Chef Monica Pope decided at a young age that she was going to change the way Houston eats, one dish at a time, and she hasn’t stopped since that early declaration. After tuning into an intuitive appreciation for fresh ingredients crafted into food meant to share around a dinner table, she launched her career in the kitchen of Café Annie (now RDG + Bar Annie). She then traveled through the U.S. and Europe, cooking her way through restaurants in Baltimore and San Francisco, and mastering her culinary chops at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Upon returning to Houston, she opened her first restaurant, The Quilted Toque, to critical acclaim in 1992 and became known as a pioneer for locally sourced ingredients.
She went on to compete on Season Two of Top Chef Masters and received a James Beard nomination (Best Chef: Southwest in 2007). Pope also oversaw a weekly farmers market field trip for adults around her now-shuttered restaurant, t’afia, and taught elementary school students how to “eat where your food lives.” She went on to publish a digital cookbook of the same name.
These days, she continues to craft honest cuisine made with pure, simple ingredients at her latest establishment, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop. She also teams up with integrative dietitian Ali Miller at the eatery to host a backyard Food-As-Medicine dinner series aimed at educating the public on how to reach optimal health using nourishing whole foods and eliminating problematic ingredients.
Pope sat down with Forbes Travel Guide to discuss her revolutionary return to real food, the lifestyle she’s built around her passionate beliefs and her hopes for Houston’s culinary future.
When did you first start cooking?
I swam all my childhood — two workouts a day, six days a week, 5:30 in the morning until 9 at night. Around my teenage years, my dinner was left in the microwave at 9 p.m. and all my siblings’ homework was done and they were watching TV. In fact, my sister (Maria) is now a TV producer, so that should tell you something!
So, I just, at some point, wanted to eat healthier. I was cooking for myself a little bit and, in hindsight, it was like, “Yes, I missed the dining table.” Not that my family was eating around the table while I was working out, but somewhere along the line, this generation lost the dining table. So, I started to cook for [my family] and do special parties and stuff, and cook healthier things for myself.
I went to go work with my grandmother and learn to do some Czechoslovakian baked things that were important to my family. It was just this connector of family and farming and food traditions that got me into even thinking [about cooking]. I had a couple Alice Waters cookbooks, Silver Palate [Cookbook] and Good Housekeeping [magazines]. [I was] thinking vaguely, “Who am I? Where do we come from? What do we do? What’s important? What’s missing?” Something already seemed to be missing. This was in the ’70s, in Southwest Houston.
So, something was missing that I felt with my grandmother and with my family. I was just determined to open a restaurant and change the way Houston eats. And I spent 10 years traveling the world and going to college and getting experience and cooking everywhere, always determined to go back to Houston at some point and open a restaurant, which I did.
Do you feel like you successfully changed the way Houston eats?
I think it’s awesome that there’s a ton of energy and excitement around what we do now locally. We’re connecting with it. If I look back at the last 21 years of owning restaurants, or the last 50 years of my life, Houston has changed. I was the odd one out 21 years ago, when I did my first restaurant. Nobody knew what it was or how to say it. “What are you talking about, this organic, local, melting pot stuff? Are you crazy?” That’s the place I was in. Now, fast-forward 21 years later. Farm to table? Yeah, we’re all doing it! We’ve had farmers markets for 10 years now and I was in that conversation. I have this restaurant now, Sparrow — the symbol of hope, freedom, global comfort food and local ingredients. People kind of get it now. There’s no question marks. There’s a lot of young chefs coming and doing their thing. Doing farm to table, or whatever they want to call it. They’re proud to be in Houston. Proud to be from Houston. Proud to be taken seriously now. We haven’t always been taken seriously.
What would you like to see more chefs doing?
There’s an elevation that I’d like to see when we’re going to just put out a beautiful local carrot and not have to do our little party tricks, like [say] “local carrots that taste like peanut butter and jelly!” Why are we all trying to taste some fast food, processed food thing that we knew as kids? That seems to be where this generation of chefs is at — here’s your mac and cheese and here’s your BLT and here’s your PB&J. And it’s just like, “I can get PB&J with PB&J.” Can this generation, can this century, just get real, local food that’s awesome? Or does it always have to taste like something that we had as a kid? I’m 51 and I know what I ate as a kid and, in retrospect, I’m excited about the real food that I didn’t experience back then! We can do the stuff we know in our lives but with real food. That’s why I do global comfort food with local ingredients, because I traveled the world and I love all these different cultures and different cuisines and I can express all of this with local ingredients. It doesn’t have to be a burger or mac and cheese or pizza or a quesadilla, you know? I get it. We can use that as a medium sometimes, but we really should make sure that the carrot gets to be expressed, the beet gets to be expressed. Don’t forget that it’s about this beautiful ingredient.
Can you talk a little bit about how you collaborate with your wife, designer Sara Eliason?
I met her a year to the day we got married, at Sparrow on November 15, 2013. She’s a designer but she turned to me — I think maybe even our first meeting [on November 15, 2012] — and she said, “You know, what you do with food is what I do with design.” And it was a shocking enough statement because nobody has ever said that to me. But I didn’t really understand until we were further along [in getting to know each other]. That’s what sparked me because it’s been my effort to connect with somebody that can connect all I do. It’s not just food; it’s not just any one thing. It’s our life and work and home and restaurants. Everything is connected and yet nobody came in and said, “We’re going to connect all this stuff.” I’ve been trying to connect it. I’ve been saying the words, “I want to connect my personal life to my professional life, my home to my restaurant to my backyard suppers,” and then she came in and just pulled it all together. [Now] she curates the look of our backyard suppers, our catering, our waiters’ uniforms, the materials in the restaurant, everything.
What do you foresee in Houston’s culinary future?
I don’t intentionally want to be ahead of the pack, but that’s how I’m wired. So, I’m already at this crux in the past three months where I’m like, “Oh, wait a minute. Here’s the work for me for the next 50 years.” It is always about change. Redefining something. The last 50 years was about defining something. What is the name? It’s “local.” It’s “organic.” It’s “sustainable.” It’s “farm to table.” It’s all the buzzwords that everyone’s thrown out there. We’re now interested in redefining all that, because people keep defining it in a small way, in a limited way. So, for us, it’s bringing it all together. We’re changing the perception of Houston. We’re changing the perception of the food scene. We’re changing the perception of every single thing you could do. It’s not just, “Come in here and eat local food.” It’s more like, “Change your whole life — all the materials around you; where you live; how you live; what you do; how you do it.” We’re now connected with people on the same level, whatever medium it is. It always starts with the food for us but, as Sara says, it’s the envelope. It can’t be a disconnect from what is really beautiful and wonderful and good about choosing local. It’s gotta taste good; it’s gotta be in a place that feels really good, and everyone’s going to feel it in the next 50 years.
Photo Courtesy of Monica Pope