In Focus

In Focus - Monica Pope

By Layne Lynch / Photography By Bob Levy | August 28, 2015
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Monica at the Eastside farmers market. Collection of cookbooks. Monica checking her list at the market.

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.

As a pioneer of Houston food, Pope says education and collaboration have served as the benchmark of her and others’ efforts. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they aren’t welcome if they only dip their toe in the water,” she says. “It’s great to see people embrace little changes here and there, like trying a new vegetable every week or going to the farmers market once a month. You have to allow them to start somewhere and not impart criticism for those efforts.”
 
Pope relishes in seeing makers like Slow Dough Bread Co., Black Hill Ranch, Blue Heron Farm and Renaissance Chicken influence the decisions of Houston’s diverse and versed executive chefs. “Restaurants used to stay away from farmers because they were afraid couldn’t meet their supply or ingredient demands. Now you have chefs who build their menus around what’s available to them, not the other way around. That wasn’t happening 10 years ago.”
 
Pope also points to the increase in purveyor-focused shops like Weights & Measures, Houston farm shares and communal pop-shops as an indication of what’s over the horizon for the next culinary movement.
 
“I think the next frontier is seeing an actual city farmers market and two to three cooperatives opening up, and we’re definitely headed in that direction,” she says. “People appreciate the collaboration between our food and Houston, whether that’s at a music festival or any city event, really. Houston has such an identity that no other city can compare to—music, art, theater, big oil, Downtown, Montrose, the Medical Center, and I think we’ll continue to see our food influence the world around us.”
 
Pope, too, is moving into the next phase of her relationship with the food world and its devoted consumers through Sparrow’s budding cookshop. In addition to putting the finishing touches on her memoir-cookbook, Eating Hope, Pope will continue her mission as a locavore as she shuffles into the classroom.
 
“I was pretty nervous when I started teaching, but we’ve been encouraging people to eat a certain way for all these years, so it made sense to me to bring them to the kitchen and show them what to do with things like green beans and okra. I see all these light bulbs going off and people finally realizing they are capable of working with these ingredients. So the next step is bridging all the work we’ve been doing these years and to start teaching people how to use what’s available to them right in their own backyards.”
Article from Edible Houston at http://ediblehouston.ediblecommunities.com/shop/focus-monica-pope
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