Jamie Zelko is quick on the draw with Monica Pope.EXPAND
Jamie Zelko is quick on the draw with Monica Pope.
Photo by Kate McLean

Chef Chat: Story Time With Monica Pope and Jamie Zelko

You’ve probably heard of James Beard nominated Monica Pope (most recently T’afia, Sparrow Bar and Cookshop) or Jamie Zelko (Zelko Bistro, Heights Honey Bee Project, The Ivy & James), maybe eaten at their restaurants and perhaps even seen them on television a time or two.

These modern-day Amazon warriors continue to support and push the sustainable farm-to-table movement in Houston despite its challenges. They are also both advocates for the fight against the defunding of women's healthcare in America.  Over the years they have continued to reinvent themselves as projects end and new ones begin.

Being around Monica Pope is just kind of special. She knows the ups and downs of this industry well and is thoughtful in the way she articulates herself. Being around Jamie Zelko makes you want to start a neighborhood bike gang, road trip to Tanzania, or attempt any wild idea that might come up in conversation. Her energy is infectious and immediately gets your foot tapping, while you wonder…what is going to happen next?

Observing both interact with one another is a rare treat. One moves a million-miles-a-minute while the other is content to sit; two different speeds of brilliance.

On a chill Thursday afternoon, patio heater blazing, The Houston Press popped a bottle of Ferghettina Franciacorta and began pouring…

Jamie Zelko: It tastes like church wine. Doesn’t it taste like our Catholic school wine?

Monica Pope: I haven’t taken communion in (thinks)…

JZ: Maybe that’s your problem.

MP: That’s my problem? (voice raises, she sits up) That I haven’t been to church?

JZ: (casually continues to drink Pope’s wine) No. It’s not about going to church it’s just about receiving Eucharist.

MP: Stop drinking my fucking wine.

JZ: Monica.

HP: I’m going to sit in the middle now…

JZ: You’re going to be in the middle of Monica Pope and I? That is quite the sandwich. Monica, have some more wine, it’s a little early for me, I still have a couple more things I need to do [today]. But, you're right it does help me chill. Plenty for Monica.

MP: Is this sparkling Rosé?

JZ: Is it sparkling Shiraz?

HP: It’s Ferghettina Franciacorta. It has light bubbles, but they probably got knocked out.

MP: Frizzante, I think, is the term they use.

JZ: I think it’s sexy when you say stuff like that. Did you come up with that shit?

MP: I like Italian words.

JZ: You know, Monica Pope is notorious for verbiage. I’m like [thinking] that is not a fucking word but it sounds so great.

MP: (laughs)

JZ: (looks at the Houston Press) Ask your question…

HP: You’ve both adamantly fostered the farm-to-table movement, Monica you helped jump-start it in Houston, what’s the future of this movement look like to you?

JZ: Houston has taken a lot of hits. Seeing the farmers what they’ve gone through with the flooding. We are just going to keep on pioneering and touch every independent farmer we can. We give the farmers [our] bees and they have seen 350 percent more crop production. An example would be Gundermann farms.

MP: They lost everything.

JZ: We’re just going to keep on going. Pull up and dig and encourage people to grow their own food. Monica, she’s very big on, and me as well, knowing where your food comes from. It’s probably about 80 percent of our time as independent chefs is sourcing.

MP: It’s bullshit. It’s my turn.

JZ: (laughs) Are you calling all my stuff bullshit?

MP: I was kidding, although, I have to say everyone is still talking about this sustainability panel discussion I did at Butcher’s Ball. I was in a really bad place, [I] just went off the rails.

JZ: Do you want to name names Monica?

MP: I don’t, you can put two and two together but we started this [farm-to-table movement], not me, I didn’t start the first farmers market, I basically started the second one.

JZ: Midtown.

MP: Yeah, Midtown. After Houston Farmers Market. Anyway, I was given credit for starting Houston Farmer’s Market. The whole day [at The Butcher’s Ball] I told Kim [Korth] "I’m just warning you, I hate panel discussions." I [ended up] going off the handle like I told her I was going to do.

My feeling is that none of this is [truly] sustainable. I had a dream at 17, I had a mission I was going to change the way Houston eats. I’ve spent 38 years in this business, 25 with my own restaurants trying to affect change.

JZ: Monica had a vision and like most things, [it] became segregated, people branched off and for Monica, the best vision would be to have one farmers market.

MP: What I tried to suggest…

JZ: Exactly. It was a vision of bringing people together.

MP: It just happened and I was open to it. Susan and Portia [Leyendecker] started Houston Farmers Market. I showed up about two to three months later and immediately it became my market. Everybody was [saying that.] There were articles being done back in the day…

JZ: Back in the day meaning ‘90s?

