Chef Chat

Monica Pope on the Transformation of t'afia, Hope for Houston and Being Pretty Darn Cool

The current photo on t'afia's Web site, which is being updated every day with new imagery which relates to Pope's plans.

You've heard of burning your boats. But what about burning your apron? It's this striking visual that is currently greeting visitors to the Web site for t'afia, chef Monica Pope's acclaimed restaurant, where Pope is determined to start anew once again.

Right now, however, t'afia is closed for its annual two-week summer break. When it reopens on August 14, a brand-new restaurant will be in its place.

"It's been an interesting summer," laughed Pope over the phone when I called her to ask what her plans were for the revamped restaurant. "A lot of what I'm trying to do is just reinvent myself and recommit to what I'm trying to do personally and professionally in a world that has changed a lot in the last 20 years since I started."

Pope has been reflective lately, perhaps more so than usual.

She's working on a memoir entitled Eating Hope, and she'll be turning 50 this year. In the last two decades, she's helped transform Houston's culinary landscape by encouraging deeper relationships with local farmers and food producers, helping engineer bigger and better farmers' markets around town, volunteering with food education and outreach programs such as Recipe For Success and raising the city's national profile by appearing on TV shows such as Top Chef Masters. She even offered free cooking classes through her Green Plum School on a weekly basis.

It doesn't seem like it's been five years since Pope was nominated for a James Beard Award for her work at t'afia. Nor does it seem that long since she was cooking at Boulevard Bistrot or Quilted Toque. Time has flown for Pope, too.

"It just blows me away in talking to people," she said. "Re-engaging and realizing, wow, 20 years ago...where I was at, where Houston was at, where restaurants were at."

"Boulevard Bistrot, Quilted Toque and t'afia are interesting expressions of where I was at," she continued. And now? "It's a new chapter. They say it's Monica 2.0, but it feels like Monica 6.0. It's about what gets me excited, and I need that excitement."

Excitement for Pope comes in the form of one important word: hope. On the t'afia Web site beneath that photo of her burning apron is the Latin saying dum spiro spero: While I breathe, I hope.

"I've been trying to answer myself lately," Pope explained. "What does give me hope? What makes me hopeful? It's what we all have to ask ourselves."

What makes her hopeful are organizations like Recipe For Success, where an ongoing dialog about food is transforming the way that young people eat -- as well as the way they think about food as community.

"Food is the language of family," Pope said. "Real, good food," she emphasized. And feeding her family -- her community -- is what's important to her now. She's coy, however, about how the new t'afia will go about doing this.

"Other artists get to do a new album with a new tone, feel, sound that's where they're at now," she said. "It's really hard in the restaurant business to reflect that because you put so much time and effort and money into a concept and hope to God it makes it." Pope is coy, she explained, because she doesn't want the public to view the transformed t'afia as her attempt to jump on the "brand-new" bandwagon that's rolling through town as Houston's dining scene continues to thrive and grow.

At the same time, Pope is as excited for Houston's current culinary direction as she is about her legacy in those new restaurants and her own new beginnings.

"All of what is happening here is all this great conversation," she said of the transforming culinary scene, which is now supporting places like local produce-heavy restaurants and Gulf bycatch once viewed as trash fish. "The fact that Justin can come in here and do Oxheart and make a restaurant like that -- I feel a part of that because it's something I've helped cultivate."

Our current culinary climate is "not something to be taken lightly," she emphasized. "This is an interesting time in Houston. The fact that Uchi decided to come here from Austin... Not that we need to be like Austin," she quickly noted, "but the fact that we can draw something like that into our scene is really fantastic."

As hopeful as Pope is about Houston's prospects for the future, she's equally hopeful that more talented chefs and food purveyors will be drawn back home to help with the ongoing transformation of the city, in the same way that chefs like Seth Siegel-Gardner and Terrence Gallivan left New York City for the Bayou City.

"We are Houston people," she said. "We have come back to do what we do here -- not in Brooklyn, not in San Francisco." It's a sentiment that grows stronger with every passing day.

"This is our home; we love Houston. We are all demanding in our own ways to be noticed and to get credit for being pretty darn cool."

And although Pope is no longer the new kid on the block herself, that doesn't stop her from being hopeful about her own future here in Houston.

"I have the benefit of 20 years of a lot of interesting experiences and challenges -- and I've still got an interesting journey ahead of me that I'm really excited about."

Follow Eating Our Words on Facebook and on Twitter @EatingOurWords

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katharine Shilcutt