember about him,” Anthony told me.

While Oxheart was small and intimate, Gramercy Tavern employed a staff of two hundred, a big world-class kitchen that churned along like a well-oiled Swiss watch. Rhodes was eager to learn. (“My first job was to make pâte à choux. Oh my God. I messed it up every day for a week straight.”) But Rhodes wasn’t going to spend his career in New York. Chana and Athena had stayed in Houston, and, after ten months, he was ready to go back to them. He was also restless to start his own project. Anthony remembers a few quiet moments in the kitchen toward the end of Rhodes’s time in the city, when he and Rhodes would muse about the future. “We talked a lot about his work and his dreams,” Anthony recalled. “I think everyone asks themselves ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘what am I going to do with it?’ ”

During the year and a half that Rhodes had worked for Yu and Anthony, he had been tinkering with concepts on his own. (Yu remembers Rhodes bringing a fermented sunchoke puree into the kitchen.) And when Rhodes moved back to Houston from New York, near the end of 2015, his focus shifted almost entirely to what he calls “research and development.”

Houston was Rhodes’s hometown, but it was also an ideal place for a young chef to make his mark. The city was emerging as a top dining destination, with much-lauded restaurants like Oxheart and Chris Shepherd’s Underbelly, and a reputation for giving younger chefs the space to innovate without facing the sky-high rents and cutthroat pressure of cities like New York and San Francisco. When Wells, the New York Times critic, had visited in 2013, he’d dubbed Houston “one of the country’s most exciting places to eat,” and the restaurateur and media star David Chang would soon hail the city not only as a leading contender to be “the next food capital of America,” but also for being a city at the bleeding edge of culinary innovation. “I’ve always wondered where the food in a Blade Runner–like future would appear first and what it would taste like,” Chang wrote in GQ, “and I genuinely believe it’s here.”

Rhodes was ready to help create this future. First, he planned a pop-up dinner series, where he could build buzz, gain loyal customers, and hone his cooking and concept before the launch of a brick-and-mortar location. He named the pop-up Jensen Chronicles, and if it sounded more like a fifties short-story collection than a restaurant, then that was the point. Rhodes wanted the pop-up to function as a series of interrelated tales centering on Jensen Drive, the street next to his grandmother’s house. “It’s known for bad things—prostitution, drugs,” Rhodes said, “but there’s so much life there.”

Rhodes decided his dishes should have literary titles, since he saw them “almost like poems about the things I had experienced and people who were close to me experienced.” Rhodes knew the titles would invite questions, and he was eager to chat with diners about what had inspired him.

Rhodes wanted the food to taste like where he came from too. As a kid, Rhodes had turned his nose up at most soul food. Cornbread and oxtails reminded him that he was poor. He’d wanted “the steaks, the lobsters—the finer foods.” But by that point in his life, he’d had the finer foods, and decided they were just more expensive.

Rhodes hyped the project himself. He messaged everyone he knew on Facebook, then messaged their friends, then reached out to “everybody that was somebody in the food industry,” sending along a copy of his résumé as part of the invitation. Twenty-six people accepted, and he and Chana made plans for multiple seatings.

Only six people showed up that November night to the couple’s two-bedroom apartment in the suburb of Humble. They included restaurant critics Phaedra Cook, writing for the Houston Press, and Eric Sandler, of Culture Map. Sandler recalled that the cooking was similar to what Rhodes would later showcase at Indigo—a preserved carrot dish made the transition almost unchanged—but it was also apparent he was just starting out. “The feedback that night was ‘you’re obviously talented, but it wasn’t developed yet,’ ” Sandler said.

A few months after the first Jensen Chronicles dinner, Rhodes toured a long-abandoned storefront at the corner of Berry and McGallion Road, in Houston’s Northside. The space was derelict—in need of a gut renovation, with a leaky roof, water damage, and leftover junk, including rice cookers crusted with moldy twenty-year-old grains from the Chinese buffet that had once operated there. The building’s real estate agent, Vivian Dang, recalls that neither she nor the owners, a Vietnamese family, could believe that Rhodes wanted to open a fine-dining restaurant there. “The reason he convinced me is he said he grew up in the neighborhood, and he wanted to do something for that neighborhood, to bring it up,” Dang said.