MP: (laughs).

JZ: I’m serious I’ve known Monica for 25 years.

HP: (to Pope) What restaurant were you running at the time?

JZ: Boulevard.

MP: Boulevard [Bistro]. Everyone was saying “well, Monica started this.” I actually didn’t.

JZ: She started verbalizing it before anyone.

MP: Only really in last five years have people started to understand. [In a different voice] “Oh yeah farmers markets are cool, but back in ’92 it was just weird, and gay.”

JZ: It was eccentric.

MP: So the guys, including me, have their own restaurants and are doing some semblance of this [farm-to-table], however… have you seen what they are doing?

HP: No.

MP: They have all decided, and one in particular, said ‘this is really hard.’ [In reference to] doing locally driven menus and having to pick up your own fucking farm share. Yes, we’ve given ourselves a lot of rules, but I don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I will no longer put local this and farmer that on [my menus.] 25 years ago [people] didn’t know what the fucking word ‘focaccia’ was.

JZ: You see how far they have come though...

MP: I said to myself, I don’t have to tell them what their getting, I’m going to write the menu item as a line of poetry.

JZ: I love your descriptions. I mean like me with my honey, the flood knocked out 200 of our 300 hives we have accumulated in ten years. We are re-building but the sustainability, farming, agriculture, it’s weather, it’s nature, it’s unpredictable, so we are sustaining as best we possibly can without genetically modifying everything.

JZ: I think Monica and I are going to move to Austin one day.

MP: I don’t want to move to Austin.

HP: What advice do you have for aspiring women chefs?

JZ: Respect yourself, respect your tools, keep your head down. Be willing to put in 110 percent and you’ve got to grow a tough skin. You really, really, really do.

Monica and I, we came up through the brigade system, traditional brigade systems, where you started off washing pots and pans. Never pull the [woman] card if you want to be respected and treated equally. Don’t make excuses, listen more than you speak and write everything down… you’re going to have to keep that edge until women have earned a stronger place at the table.

MP: I worked all over the world in kitchens and hotels, you do whatever [is needed], wash dishes, etc. As for the issue with women and sexual harassment… [I think about the] things that we have to put up with. Guys would either help me lift [a box] or try to rape me. I was lucky enough, not that it [didn’t] happen to me, that it didn’t happen from someone in power.

HP: So, you did experience sexual harassment in the kitchen?

MP: Oh. Oh, absolutely.

HP: (To Zelko) What about you?

JZ: Absolutely. But, you know, I think it happens in every kitchen to an extent. I’ve had plenty of things that I could have blown out of proportion if I had wanted too, but that’s what I mean about pulling the [woman] card, once you do that as a female in this industry…

MP: What are you saying, you’re saying don’t?

JZ: No, I’m saying you do what you need to do. The kitchen is so militant. I think now the issue holds more water, but back then I was the only woman in the kitchen. You’re working 12-14 hours close to these guys. You are fighting for your side towels, “don’t touch my knife, don’t touch my mise-en-place.” Men coming up behind you in the walk-in. But you grow a thicker skin. I’ve actually broken one of my sous chefs knuckles with the butt of my knife before. I’ve run another persons hand over a plancha before.

I’m not saying it’s like that now. If you’re going to go work for a big corporation that has an HR department then by all means, but if you’re working for independents, or the most reputable chefs, it’s kind of like what are you willing to sacrifice to learn how to, say, fabricate fish.

For women now, don’t go to culinary school to be on Food Network, if you do, fine, but I probably won’t hire you, because that’s not what it’s about for me. And it’s not what it’s about for Monica either.

MP: (smiles.)

JZ: It’s not about celebrity status, it’s not about the press. We’ve had to engage in it to stay alert, aware, involved.

HP: You’ve both gone through challenges and had to shutter passion projects, what advice can you give restaurateurs?

MP: I think that’s the perception. About Sparrow…

JZ: No, Monica talk about Boulevard [Bistro.]

MP: If you want to talk about my real epic, Sparrow...

JZ: Sparrow? Even with the T’afia farmers market [Midtown Farmer’s Market]?

MP: Sparrows are the symbol of hope and freedom.

JZ: Well that was your whole transition.

MP: So, long story, but suffice to say…

JZ: I know this story though…
MP: Every…

JZ: I’ve read that book…

MP: Every end is some other beginning.

JZ: I’ve lived that book.

JZ: Sparrow was revitalizing independence in so many ways for Monica.

