Chef Chat: Monica Pope of t'afia

Arguably the most admired chef in Houston and probably the most lauded in the past decade, the ubiquitous Monica Pope runs t'afia restaurant (3701 Travis Street), hosts the Midtown Farmers Market every Saturday morning, presides at Beaver's, and teaches weekly classes at the Green Plum Cooking School. As this interview shows, locavore messiah Monica Pope is a chef on fire.

Where did you first come across the term "t'afia?" I saw it in a Michel Bras cookbook. It's an infused wine but also a celebratory toast--and we were already making infused liquors at Boulevard Bistrot. I liked that it was short and used a "t" sound.

Do you often read food lit? Oh, yeah! I was reading [Alice Water's] The Art of Simple Food during Ike. I know all the stuff in there, but it was good to read that I knew it. And it gave me ideas about how to talk about simple cooking in classes.

What led you to a cooking career? My mother's mother upheld the family cooking traditions, mostly Czech food, but after raising 13 siblings, plus her own kids, she was tired and wanted to go to KFC. Grandkids who showed an interest could get a sense from her of how to cook well. As a teenager, I worked with my grandmother for two summers, and later I started cooking for the art collectors who gathered at my parents' house. In the summer of '82, I worked in the kitchen at Café Annie. My employment at my dad's law office lasted two days, and that was two days too many. He would agree. I traveled in Europe and California for ten years, but I always knew I'd come back to Houston and open a restaurant.

What did you like about cooking? Being with people. It was too easy for me to isolate myself, and kitchen experience brought me out of my shell. I was thrown into a group I may not have chosen, but I understood cooking to be all about interacting, even though it can be extremely stressful.

How do you feel about restaurants that fly in fresh ingredients from other time zones? Does that violate the spirit of your food philosophy? I get that. Our mantra is "Eat where your food lives." The first step is always to support the local community, but I set myself up. People complained when we served Tasmanian salmon, so I put, "Okay, he walked here" on the menu. But I do push to invest into a life connected to where you are. If I have an opportunity to showcase a dish that can be made with ingredients in season, I believe I should start with local purveyors.

What influenced you to maintain t'afia's spare industrial look? I have a San Francisco attitude of less intensity, and I wanted a space that had not been a restaurant. t'afia is not a spectacular piece of architecture; it's an old carpet-cleaning facility, but artists love it. I was concerned about the way the bare bricks and windows looked, but the bricks were polished and we covered the windows with metal blinds. The space from the bar back is basically new construction. Even though Boulevard Bistrot was a more traditional space, we were able to maintain and add to our customer base.

You're writing a book called Eating Hope. Could you explain the title? I read a line, something like "Careful, you could starve from eating hope." I was hoping I could make a change in Houston, but sometimes I question if I'll ever be nourished. I'm not sure this community is ready for a complete change. I wish we could build back what we once had--markets everywhere. We just eat a lot of processed food and people are overweight, sick, miserable and sad, not knowing what to be connected to. Right now the book reads sweet, funny and bitter and resentful. Sometimes I look at people and think, What the fuck are you doing eating in your car? But I don't want the book to be bitter. There are now [farmers'] markets, you just have to find them. I have a great life here--and it's not about money. Houston is filled with diverse cultures, and I can borrow from all of them. I'm a Houston chef who cooks Houston food.

Have you made any mistakes in your career? I've made a lot of mistakes. Maybe I would do similar things without being labeled in a certain way. I would focus more on enjoyment rather than a call to arms. I've faced an uphill battle in my own mind, and I haven't always remembered to please myself first.

Has being a woman chef been an issue? Women are evaluated completely differently, and that has been blatant in my career. There's been a lot of "let's put her on a pedestal then string her up." Sometimes reporters or reviewers want to give credit to some guy they believe is in the kitchen. Alice Waters has had the same issue. Guys--and it usually is men--want to minimize her influence on the food. You can tell me my food is crap, but don't say it's not mine. These attitudes are just the reality. No one can tell me it's not. What's your favorite recipe in The Art of Simple Food? Long-cooked broccoli. It goes totally against a chef's nature and made me uneasy, but I love it. It's cooked an hour with red chili, lemon juice, salt and pepper. That's it. Some woman in my class said, "Won't that destroy the nutrients?" and I thought, Fuck the nutrients--this is fantastic! It's like making a soup--so nourishing and wonderful. You can cook turnips this way and you just smash them; you become part of this physical act. There aren't many steps. You get to just smash it and eat it. Some good old boy came to five classes, then followed me around to tell me, "I really like vegetables." He didn't know fresh vegetables could be that good. These things are not technically involved. You just have to peel and chop, and you always come up with something good.

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