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Chef Monica Pope Goes to Jail (Okay, Not Really)

But that's the status update that more or less freaked out half of the Houston food community when they saw it posted on her Facebook wall earlier today:

Thought I'd send the lunch menu from jail (long story, blame the health dept) but I'm free! Fri lunch will be yum

The celebrity chef and owner of popular restaurants t'afia and Beaver's -- who most recently appeared on the Food Network's Top Chef Masters -- is well known as a rogue, but for pioneering the locavore movement here in Houston and being one of the city's most vociferous female chefs, not for skirting the law.

I called t'afia partner Andrea Lazar at first to get the whole story, on the off chance that Pope wouldn't be in the talking mood or -- worse -- was actually incarcerated, but Lazar replied with a sardonic, "She didn't actually get arrested."

So I called Pope and spoke to her about this most recent brush with the law -- it's not her first, as it turns out -- and she sounded downright giddy about the adventure.

"It's just one of those things that you're like, 'How does this stuff happen?'" she said on the phone.

What happened is that a citation issued back in March from the City of Houston Health Department for a very routine, very banal ordinance violation had turned into a full-blown citation.

"It all happened around Top Chef Masters and I asked one of my employees to take care of something, but he didn't finish it. And then I get this charge -- a $500 ticket and a possible felony," Pope explained, sounding a bit incredulous.

Down at the courthouse and down on her luck, Pope found a silver lining in the lawyer who'd been assigned to her case. "My lawyer, she knew of me and she'd been [to t'afia]," she said. The lawyer, who'd recently celebrated her birthday dinner at the restaurant, was as excited to meet Pope as Pope was to find a friendly face. "A lot of people know me, so that's nice," she laughed.

As to the citation, ticket and possible felony charge, all were taken care of and dismissed. But Pope was annoyed that it even got that far. "It's happened before with the TABC," said Pope. "I've been in business for 20 years. I pay my bills and take care of my permits, you know. I understand it's serious and that it's a big deal, but, you know...it's me! You know where I live and work!"

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"But it's a wakeup call," she admitted. "I have all my permits now and I'm ready to pay my fine, but I was sitting there in the courtroom reliving all these bad cop shows and afraid of rubbing the judge the wrong way and getting sent to jail."

It wouldn't have been the first time she was threatened with incarceration, as Pope recounted a tale about almost getting arrested at the Gay Pride Parade. She jumped a curb in her car in an effort to get to the float she was supposed to be manning that evening after being blocked by a cop who was indifferent to her requests for guidance and help; the curb-jumping made the cop pay attention, albeit in the wrong way. "This is making me look like a real baddie. I have a bit of an attitude," she laughs.

But despite the jovial attitude, she takes the restaurant citation very seriously. "This isn't good for customers to see, for my staff to see, to have to deal with," she said. "I'm just glad it worked out."

As to that Facebook status update? "I was just trying to write my lunch menu and text my orders in," laughs Pope.

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