MP: It’s not this shuttered passion project, it’s not this failure, I did this courageous thing in letting go of my passion. I transformed it into a different [passion.] I still have Sparrow the Cookshop. I am Sparrow.

JZ: Sparrow [she] was flying on her own without depending on anybody. We [women] have very good poker faces, you know, but it takes a lot of guts to do that. But, at the end of the day it’s the hospitality industry, you have to be hos-pit-able is what I always say.

MP: (laughs at how she says hospitable) I used to scream on the line, “if this was a fucking hospital someone would be dead out there.”

JZ: This ain’t Ben Taub, man!

MP: “Dammit, what is going on over there, get the fucking chicken up.”

JZ: That’s another side of us, forget the entrepreneur side, Monica and I, our favorite place to be is in the back in the kitchen with our crew. You know what I’m saying? Where we can talk like sailors. You know we have the same color eyes? They are clear green with a little blue. The reason Monica and I are still cool is because we never slept together.

MP: Did you hear the story about me?

JZ: I’ve heard many, which ones are true?

MP: None of them are true. There is a particular person that is next door to my restaurant that has a business right…

JZ: Yes, yes, yes.

MP: And… it was perceived that I was having this affair or something with this married woman blah, blah, blah. We were very close [as friends], we still are…

JZ: All you said was, “you can share my parking.”

MP: (laughs).

JZ: How do people take it so far out of context.

MP: So, two years later, you know what he [her husband] said? She told me he said, “if you go through that door [Sparrow] she [Pope] takes your wife.”

JZ: Monica, that’s hilarious. You sure you weren’t running a gay bar?

MP: It’s fascinating for me and maybe it’s fascinating for you to be a woman and to be gay in this town and to have your own business and to do what we do, which is kind of gay, farm-to-table.

JZ: What we do is not gay.

MP: It’s perceived as leftist, gay. Let me tell you this fucking story about the…

JZ: (in Pope’s high-pitched voice) She’s going to tell us the fucking story.

MP: This shit is real.

JZ: I know, you’re right, I just try to ignore the haters.

MP: There was this republican blog [in 2000] saying “you go in that restaurant, you’ll go gay.”

JZ: (nods her head in the affirmative) Yeah, its gay food. Monica cooks gay food. If you go in their she’ll turn you gay, and she’ll take your wife.

MP: (to Zelko) Fucker.

JZ: Monica’s like “I’ll flip that bitch like a burger.” What was the original question again?

MP: I cook gay food and I’m proud of it (laughs.)

JZ: Monica, it’s all good.

HP: What would you rather do; have high tea with Donald Trump or eat a McRib?

MP and JZ: (in unison) Tea with Trump.

MP: The last thing I want to do is have a McRib. 

JZ: I’m a true southern girl, I drive a pick-up truck, I’m not political, but I do like to know my rights and I’d love to have tea with Trump… and his daughter. I wouldn’t eat a McRib.

MP: I don’t get mired in the Trump situation, but do we have to vote, yes. Trump is going to cause us to do some awesome things. He’s going to get our asses off the couch.

JZ: Really Monica? I admire that, thank you.

MP: This is not the way forward, to hate people, and be angry, to shut them out and stuff. I’m only for peace, I’m only for love.

JZ: Even like the Planned Parenthood, it shouldn’t be a political thing, it’s about women’s health and when it comes to that things have to make sense.

MP: Did any of the Presidents come to you? Because I got [President] Barack Obama, but two years before he gave his candidacy.

JZ: I got [President] Bush senior after, but because he’s in Texas.

MP: I got Desmond Tutu. I got Gloria Steinem.

JZ: Yeah, I got Joanne King Herring.

MP: I got John Leguizamo. I got Ted Danson.

JZ: I got Carol Burnett.

MP: Damn.

JZ: Yeah, she was so awesome.

MP: I got Madeleine Albright.

JZ: I got Tony Bennett.

MP: I wish I could say I got Lady Gaga.

JZ: I sent Janet Jackson a fruit plate, but I didn’t get to meet her. I got Eddie Izzard. I got Paul Newman.

MP: Really?

JZ: I got Frank Sinatra, Jr. I got Robert Redford.

MP: (laughs) Who the fuck are you?

JZ: Carol Burnett loved my lamb chops.

Jamie Zelko telling a Frank Sinatra Jr. story... "I mean, when your dad is Frank Sinatra, you're nothing like him... he [jr.] was kind of a dick."EXPAND
Jamie Zelko telling a Frank Sinatra Jr. story... "I mean, when your dad is Frank Sinatra, you're nothing like him... he [jr.] was kind of a dick."
Photo by Kate McLean

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