Today marks the official kick-off the Austin Food and Wine Festival, when chefs and food obsessives from around the country descend on Butler Park. One of the many notable chefs =presenting is former Top Chef contestant and James Beard nominee Monica Pope of Sparrow Bar + Cookshop and Beaver's restaurants in Houston.
In addition to being the only Texas woman ever named Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, she's a dedicated pioneer of the local food movement. Her latest projects include a Food as Medicine dinner series and an online cookbook Eat Where Your Food Lives.
Catching up with Eater on the phone from her home in Houston, Pope discussed her life goal to "change the way Houston eats," an in-progress memoir and a potential new Austin project with the Lenoir team.
What are you looking forward to most about this year's Austin Food & Wine Festival? What do you think makes a good festival experience?
I did the first year and that was a blast, and I met a lot of friends. A lot of great stuff happens, and it's always fun just to drive into Austin. I'm just excited about seeing everybody again. It's going to be crazy, and I'm doing the taco thing.
I'm really excited about my tacos. I was just at my kitchen, and they were complaining that I was bringing too much. But I was like, "It's a thousand tacos!"
Three years ago I did a thousand shitake mushroom tacos, and they were really well received. It's one of our signature dishes – sort of a mind-bending umami explosion, you know? I'm looking forward to redefining the taco for people this year.
Can you share anything about your 2014 taco, or is it all very top secret?
I don't think it's top secret. I'm using these new local guys called Sustainable Harvesters who do aquaponic baby lettuces. It's a beautiful root system still attached. I specked them a certain size to be the actual taco – like a lettuce taco if you will. We're doing Thai style pork inside, and it's just going to be a refreshing departure. I like the freshness combined with the fat. We're grinding pork tongues and pork belly and all this great stuff.
What was the inspiration for your choice to do dumplings for your demo? Can you talk about what you hope people will come away with from your "Dumplings to Live By" demo?
It's one of our signature dishes here. I've told this to people before, but it's one of the best mistakes we've had in our kitchen that I now get credit for. It started out 20 years ago as our mushroom pate, and it's morphed into this potted mushroom thing and then into a dumpling. The sauce that wasn't supposed to go with it but was put with it by my staff turned out to be this awesome combination.
It's fun to share that history with people and have them react I don't like mushrooms or bleu cheese or honey and see it all explode with flavor and umami. And the fact that it's all local awesome stuff is just great. It's why I do anything I do. To make sure we end up supporting local people.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Austin? Anywhere you're planning to stop by?
We're going to try Lenoir. I have a meeting with them. We're doing a project in Austin the next couple of years. Lenoir, Swift's Attic, Elizabeth Street and Odd Duck are all on my list of ones I haven't tried yet but want to.
Can you share more yet about the project with the Lenoir team?
It's not completely sealed yet, but I can say that it would be a restaurant and a bar and a hotel concept that we're consulting on.
In the past, you've talked about your life goal of "changing the way Houston eats." How much of that mission do you think you've accomplished and how much work do you think there still is to go? It's a big goal.
I was at the Earth Day breakfast with the Mayor yesterday, and I was listening to the achievements that they can specifically state percentage-wise in making the city more sustainable, greener and a better place to live. I feel like I have made an awesome contribution to this community in my lifetime in 51 years, but we are definitely thinking about the next 50 years.
I just left the meeting and talked about everything we need to do in effecting change. I'm not done. I'm not saying that I'll ever be done, but I've definitely made a good dent.
What do you think the biggest roadblock is for people and restaurants to sourcing and eating properly?
What we were talking about yesterday is about whether there is incentive, savings or money to be made. That's the biggest roadblock. All of the decisions start there, right? I have fellow chefs and restaurateurs who would never even state this as a business plan because there's no money in it. Where is the profit? Even profit's a bad word though, right?
That's the biggest hurdle. Just getting people to understand that it isn't about [profit]. It's about whether we're going to be healthier, happier, living people.
What advice would you give to a local restaurateur or chef who wants to change how they do business and support local but are afraid of that big P word – profit
I know I've struggled to have the kind of materials around me in the restaurant to back up what I care about. I would just say do what you believe in and go for it. It's going to be hard.
I think the big thing is to stay inspired. I know I have to figure out what's going to inspire me on an ongoing basis. That can take some of the fear and confusion out of it.
Can you talk about your Food as Medicine dinner series with RD Ali Miller? Taming Sugar Cravings and Balancing Blood Sugary Levels?
I've been doing these things with Ali Miller, an integrative dietician. A doctor friend of mine introduced me to her at the market. The conversation started with butter, and it changed my life and my wife's life. We're working on different projects together, but I've done three Food as Medicine events with her on different topics.
This next one is on our addiction to sugar, which is in everything. My wife just found out she can't have any sugar in any form at all. It's like a poison to her. Everybody I meet has something they're dealing with that might be hurting or killing them or challenging them in all situations. These dinners just give people information and a chance to experience better food.
I've sent literally a half a dozen people to her, and she's "fixed" them. A lot of people have these different issues, and when they get to the root of the problem, food can be the solution to heal people. Food is an amazing thing. It does start with local, good, clean and fair food.
You once said, "it's taken me 20 years in this business to do everything that I was afraid of." What are you afraid of now? What's your next big challenge to tackle?
It's been amazing – a long involved story of meeting the woman I would end up marrying last November 15, a year to the day that we met here. There's a lot of stuff about to come out in the next 24 months. This would be more than enough for me in the next 50 years to handle and do well, and hopefully make real change.
My memoir will be called Eating Hope and Other Things I've Had Inside the Stomach.
When is your memoir slated to come out?
I have about 100 pages. That's part of my conundrum of why I felt the need to write it because everything was dying. Every time I picked up the metaphorical pen, something was ending or restaurants closing. It was kind of a Catch-22, but I think I will finish it by the end of this year and put it out.
I turned 50 and opened Sparrow, and it was like this milestone I needed to see through first. Now it's time to put the last 50 years to bed and work toward the next 50 years.
Update: A representative for Pope clarifies that while the chef is in talks on a hotel project, none of the details or partners have been confirmed.