A Plan for Food Justice
Lots of chefs want to make their mark in the kitchen. Jonny Rhodes, on the other hand, is ready to make a difference in the world.
Anne McCready Heinen
Jonny Rhodes is a 31-year-old Houstonian and a James Beard Award semifinalist who is focused on ending food apartheid—the systemic lack of healthy, affordable, high-quality food in low-income areas. Rhodes’s Broham Fine Soul Foods and Groceries—slated to open in 2023 at East River in Houston—will play a key role in that mission for the young chef who first made headlines and won recognition with his innovative Restaurant Indigo in Houston’s Lindale Park neighborhood.
“One of the reasons I want to be involved in this (East River) project is that it’s way too close to home to allow someone who doesn’t understand or care about the community to step in,” Rhodes says. “I’m from the area and understand all the uphill battles. Our intentions are genuine.”
While they work toward the opening, Rhodes and his team have unveiled BrohamGrocers.com, which features many of the chef’s products that will be carried at the store such as Curry Canary Mustard, Carolina Heritage Brown Mustard, Spicy Caribbean Sweet Chili Garlic, and Lemon Preserves. The site also provides opportunities to support Rhodes’s endeavor that includes Food Fight Farms, a seven-acre Cleveland, TX, farm where much of the store’s produce will be grown. The site also includes a production facility for prepared products.
“The East River store will be a flagship for us,” Rhodes says. “It’ll give us visibility and a consistently high stream of income that will allow us the ability to move freely and affect our community more directly.”
A culinary school grad and Marine veteran who did stints as a line cook in renowned restaurants Oxheart in Houston and Gramercy Tavern in New York, Rhodes intentionally opened Restaurant Indigo in Lindale Park, a mostly Black and Latino Houston neighborhood near where he grew up in Trinity Gardens. Both are up the road from the East River development in the historically impoverished Fifth Ward.
When creating Restaurant Indigo, Rhodes brought together his insights and experiences as a Black native Houstonian as well as time spent with a Nigerian family when he was growing up. He also linked African American history studies that he pursued at University of Houston–Downtown. The neo-soul menu hit culinary highs and illuminated the social conditions and oppression behind the culinary tradition, all while highlighting its inherent creativity and amazing flavors.
Restaurant Indigo offered two prix-fixe seatings a night where dishes reflected African American foodways and ingredients, many locally sourced. On the menu were offerings such as brassicaceae greens braised in slabber sauce with vegetable ham, and dry-aged, black-onion marinated grilled venison shawarma with ashcake. Desserts included an avocado parfait with dark chocolate, and preserved candy yam semifreddo with kettle-cooked molasses, pecans, and toasted marshmallow.
Dishes carried provocative names like “Assimilation is Not Freedom,” and Rhodes would enter the intimate dining room mid-meal to share knowledge about African American history, foodways, and agricultural oppression, or the ways enslaved and impoverished people used ingenuity to create delicious foods from hunting, fishing, growing food, and leftovers, despite lack of land ownership. Elements of this social justice and history education will continue in the store.
Over time, Rhodes’s focus shifted. “I could have kept my mouth shut and just kept cooking and making money on that (Restaurant Indigo) concept,” Rhodes says. “But when I look at what brings fulfillment to my life and family name, I never wanted to build off vanity.”
“But when I look at what brings fulfillment to my life and family name, I never wanted to build off vanity.”
As the pandemic set in, Rhodes pivoted to offering groceries and fresh produce, first the restaurant, and later, down the street at the first location of Broham Fine Soul Foods and Groceries. Both the restaurant and the original Broham Grocers are closed now, allowing Rhodes to focus fully on the development of Food Fight Farms, product production, and plans for the East River store that bears an evocative name: Broham is a term of endearment among Black men, while Rhodes uses the “fine soul food” to elevate the cuisine and give it the respect it deserves.
At East River, Broham’s 4,000-square-foot space will offer fresh produce grown at Food Fight Farms such as strawberries, peas, sweet potatoes, onions, carrots, collard greens, and even coffee, alongside locally sourced meat, bread, pastries, cheese, and more. Shelves will hold products produced at the farm such as cornbread muffins, chicken rosemary breakfast sausage, yam skin molasses, okra seed oil, Carolina gold rice ice cream, and yellow barbecue sauce.
A membership program will let customers support the Broham and Food Fights mission while reaping perks like tours of the farm. “We want to offer people transparency, and to let you see where your food is coming from,” Rhodes says. Key to store operation will be accepting all forms of payment, including food stamps, cash, and credit cards. While details such as decor are still in the works, Rhodes says the store won’t include a restaurant.
Meanwhile, Rhodes keeps racking up accolades, including his 2022 inclusion among Business Journal’s Texas 100 people who are movers and shakers in the state. But his aspirations are linked to ending food apartheid, not the latest ranking.
“These problems didn’t start today and they’re not going to end tomorrow,” Rhodes says. “But it’s easier to pass the torch when it’s lit and hot.” (Opening in 2023 at East River.)