The most ambitious chefs want their food to say something. They choose and assemble ingredients with the idea that the sum of those parts will do more than merely satisfy their diners’ hunger. Usually, the diners are left to interpret what that greater meaning may be, but at Houston tasting-menu restaurant Indigo the message is explicit: Oppression forces resilience, and in the case of African Americans and indigenous people, it has has inspired a definable cuisine.
Chef Jonny Rhodes opened Indigo with his wife, Chana Rhodes, in July as the permanent follow-up to a series of pop-ups he started after leaving New York’s Gramercy Tavern. At Indigo, Rhodes wants his food to tell stories centered on African Americans and indigenous people. He calls his cuisine “neo-soul food” and describes it as “the new wave of survival food for people of color.” He explains, “I consider soul food to be the food of the survivors of oppression. Neo-soul food is essentially the same thing, except for more modern times. For the people that are still currently undergoing oppression.”
The references to oppression and survival carry through the restaurant’s food and service. At two seatings, diners sit around a 13-seat, U-shaped counter. Over the course of the five-course tasting, Rhodes presents each dish and explains how the ingredients on the plate reflect the struggles faced by black and indigenous people in America. For example, along with a dish of malted magnolia-blossom ice cream with salted butterscotch, thyme, and peach-skin preserves, Rhodes discusses how peaches came to be associated with soul food, despite not originating in America or Africa. He calls the dish “Happiness and Hand-Me-Downs.”
Although neo-soul is a contemporary concept, Rhodes gets much of his culinary inspiration from the past — specifically, the African-American experience following the Civil War through the Great Depression anchors much of the menu. “There was no land to cultivate, no land to live off of, no lineage to create,” Rhodes says. “And because of that, a lot of people of color passed away due to malnutrition and due to starvation. But the people of color that did survive, they survived by canning. Preserving, particularly.”
Foods Rhodes preserved, often months ago, appear in every dish. Across the two set menus — omnivore and herbivore — Rhodes showcases various preservation techniques in pickled ramp ranch, smoked pastrami, pickled cauliflower, pickled gourds, peach-skin preserves, and fig confiture, to name a few. Other cooking techniques have significance; he uses a ceramic “crock pot” to braise foods because the tool was used by African slaves to soften the tough cuts of meat they were left with.
The language on the menu also makes direct reference to African-American history, and the soul-food-as-survival theme is evident in dishes like Affirmation of a Stereotype, a chilled watermelon “Kool-Aid” with fresh herbs and flowers, and Ten Toes Down, collard greens braised in slabber sauce, a flour, oil, and pepper mixture that was served on slave ships.
It’s not uncommon for black chefs in America to use their platforms to draw attention to historical food traditions — and the ways in which those traditions were shaped by slavery and the systematic oppression that followed. When Edouardo Jordan decided to cook Southern food at his award-winning Seattle restaurant JuneBaby, the context was important, so much so that Jordan launched the restaurant with an encyclopedia of Southern food terms. “I needed to represent where Southerners started from, and to educate people about the past, about what African slaves ate when they came here and how it influenced Southern cuisines,” he told Eater.
Last winter, chef/writer Tunde Wey launched a pop-up called Saartj to address the racial wealth gap. It was one in a series of pop-ups from Wey that use food to talk about race. At Saartj, the New Orleans-based Nigerian chef informed guests of the effects of the growing wealth disparity before presenting patrons with options: White customers could pay $12 for their Nigerian meal or the suggested price of $30 to account for the wealth gap; black customers were charged $12 for their food with the option to collect $18 paid by a white customer as a way to redistribute wealth.
Kwame Onwuachi also thought about the history of the Afro-Caribbean food he’s cooking at Kith and Kin in Washington, D.C. In fact, while doing research for his restaurant, he traced a relative’s ancestry back to the last slave ship that left the Wharf, the waterfront district where Kith and Kin is now located. But this kind of history is not something the diners at his 96-seat restaurant necessarily take away from the dining experience. “It’s not a narrative that we tell, or a spiel when dropping the food,” Onwuachi says. “A lot of people are there just to have a good time. They’re not there for a lecture. I don’t think it’s that kind of restaurant.”
At Indigo, Rhodes says that while he talks about how the food relates to oppression throughout dinner service, he’s careful not to assign blame to any one group of oppressors. “We make sure we talk directly about what’s going on and not necessarily who’s responsible for it… We don’t want to make it about anyone else other than the people that the food is about,” Rhodes says.
So far, Indigo has attracted a mix of people to Lindale Park in North Houston, and on Yelp, there’s clear appreciation for the history lesson the restaurant provides. “We’ve had people from all different ethnicities, all different backgrounds, also different budgets,” Rhodes says. “People that usually work with a higher budget, or people that typically will work with a lower budget.”
And yet, even as Rhodes welcomes any diner, Indigo isn’t really striving for universal accessibility. The five-course dinner costs nearly $80, and guests are asked to wear business-casual attire. This fact is only made more apparent by the restaurant’s location — in a low-income area of North Houston that Rhodes calls a food desert. But as with everything at Indigo, there’s a reason for this too.
Rhodes grew up in Lindale Park, and he wants his neighborhood to see that this cuisine, borne out of poverty, is worthy of a fine dining stage. “There’s a price point for what’s expected for food that’s made by or made from people of color,” Rhodes explains. “We wanted to make sure that we put a restaurant in our neighborhood, and though it may not necessarily be affordable for the people that live there, there’s also not enough grocery stores around where our restaurant is.” With Indigo nearby, Rhodes says, there is at least fresh produce in the neighborhood, and the restaurant gives it away to people in the neighborhood when they have more than they need. In doing so, Rhodes says he came across a 10-year-old who had only ever eaten peaches from cans — survival food.
When diners — and people in the neighborhood — visit Indigo, they’ll learn about where peaches come from. They’ll learn that indigenous Americans cooked collard greens first, and why ceramic “crock pots” were integral to African slaves’ cooking. “It makes it a lot easier to seduce someone to listen to what you have to say when you’re presenting it in a different way and a different format that makes it still digestible,” Rhode says, not intending the pun. “Like I said, we just didn’t want people to feel exiled or excluded or attacked. We wanted them to feel a part of this.”
Monica Burton is Eater’s associate restaurant editor.