In Focus - Monica Pope
Pope is Cooking for Change
Chef Monica Pope continues to pioneer a food-savvier Houston
In the decades since she embraced the culinary arts, Monica Pope has seen the Houston food scene shed its skin and begin anew time and time again. And now, as Pope enters her third year leading Sparrow Bar + Cookshop—the Midtown restaurant that epitomizes her years of education, struggle and growth as a grassroots chef— the vaunted cook says she is still actualizing her role within the local food community.
“I don’t think we’re ever done building our community, and I’m sure I won’t ever fully realize what I meant in 1992 when I said I wanted to change the way Houston eats,” Pope admits. “Sparrow Bar was a marker of my journey as I turned 50, and even now at 52 years old I’m still learning more about that mission.”
Trendy adjectives like “local” and “seasonal” are commonplace on fine-dining menus these days, but just a few years ago phrases like “slow food,” “farm to table,” “New American” and “locally sourced” were foreign, feeble descriptives. Much of what we see in Houston’s restaurant landscape today—the garden-centric menus and locally sourced approach—is due in large part to pioneers like Pope, whose tireless work to build and support a locally rooted, mindful food community continues into the present day.
“People get wrapped up in the parameters of ‘local,’ whether that means within Houston or within Texas, and whether something is seasonal here if it’s seasonal in another state or country,” she says. “We never wanted to create controversy, debate or exclusion in our ideas. It was always about supporting the food that grows right here, and I think people are finally beginning to understand and appreciate that for what it means.”
The Midtown chef is still processing all the profound attention and admiration that has been cast upon the city for its newfound appreciation of farm bounty and talented personalities in the past few years, remarking that our city has finally received the recognition it’s deserved for its hard-fought evolution.
“It’s weird because people would look at what we were doing years ago and say, ‘Oh, that’s strange’ and ‘That will run its course,’ but if you look around now, you see the words ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ on every menu. In fact, I’ve started eighty-sixing it off my own menu because people understand that’s what we do without us having to say it anymore,” she says.
“[When we started], I think everyone thought we were just trying to be edgy or different with Urban Harvest, but even we had no idea where we were going with all these ideas. It’s just something that made sense to us: eat local, buy local, support your community.”
Deemed the “Alice Waters of the Gulf Coast,” Pope along with other culinary revolutionaries spent years building and defending the Slow Food movement as more than a trend. Though they were met with rigidity from restaurants and consumers over the years, they laid a robust foundation for the burgeoning farmers markets, upscale restaurants, cocktail bars and co-op grocers that feature Texas-grown, Texas-raised meats, cheeses, tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, squashes, onions, calquats and countless bushels of farm freshness.