When Jonny Rhodes, Eater Houston’s 2018 Chef of the Year, announced that he would open his ‘neo-soul food’ restaurant Indigo, no one knew quite what to expect. At the time, Rhodes promised that he would use his Lindale Park restaurant to address stereotypes surrounding African-Americans and the cuisines of the African diaspora. Now, he’s quietly plotting an agricultural revolution.
The success of Indigo, which has earned Rhodes national attention and local adoration, is something that even he was surprised by. “I was just trying to cook the best that I can,” Rhodes says. “I didn’t have a real goal as far as what I expected. I will say that the most common thing I hear is that people are surprised that I’m only 28 years old. Another thing that’s surprising people is that we came into the neighborhood that we’re in. They say that we could have been anywhere, maybe in River Oaks or on Westheimer, and they’re curious why we ended up where we did.”
The restaurant’s small, unassuming space next door to a bodega isn’t accidental. Rhodes calls the neighborhood home, and was raised in the area. Since debuting his restaurant, he’s slowly but surely earned the attention of the neighborhood he seeks to transform. “The community is taking notice of us,” he says. “They see us growing things by hand and putting effort and time into what we’re doing. It’s making other people in the community feel like they can do the same.” Rhodes sees Indigo as a community hub of sorts, where he can encourage growth, share knowledge, and ultimately, inspire a broad range of people to grow their own food and pursue economic independence.
Even small projects, like a recent reconstruction of the restaurant’s fence, have created major ripples. “We just finished rebuilding our entire back fence, and we had some kids in the neighborhood come hang out and watch us do this so they could get an idea of some woodwork and just be able to use their hands,” Rhodes says. “The end result of that was that they ended up sticking around and helping us paint the entire fence.”
But Houstonians who have heard the hype about Indigo, who make the drive out of their own neighborhoods to Rhodes’s, sometimes make negative assumptions about the community surrounding the restaurant. “It’s not even that far of a drive; everything in Houston is a commute,” Rhodes says. “Some people have taken issue with our community. They automatically assume that this is a ‘bad’ part of town, when it’s really not. People have a really hard time challenging their privilege, and we want them to recognize that we are at least here. Our community is no better or worse than any other community, no less or more violent or dangerous than any other.”
It’s these assumptions that Rhodes seeks to challenge at Indigo, and not just with the food. When dining at the restaurant, each course is paired with an educational moment, with Rhodes explaining the dish’s connection to issues like slavery, mass incarceration, and economic liberation. Sometimes the chef hears pushback from diners who may disagree with his factual assessments of history and the present, but as Rhodes says, “you can walk a horse to the water, but you can’t make him drink.” Generally, though, the conversations that he’s having with people who are sitting around that u-shaped bar at Indigo have been productive, and occasionally transformative.
“Us talking about food and social justice is a powerful conversation,” Rhodes says. “It’s not a one-way conversation, and there are moments where people are telling me that they understand, and asking how to fix these problems and how to avoid things like buying vegetables that are grown on prison plantations,” Rhodes says. “I don’t necessarily know the answer to that question, but it’s something that we can all work on together. These are big moments, for me and guests alike, and that conversation all started with squash.”
As the restaurant settles in, Rhodes has big plans for the future of Indigo. He’s recently hired some staff to help in the kitchen, including a pastry chef that will oversee the restaurant’s forthcoming bread selection. In the long-term, though, Rhodes has much bigger plans: he wants to reinvigorate his community’s interest in agriculture, especially backyard vegetable gardens. “Our goal is to eventually be in 100 percent control of our food,” Rhodes says. “We want to grow it ourselves, sell it ourselves, and buy from ourselves. Being the consumer and creator of your own product is very important to us.”
Eventually, he’d like to see his entire community transform into a place where background gardens are as common as they used to be. He’s hoping his own garden, recently rebuilt and seeded with okra, tomatoes, cabbages, collard greens, and a few different varieties of corn, will serve as a point of inspiration. “I am trying to convince everyone to grow on their own so we can create our own economic future,” Rhodes says. “We want to create a black agricultural economy, that’s the long-term plan.”
He’s also intently focused on adjusting the perception of soul food in America. “There’s a price tag attached to soul food, and it’s different than the price tag attached to Euro-centric cuisines like those from France and Italy,” Rhodes says. “That price tag is based on who the people are creating the food, and what they look like. We have to show people the value of our cuisine and our culture, and our community can see that in our restaurant. It’s one of the most expensive per-person places to dine in the city. It allows our people to see value in themselves and our culture.”
As he tackles these lofty goals, Rhodes says that he’s simply “riding the wave,” and allowing people in his community to come to him. Over the next several months, Rhodes has big plans for introducing his restaurant to the community, including a massive cook-out and an upcoming dominoes tournament. He’ll reinvest the proceeds from these upcoming parties directly into his neighborhood, and hopefully, start some important conversations about what comes next. “That’s something we don’t do enough. We talk online and we text, but we don’t talk to people face-to-face about the issues that we’re facing,” he says. “I am finally seeing that growth. More people are coming around and asking questions. When people are asking questions, that means that they’ve got ideas.”
This is the second in a monthly series of features on Eater Houston’s 2018 Eater Awards Winners. Stay tuned in March for the next installment.