fD Interview

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fD Interview: Monica Pope on Eating Where Her Food Lives

May 25, 2008
by Isabel Cowles
FindingDulcinea’s new feature interviews intriguing people on the cutting edge of business, the arts, technology and journalism. This week, we talk with Houston chef Monica Pope about locally inspired cuisine, her vision for the “Great American Restaurant,” her aspirations for the mushroom, and why she loves to challenge the press.

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Monica Pope lives to cook. She began by watching her Czech grandmother bake pastries. She made money in college as a line chef, and traveled across Europe and the United States discovering the potential of fresh, simply prepared cuisine.

Pope returned to her hometown of Houston, Texas, more than a decade ago, and set out to revolutionize Houston food culture by focusing on local ingredients. According to Pope’s Web site, “It is ironic that, as a chef, I have spent my career cooking with as many local and organic ingredients as I can find in a place that is called the ‘Chemical Coast.’” Her restaurant, T’afia, hosts a Saturday farmers market and offers a menu that changes daily, depending on what local produce is available.
fD: Your grandmother was Czech and a very good cook. What were some of the things she taught you?
 
MP: I spent two summers with my grandmother when I was in high school trying to get stories. I wanted to connect with my family’s background, but there just was not a lot of information. And I thought, “OK, this food…this is about it.” When I was with her, I realized that food was a way to carry on a family tradition. I thought that was really special. 

fD: Did you cook in college?

MP: I always worked in a kitchen; I’ve never done anything else. But I wasn’t always comfortable in the kitchen. Back then, even though it was starting to become a kind of sexy career, it was still quite hard, especially for women. For about ten years, I was pretty miserable.
fD: How did you get through that difficult time in your life?

MP: I always had a vision. It was totally single minded. At the time everybody was talking about the “Great American Novel.” I was thinking of doing “The Great American Restaurant.” I didn’t think I had anything to say as a writer, or anything to paint as an artist, but I did feel like I could communicate with food.

fD: Was there a single moment when you knew you wanted to open a restaurant?
MP: I told somebody once that I was thinking of opening a place and featuring local ingredients. They said, “Wow. You’re a real pioneer.” I didn’t even know how pioneering it was. I just decided: I’m going to change the way Houston eats, which has been challenging because Houston is already so full of such good, lusty food.

fD: What inspired you to work with local food?


MP:  When I went to places like Greece, and San Francisco I was amazed by how simple everything was—but so good. Now I ask myself, “How can I work with this perfect food and not screw it up?” But it’s not enough to be pretty and sustainable. I really want to knock somebody on the head and say, “Can you believe a mushroom can taste so good?”
fD: How do you make a mushroom taste so good?
 
MP: We have a relationship with the growers, and my cooks make everything with their hands. Also, you’ve got to eat where your food lives; because then, it’s alive.

fD: Do you ever think about cooking in another city?

MP: Not really. I always wanted to come back home. To me, it was about where I could make the most difference. Plus I like to rankle the press here, and keep asking them, “What’s the point of doing the same-old, same-old?”
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