In the summer of 2016, as Rhodes continued to stage pop-up dinners, he began to make plans for Indigo, which he named, in part, after the shrub whose leaves had been harvested for dye making, by enslaved people in the antebellum South. The restaurant would be an all-hands effort. Chana, who was then pregnant with their second child, Elijah-Jerreau, had planned to study nursing, but as Indigo began to look like a reality, she enrolled at the University of Houston-Downtown to take business classes. Rhodes was confident that he could get the space ready soon and began telling friends he was targeting a January 2017 opening. He figured he’d recruit investors, build out the restaurant, and hire a top-flight staff.

In September 2016, Rhodes got the keys—and then the setbacks started. In order to open, Rhodes needed to obtain a certificate of occupancy from the city, but the storefront didn’t have enough parking spaces (Rhodes ended up reconfiguring the lot), and the space was going to need a full overhaul before city inspectors signed off on it opening as a restaurant. Contractors told Rhodes that repairing and renovating the space would cost as much as $250,000, money he didn’t come close to having. “That was the most discouraging thing in my life, and I’ve had a lot of discouraging things,” he said.

As Rhodes worked to secure the proper permitting, the property’s landlords gave him a break, allowing him to have the space rent-free until a few months before he was ready to open. But the costs still piled up. Rhodes hadn’t been able to attract any investors and instead depended on a GoFundMe campaign, his and Chana’s military benefits, and, occasionally, selling blood to a plasma center. Chana was going to school, raising two young children, and working at a payday lender to make a little extra cash. (“It taught me a lot about personal loans,” she told me. “Don’t get a personal loan.”)

Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
Rhodes and Poitín chef Dominick Lee at the Food Apartheid Dinner Series block party at Indigo, in September.Lenard Smith

At times, it felt like too much. Rhodes considered alternate careers—firefighting, or maybe teaching high school history. Chana wondered “pretty much almost every day” if they should give up. Maybe they could put off the project, both go back to work full-time, save up more money, and then try again in a few years. Rhodes’s friend Rocha told me, “I honestly thought he was going to pack it up.”

Instead, Rhodes and Chana kept scrapping. A Marine friend loaned Rhodes $5,000. Rocha chipped in and became Indigo’s sole equity investor. As Chana prepared the paperwork necessary to get the restaurant off the ground, Rhodes decided to perform most of the construction work himself, leaning on friends to lay tile, move appliances, and refashion the space. “One of my friends, Derrick Ageday, he’s a professional MMA fighter, so I was like, ‘Hey, bro, why don’t you come kick down some of the walls in the restaurant?’ ” Rhodes told me. “He literally came in and started kicking walls down. It was the most exciting shit I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Rhodes was still patching together the space in the midsummer of 2018, a year and a half after his planned opening. On July 20, 2018, Indigo finally got its electricity hooked up. Three days later, the restaurant served its first dinner.

Not long after Rhodes found the property on Berry Road, he decided to go back to school, enrolling along with Chana at the University of Houston-Downtown. Rocha told me that even as Rhodes was getting into trouble and blowing off studying as a kid, he had always been fascinated by history. Now, working toward his degree, Rhodes focused on African American studies, taking several classes on race and history taught by professor Jonathan Chism.

Rhodes saw African Americans as the rightful heirs to a proud history of survival and resistance, and through his cooking and his words, he hoped to do his part to reclaim it.

Rhodes, Chism remembers, “sat in the front row, asked a lot of questions, and engaged his classmates,” sometimes accompanied by the newborn Elijah-Jerreau. Outside of class, Rhodes and Chism forged a friendship. Rhodes told Chism about his plans to open Indigo, and the professor began recommending scholarship to give him a deeper understanding of the history of the food he’d be cooking, sharing titles such as What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives, which now sits prominently on Indigo’s bookshelf, Post-it notes sticking out from sections on “slave rations,” “chitlins,” “potatoes,” and “possum.”

