Stories / Beard House

Why This Chef Wants You to Be Uncomfortable

Jonny Rhodes's menu is inspired by soul food, and served with a lesson in food apartheid

Jackie Summers

August 15, 2019

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Jonny Rhodes headshot photo Caroline Fontenot
Photo: Caroline Fontenot

When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Jackie Summers explores 2019 JBF Rising Star chef semifinalist Jonny Rhodes's culinary goals, and how his work at Houston hot spot Indigo is delighting diners' taste buds while challenging their conceptions of race, American history, and the development of soul food. Next week, Rhodes is bringing the Indigo experience north for his debut dinner at the Beard House.

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Chef Jonny Rhodes is vexed.

The fact that his flight is delayed is coincidental. The former Marine is en route to Haiti; his first trip out of the country as a civilian. What consumes Rhodes’s thoughts today (and most days) isn’t added time in an airport—it’s the food apartheid that plagues communities of color across the Americas.

Understanding the connection between food-based poverty in Haiti and his hometown of Houston, Texas is Rhodes’s personal Gordian knot. “Haiti is a black country. The entire government is black,” says Rhodes, “yet food inequality is still rampant. I need to go see for myself, to get a deeper understanding. Why do people of African descent suffer across the Americas? How do I solve this Rubik’s cube, at home and abroad?”

The answers Rhodes seeks are nuanced and complex. What is clear to this award-winning chef is that the food chain–related issues that black and brown people everywhere experience actually mirror the solutions. He sees threads connecting not just cities within the United States, but also stretching down to the communities of the Caribbean and South America. “Soul food is Haitian food, is Puerto Rican food, is food from the Carolinas. The struggles and solutions are the same,” he explains.

Unlike most celebrity chefs, Rhodes (who was named 2018 Eater Houston's “chef of the year”) is actively leveraging his newfound prestige on behalf of what he views as his worldwide community. “Why doesn’t the world care about Haiti?” he asks. “The world doesn’t care about black people,” he responds, answering his own question. “Houston, Harlem, Detroit, the Philippines, Palestine, the Aboriginals of Australia: there are ‘Haitis’ all over the world.”
    
Rhodes’s Houston restaurant Indigo (named one of the top 10 eateries in the nation by Food & Wine) serves as a platform to advance the chef’s life mission of changing who has access to food, and who controls the supply. Each of the five courses of his tasting menu (served twice nightly) comes with a talk about the conditions that freed African slaves faced, and how that birthed what we have come to know (and love) as soul food. “We confront everyone we feed,” he says. “I am proud to say I make people uncomfortable. Freedom isn’t supposed to be easy. These conversations are necessary if we’re going to have an egalitarian society.”

Rhodes welcomes naysayers and critics. “People who don’t want to have [these conversations] don’t realize how destructive that is to their own well being,” he argues. “Your lack of empathy for others now can lead to a lack of empathy for you later.”

Rhodes already has plans in motion to open a new venue in 2020, conceptually different from his flagship. If his first restaurant was for the feeding and edification of his patrons, his new restaurant will be for the benefit of his community. He will continue to serve Afrocentric food, albeit without the accompanying narratives dished out at Indigo. “We will still use food to tell stories, but this will not be fine dining. It will be a place where the impoverished can come get a good, inexpensive meal. The stories of what we do will adorn the walls,” says Rhodes. “The food will speak for itself.”

Rhodes’s long-term goals are as ambitious as they are disruptive. “I would like to see no one ever pay for food again,” he says—strange words from a burgeoning restaurant magnate. How does one succeed if your goal isn’t to make money? “Success is an opinion,” says Rhodes. “How do you define success? Happiness? Accolades? Capitalism is the original opioid. As long as I have the means to pay my employees and treat them fairly, I’m succeeding. Capitalist problems have social solutions, and that usually means self-sacrifice.”

The chef’s altruism is born out of a sense of obligation to community. “You have to love people more than they love you; personal endeavors are secondary. I haven’t paid myself since we opened [Indigo]. I’m not taking vacations or engaging in random consumerism,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be a millionaire, but if the people around me have access to things they might not otherwise, what else can I ask for? I want to see everyday people know how to grow and prepare their own food.”

With his first James Beard House dinner rapidly approaching, Rhodes is excited. “I’m super competitive,” he says. “When they give just one person the kitchen, that’s high praise. That comes with responsibility. I’m doing something different—vegetarian soul food, [or] how African Americans would eat if we’d received reparations. [African Americans] were promised 40 acres,” he continues, “a promise that was never fulfilled. But look at Haiti. As much as we get riled up about race, class is always part of the [bigger] picture. We can’t get loans to purchase land, but what would we do if we could? Can we farm? Can we cook? Or have we lost those skills? If we had our own republic, what would we do? Haiti has this; they have the land and the farmers, but their plight hasn’t changed. It’s time to stop trying to get a seat at a table where they keep changing the tablecloth. It’s time for collective sacrifice. We’re due for a change.”

Get tickets to Jonny Rhodes's dinner at the Beard House.

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Jackie Summers is the founder of JackFromBrooklyn Inc., creator of Sorel Liqueur, a food/travel writer based in Brooklyn, and a public speaker on all things anti-oppression.