Barely over a month ago, Monica Pope unveiled her newest restaurant creation – Sparrow Bar + Cookshop – in Houston's Fourth Ward. Through her years of cooking in professional kitchens, Monica has built a remarkable reputation as a pioneer in the local food movement as well as one of the most talented chefs in the state of Texas. In a recent interview with TEXAS MONTHLY, Monica talked in detail about the concept behind Sparrow Bar + Cookshop and where she is at in the second act of her culinary career. Throughout my conversation with Monica, I was surprised by how remarkably candid she was about her decision to start all over again with a fresh, new restaurant concept that was unlike any she had ever done before. In a conversation that last over an hour, Monica admitted she felt disconnected from her culinary roots while running her former restaurant t'afia over the past few years. This year, however, Monica made a myriad of bold changes in order to reconnect with her lifelong mission of "changing the way Houston eats."
Sparrow Bar + Cookshop is without a doubt Monica's most authentic creation thus far – a true reflection of how far she has come as a Houston chef. The restaurant's food is non-fussy, affordable, and, oh yeah, delicious – exactly what you would expect from a chef who is remarkably gifted but doesn't take herself or her fame too seriously. Housed in the same location as its predecessor, t'afia, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop is a restaurant that will certainly be one of the best new Houston restaurants of 2012. Here, Monica discusses the inspiration behind Sparrow Bar + Cookshop, the Houston culinary scene, and the brand new Monica – or Monica 2.0, as she likes to call it.
What planted the seed for the new restaurant concept?
In a lot of ways, it's an ongoing evolution of myself. Coming from a teenager saying that I was going to change the way Houston eats and me trying to understand what that's meant to me personally. Five or six years ago when Hurricane Ike hit, it was a wakeup call for me. I started thinking about my daughter and what her life will be like, and that turned into me thinking about my own life and my own purpose. I said to myself, "If the world were to end tomorrow, would I want to continue to live my life the way I am right now?" And I wasn't sure I could answer that affirmatively… A couple of years ago, a chef friend of mine was crashing with us at my house. He and I would be talking in the kitchen, and my daughter would run in and try to interrupt us. She'd be dying to say something, and one day she randomly shouted out, "It's like you guys are having a campfire." It's weird, but what she said really got me thinking. I thought about our primal beginnings as caveman going out, creating fire, and gathering around the campfire. It made me realize that that's what I've been trying to do for twenty years: create a campfire discussion with different restaurants and different foods. I started thinking about my place in all this and what I meant when I said I wanted to change the way people eat, how they eat, what they eat, where they eat, where they get their food from, etc. For me, it's so tied into slow food, eating locally, and practicing Alice Waters' tenants of good cooking.
Let's move on to t'afia. Why did you decide to do away with the restaurant? Did it not work anymore?
I wouldn't say that. The restaurant business has changed. I've changed. There were challenges and questions I had that I needed to answer for myself. I've talked to food writers, photographers, and other chefs, and we all notice a change. The world now has Twitter, Facebook, and social media, and I feel like I'm being thrust into dealing with all that. Twenty years ago, I'd open a restaurant and people just came. Nowadays, you have to be in the kitchen, but also connecting with diners and the media in order to stay relevant. It's a completely different thing, and I'm not sure how to keep up. When you're life is changing dramatically around you, it can be frightening to know what's your role in all of it. In some ways, I felt like I was stuck in a box that wasn't me anymore. It didn't work for me, and it didn't work for Houston. I took the opportunity to say, "I need to create a space that I want to be in." I wanted to start over and show where I'm at in my life and where I think Houston is at in 2012.
How is the food different at Sparrow Bar + Cookshop than it was at t'afia?
I'm pushing myself more. I understand that a restaurant and a chef have to reinvent themselves in order to keep up with what's going on. I knew what the impression was with t'afia through the years, like 'Oh that's that weird, healthy place.' or 'Oh yeah, that place is really preachy about local food.' Nowadays, farm-to-table is no big deal; it's not weird to people anymore. I'm at a place in my life where I feel like the local-food community has finally been created. A lot of restaurants and chefs are now committed to using local food, like I did twenty years ago when everyone thought it was crazy. I'm finally putting what I believe in on the plate.
Do you think Houston is where it should be at in terms of respecting and utilizing local ingredients?
They say it takes nine years to grow a farmers market. It has taken us nine, ten years to grow ours, so I think that's definitely accurate. It's amazing where we've come to. When I started talking about local food twenty years ago, people thought I belonged to a cult or something and needed to be saved. Ten years ago, things started to shift. Five years ago, it was like '"Okay, this is really coming together." Once the chefs got more involved, that's when things really started to change. Customers started paying attention to what chefs were doing, and I think Houston chefs are pushing Houston forward, despite the fact that not that not many years ago we were dead last in a lot of sustainable issues.
I want to talk about that. How do you think Houston ranks compared to places like Austin and Dallas in terms of working with farmers and utilizing local ingredients?
I've always said – and I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings – but we're never going to be like Austin. It's a whole different culture there. The chef-farmer connection there is much stronger. The whole agenda of "Keep Austin Weird" is what makes it work there. That's the hip thing to do there, and that's great, but the depth of Houston's ethnic communities, culinary communities, and overall culture is so deep and textured. We're trying to take credit for that, and people keep pushing us aside. I mean, you can't do Top Chef Texas and not put Houston in there. Seriously, who did we tick off? Houston has more of a secede mentality than any other city in Texas, and Texas already has a reputation for wanting to secede from the rest of the nation. Houston is like, "Whatever, we're better than Dallas, we're better than Austin, we're better than San Antonio, and we know that." We're just a more interesting town across the board.
Are you entering the most creative period of your life?
I'm in a period of my life where I know what makes me feel good. I'm comfortable with who I am and what I am. There was a rocky moment at the restaurant when I didn't know if I could handle it all. It's been challenging for twenty years. All of my restaurant team has been with me through these years, and we've become a family. I'm taking charge, and I have to be okay with that. I'm unbelievably grateful to my staff for allowing me figure out what it is I want to express. When I first talked about this project, everybody got behind me and said, "Great, let's do this." To see that enthusiasm and faith is breathtaking. I'm finally trusting myself and what I want to do. I'm not questioning things like I used to.
There seem to be a lot more celebrity chefs in Texas nowadays. You personally appeared on Top Chef Masters. Is being a celebrity chef something you have wanted to shy away from in recent years?
I don't want to have twenty restaurants all over the country. I don't even want two restaurants in the same city. That's not me. I love my food family, my home, my restaurant, my city. I'm not interested in more money or more fame. What I'm interested in doing is changing the way Houston eats and continuing to share my story.
Sparrow Bar & Cookshop - 3701 Travis Street in Houston. Lunch: Tuesday - Friday 11 a.m. - 3 p.m. Dinner: Tuesday - Saturday 5 p.m. - 11 p.m. Brunch: Saturday 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. Bar menu: Tuesday - Thursday 10 a.m. - 11 p.m., Friday - Saturday 10 a.m. - midnight. 713-524-6922, www.sparrowhouston.com, Facebook, Twitter.
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