One day, as his frustrations were mounting over delays in opening Indigo, Rhodes sat down in front of his laptop to watch videos from the MAD Symposium, a TED-style ideas conference focusing on food that had been organized by the Danish superstar chef René Redzepi. At first, Rhodes wasn’t particularly captivated. “It was all white people,” he said. Then he clicked on a video titled “Confronting Culinary Injustice.” The speaker was Michael Twitty—a self-described “large of body, gay, African American, and Jewish” culinary historian—who spoke from the stage wearing a loose-fitting button-down and a yarmulke.

Twitty told the audience in Copenhagen about his “Southern Discomfort Tour” (instead of comfort food, it’s “discomfort food,” he said), during which he traveled to former plantations, dressed up in nineteenth-century attire, and gave demonstrations of how enslaved people cooked heritage dishes like okra soup and cornbread hash over fire pits.

Twitty said his work wasn’t purely about academic inquiry and historical revisionism. He thought that these stories could help transform the futures of “young people today of all walks of life, but especially those living in food deserts who are children of color who have no sense of where they come from.” He wanted culinary justice, he said, and for him that meant that black and brown people would have “access to the land, traditional ecosystems, resources, clean water, and legal protections, by which they can grow the heirlooms and heritage-breed animals of their ancestors.”

Twitty said culinary professionals could play a key role in this. “The chef must not only act with ecological integrity,” Twitty continued, “but with ethnographic and historical respect coupled with contemporary awareness and a sense of urgency.”

Watching on his computer screen, Rhodes was captivated. Twitty was saying many of the things he had already been thinking. Rhodes wanted to be speaking to rooms like that, too.

“I said, ‘Damn, that’s what I want to do. I don’t want to cook anymore,’” Rhodes said. “I was really passionate about food, but opening the restaurant wasn’t working for me.”

Rhodes thought about it, then had another revelation. “It occurred to me I could do both.”

Rhodes wasn’t the only young black chef thinking along these lines. In Washington, D.C., Kwame Onwuachi won the 2019 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef of the Year for leading a restaurant, Kith and Kin, with a menu inspired by the African diaspora. The Ghanaian American chef Eric Adjepong had won a spot as a finalist on Bravo’s Top Chef, then took advantage of his cable-television platform to craft a four-course menu for the judges that endeavored to tell the “story of the transatlantic slave trade, from Africa through Caribbean ports, the American South and South America.” The Nigerian-born chef Tunde Wey has staged meals around the country highlighting the racial wealth disparity, and opened a lunch stall in New Orleans where he asked white patrons to pay two-and-a-half times more for their food than black patrons.

Earlier this year, Rhodes began corresponding with culinary historian Adrian Miller, who is best known for his James Beard Award–winning book Soul Food. “We’re scheming how to make African American foodways, especially the African part of it, more recognized and accepted,” Miller told me.

At Indigo, Rhodes isn’t delivering historical trivia; he’s making a historical argument, and at times, he departs from widely agreed upon facts into more speculative, more metaphorical, and more personal assessments. Take Rhodes’s assertion that Frederick Douglass’s grandmother buried sweet potatoes to “stay ready and be combative” against food withholding. That isn’t something Douglass explicitly states in any of his three autobiographies. Instead, Douglass talks about both enforced malnourishment on the plantation—“I have often been so pinched with hunger, that I have fought with the dog—‘Old Nep’—for the smallest crumbs that fell from the kitchen table”—and separately describes his Grandmother Betty’s habit of burying sweet potatoes “under the hearth of her cabin during the winter months” to keep them “beyond the reach of frost.” Rhodes is the one who connects those dots. (Chism told me that Rhodes’s “interpretation and deduction is logical.”) Sometimes, Rhodes veers further from the historical record.

