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

tafiaapron.jpg

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.

monicapope-thumb-tam.jpg
Photo by Tam Vo
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."



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Location Info

Venue

Map

Oxheart

1302 Nance St., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

Uchi

904 Westheimer Rd., Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

T'afia - CLOSED

3701 Travis, Houston, TX

Category: Restaurant

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12 comments
shar10
shar10 like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

PEOPLE....no matter your personal feelings...you cannot deny that Monica paved the way for many chefs in Houston. If you love good food you can thank her for that...not that she wants to take full credit. She only (and rightly) said she helped to "cultivate something". And she didn't have to plug two chefs in an article about her. Monica knows that it takes a community to make it all work.   Don't be stupid about that!

Parismatch
Parismatch

As I read this article about one of my favorite chefs in Houston I get really sentimental. So many wonderful times at Tafia family suppers ,the wonderful farmers market, the cooking classes , just everything...anyone that has really known Tafia ,the staff , Monica know how from the heart everything is there. To the morons that are here to talk and speak  hateful things get a life and maybe you won't be so unhappy. Monica simply is and was a trailblazer she believed in Houston before Houston believed in itself. Twenty long years running a successful restaurant supporting countless kids charities and programs ,educating the community to all things local is quite and accomplishment. Bravo Monica and staff.I can't wait to see the transformation. 

WineLush
WineLush like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I just think its really easy to insult someone when the person doing the insulting could never achieve what these foundation chefs in Houston have done for the city.  I'm sure these haters also eat at Chick-Fil-A.

tlsmith86
tlsmith86 like.author.displayName 1 Like

So sad to see...how dare u insult... so much hate... beyond the chef. A person who has created jobs, provided charity and numerous services to her city and maintained through the years her name and her devotion to her craft. You all disgust me... monica you are above these poor ignorant fools...

iMidget
iMidget

Quality ingredients put on a plate does not a good chef make.

ladysweetie
ladysweetie like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Have to speak out here.  Monica Pope was a prime driver in expanding both the creative concepts and the basic quality of food in Houston's restaurants.  Without her trailblazing, Houston would not be the unique restaurant city it is today.

 

Could or would someone else have done it?   Maybe but probably not.  After all, no one else picked up the opportunity as she did until after she showed what could be done.

 

To someone not having that same capacity, her intensity of focus may be misunderstood.   That is the best face that can be put on the prior remarks whose assumptions and tone are truly arrogant.

 

 

birchbeer
birchbeer

and of top of that, she's taking credit for the culture that cultivated Oxheart – the arrogance is amazing

tylerjameshansen
tylerjameshansen

 @birchbeer Monica deserves a lot of credit for the current state of the Houston food scene. She claims to have played a part in its cultivation - which is absolutely true. If you've got issues with her as a vendor, an online comment section probably isn't the best place to find resolution. How petty and weak is that?On top of all this - Monica Pope is one of the sweetest people on the planet and she's madly in love with Houston. Be grateful. With fools like you crippling humanity via ignorance and jealousy, she's vital in balancing the universe into a tolerable state. Eat Your Beets!

jimbo1126
jimbo1126 like.author.displayName 1 Like

 @birchbeer Gotta agree there. Monica Pope is a trailblazer in many ways, but she shouldn't have said that, and she'll get a lot of flack for it.

ccrmrk
ccrmrk like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

Had a few dealings with Ms. Pope. Came away with the same impression every time. Arrogant money grubbing fake. Her "free cooking classes" were nothing more than 30 minute infomercials for her cook books. Got a question about the receipe? "It's in the cookbook, buy it"  She left out parts of the cooking demos on purpose, just to drive book sales.

stusnow1
stusnow1 like.author.displayName 1 Like

What a sham. 

 

birchbeer
birchbeer like.author.displayName 1 Like

does "being cool" include shafting a vendor for several thousand dollars prior to the opening of tafia? Pope is a facade, a smoke screen

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