What the Slaves Ate Indigo Houston
What the Slaves Ate sitting atop a cabinet at Indigo.Photograph by John Davidson

At the dinner I attended at Indigo, Rhodes credited the origin of the candied yam to enslaved people who added the sugar to the sweet potato to make it “taste like the yam.” This isn’t supported by the current scholarship (Miller told me his research showed the candying of yams possibly came from French cooks teaching the method to their enslaved apprentices in the American South), and doesn’t make sense botanically (sweet potatoes already are more sugary than yams), but it works as poetry: African Americans were trying to reclaim a sweeter life and land that was lost. When I asked Rhodes about where he’d heard his version of the candied yam origin story, he told me it was “a folktale, something I grew up hearing.” All of Rhodes’s stories—the easily verifiable, the interpretive, and those that depart into realms of oral tradition and myth—hewed closely to a common theme. Like Twitty, he saw African Americans as the rightful heirs to a proud history of survival and resistance, and through his cooking and his words, he hoped to do his part to reclaim it.

“I think the passion really, really comes through,” Yu told me. “He’s always had something to say, whether you agree with it or not.”

Most diners seemed to love Indigo and see the value in Rhodes’s mission, but the dissenters on websites like Yelp and Reddit were vocal. Some of the complaints were standard-fare restaurant gripes—slow service, upcharges for add-on courses—but a few times, commenters had cast aspersions on the neighborhood, and Rhodes had publicly bristled. In May, one diner had written an online review that remarked on seeing Northline locals who “could have been drug addicts or gang members” staring in the window during dinner. Rhodes posted the screenshots to Indigo’s Instagram account and addressed the complaint. “Was it the color of their skin that challenged your privilege, causing you to feel this way?” he wrote. (The post got more than eight hundred likes.)

Rhodes knows that Indigo isn’t going to win over everyone. “This place is weird; it’s not a finished product,” he told me. Indeed, on the night I ate there, the service really did start late, and a few diners were confused about an add-on course. Rhodes told me that lately he’d stopped speaking mid-meal, coming out to talk with diners only after dessert was served. It was easier to get the timing right in the kitchen if the chef wasn’t leaving to deliver lectures with impromptu Q&As, and Rhodes seemed eager to let more of the dishes speak for themselves. But Indigo wasn’t likely to become Gramercy Tavern any time soon. The restaurant’s idiosyncrasies and rough edges gave it its particular energy. Even the exacting Yu told me that after visiting Indigo, he’d come away impressed.

“I think the passion really, really comes through,” he told me. “He’s always had something to say, whether you agree with it or not.”

Jonny Rhodes Indigo Houston
Rhodes plating the “Commodity of Experience,” a dry-aged, black-onion-marinated grilled venison shawarma paired with ashcake. Photograph by Trevor Paulhus

Rhodes has never considered his restaurant to be the culmination of his ambitions. Months after opening, he was already referring to Indigo as a “stepping-stone,” and when I spoke to other chefs about Rhodes, they were trying to game out his next moves. “In this business there are a lot of ups and downs and waves of success,” Anthony, Rhodes’s old Gramercy Tavern boss, said. “Someone like that, the question is ‘It’s exciting what they’re doing, but what are they going to do next?’ ”

The smell of spiced goat roasting on a spit wafted across Berry Road. Music blasted through the garden. Jambalaya sizzled in a giant paella pan. It was early fall, but the weather still felt like August. In the side garden, a few elegantly dressed older African American women admired Rhodes’s vegetables. The culinary director of Recipe for Success, a nonprofit that fights childhood obesity, greeted a group of chefs. One of Rhodes’s culinary-school teachers stopped by to say hi and see his space. Other guests lounged in fold-out chairs, eating from disposable bowls. In the parking lot, even more people milled about, cups of vodka-spiked fruit punch in hand.

This was the finale of the Food Apartheid Dinner Series, a four-night pop-up that Rhodes had organized with three other African American chefs: Chris Williams of Lucille’s, Dawn Burrell of Kulture, and Dominick Lee of Poitín. Three of the nights had been ticketed affairs, and the money from all of them had been used for the free, open-to-the-public block party and food giveaway now underway.

Rhodes was acting as host, hugging friends, fielding job requests from neighborhood teens, joking around with a group of older men whom he’d met a few weeks earlier at Indigo’s first-ever domino tournament. Chana was inside, watching Elijah-Jerreau as he pushed around a Nerf car set. Athena was playing with a group of girls her age. Rhodes loved what he was seeing. “We want everyone from all different walks of life,” he said. “It creates opportunities, creates understanding.”

Inside Indigo, one hundred boxes of organic produce—red okra, heirloom corn, peaches, and peppers—along with vacuum packs of Gulf shrimp, had been piled on the countertop, and a steady stream of locals, many of them from the adjacent Oxford Place Apartments, came by to pick them up. Before sunset, all the boxes—1,400 pounds of food in total—were gone.

“It only took an hour to give out all this food, and that was for one to two blocks,” Lee said, standing in the parking lot. “Imagine how much we’d need for three blocks.”

Many of the people who’d gotten boxes stuck around, and greeting nearly all of them was Edwin Williams, Indigo’s dishwasher, a beanstalk of a man with a pharaoh’s goatee, who goes by Slim.

Williams had lived in the Oxford Place Apartments for eight years, and he’d been key to bringing out the crowds. He’d hung fliers for the party all around the complex and encouraged friends to attend. “Everyone knows Slim,” was a common refrain when I asked people how they’d heard about the event. Williams had been part of Indigo since the beginning. He’d built the raised beds in the garden. When Indigo opened, he’d gotten a job as a dishwasher.

Williams told me the last year hadn’t been easy. He’d had personal issues he needed to take care of and had stopped working for a time. But he was doing better now and he’d been back at work for three weeks. In the interim, other guys from the neighborhood had filled in, but none of them had lasted long. “A lot of dishwashers been through here,” Williams told me. “Jonny’s firm with people, but he never fired anybody. They fired themselves.”

When Rhodes opened Indigo, he’d hoped to hire a number of staffers from the neighborhood, but other than Williams, he hadn’t found anyone who’d stuck. No one had experience working in fine-dining kitchens, some people just wanted to make some cash for a few days to get back on their feet, and Rhodes had found that “the closer you live to work, the later you get there.” The chef was still trying to find a balance between his two ambitions. He needed a crackerjack staff—and he’d finally found a consistent lineup—if Indigo was going to live up to Rhodes’s lofty expectations. (“We want to get to a level of cooking and complexity where we’re forcing the hand of the Michelin guy to want to come to Houston,” he told me. “The first restaurant in Texas to have a Michelin star—it has a good ring to me.”) But he needed to do more than run a critically acclaimed restaurant if he wanted to help combat food apartheid. Rhodes told me that his restaurant, as currently constructed, was “just paying homage” to the community. Williams was his only local employee, and the restaurant’s $125 tasting menu wasn’t directly feeding anyone who lived across the street in subsidized housing.

Rhodes wants to change that, and he sees a clear path forward. He wants to buy the entire building on Berry Road. He wants to convert the convenience store into a full-fledged natural grocery selling his own preserves and pastes and smoked meats and serving more affordable meals at an in-store restaurant. He wants to start a farm to grow food directly for the community, so everyone can cook fresh, local produce at home. He imagines an entire alternate food system—black-owned, community-based, agriculture-focused—that would be at the epicenter of a revival of underserved neighborhoods like his own. In October, Rhodes committed his family to the project, moving from Humble to a house near his grandmother, just off Jensen Drive, the place he’d once yearned to leave.

These ideas were typical Rhodes—ambitious and carefully planned, if a tad quixotic. Indigo had seemed that way too, and look where it was now.

As the crowd at the Food Apartheid block party hung out in front of Indigo with their boxes of produce and shrimp, darkness set in, and the fluorescent lights bathed the parking lot in a white glow, and somewhere, maybe, a hot rod growled off in the distance.

Rhodes said good-night, and one hundred people, red okra and Gulf shrimp in hand, went home to cook.

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Stand the Heat.” Subscribe today.


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