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What’s eating Monica Pope? Celebrity chef still tweaking her recipe for happiness


It was 97 degrees in September, and in the parking lot behind Rice University’s stadium, the sparse farmers market crowd drifted from stall to stall, listless and sweaty. It boggled chef Monica Pope that no one was buying her bone broth.

At the booth, Pope’s hair for once lay flat, humidity-stunned like everything else, but as she talked about her bone broth, I could hear the exclamation points. She pulled a frozen quart of it from her cooler and pointed out the layer of yellow fat that capped the beef broth below. “It’s a superfood!” she said. “People go, ‘Ew, fat.’ But the fat is the good stuff! That’s where the flavor is! It’s good for you!”

The pavement radiated cartoony heat waves. I tried and failed, to be excited. Maybe this wasn’t the weather for hot broth?

Pope was unfazed. At $8 a quart, she asked, how could anyone resist?! She’d roasted bones and other remnants of a cow lovingly raised at Three Sister Farms, then simmered them in a big pot of water for 72 hours and strained out the solids. For dinner, Pope said, she often heats a half cup, adds a little salt, and she’s satisfied. It’s all she needs.

A total bargain, she thinks: a superfood that’s good for Houston farmers, good for the planet and costs a couple of bucks a serving. “Then, too, there’s the whole celebrity-chef thing,” she said, rolling her eyes: a joke, but not entirely a joke.

Pope is in her mid-50s. She frequently uses the phrase “back in the day,” usually with an ironic eyebrow lift. As in, “back in the day,” she was the most recognizable chef in Houston, the creative force behind some of the city’s hottest restaurants. In the ’90s and ’00s, in any group photo of area chefs, it was a cinch to spot her: Usually the only woman, she was often also the fittest person in the crew, the most bad-ass, the one who looked most likely to make trouble. An electrified-looking cowlick usually stood straight up from her head, like a thought-bubble exclamation point following one of her expletives.

Pope’s last restaurant closed in 2014, and she knows that ever since fans have wondered what happened to her. After her breast cancer diagnosis, there was a rumor that she’d died and another that she’d moved to Brenham (which, for those inside the Loop, is sort of the same thing).

“Struggle is the disease. I was in that struggle to keep up with the rent, the staff, the wife, the kid. You get stuck at hope, keep thinking there’s something beyond.”

When a stylish elderly woman stopped to buy granola, Pope had a good idea how the conversation would go. As usual, the beginning of the exchange was easy. That’s when fans reminisce about their favorite of Pope’s restaurants: Sparrow, maybe, or t’afia, Beaver’s, Boulevard Bistrot, the Quilted Toque. In the years before the rest of the world caught on to Houston’s food scene, Pope frequently made the city proud. Food & Wine magazine lauded her. She was a James Beard Award finalist, appeared on “Top Chef Masters,” was invited to the White House.

She was always pioneering some new-to-Houston concept, restlessly moving from thing to thing, going all-in on some half-crazy-seeming idea that only later would prove to be a trend: farmers markets, craft cocktails, locally produced foods from sustainable farms, on-site gardens, specials written on a chalkboard, a restaurant without a parking lot out front, small plates, tasting menus, Texas wines, pop-up dinners out in the country.

The fans, though, soon grow tired of reminiscing. They turn to the present, the future — to the parts that Pope struggles to explain.

Sure enough, the stylish woman asked the question fans always ask: “When are you going to open another restaurant?”

Pope responded the way she always does. “Never,” she said flatly.

She smiled to soften the blow and tried to explain. She’s uncaged now, a chef without walls, free-range. She caters, hosts pop-up dinners, teaches cooking classes. She’s writing a memoir. She has a gazillion projects. You can sign up for her email list on her website.

The fan, processing, looked at her blankly.

It’s a common reaction. For the past few years, the people who used to follow Pope from restaurant to restaurant have wondered: What on earth is going on with Monica Pope?

Theory 1 is that, after a run of hard years, she’s taping her life back together — attempting to salvage a brilliant career, paying off debts, getting her health back and her head on straight.

Theory 2 is that she’s yet again way ahead of the curve — that someday, her pop-up life and gig-economy hustle will seem normal for a high-profile chef. On trend. Visionary, even. After all, why do chefs focus so much on restaurants, which are wildly expensive and burdensome to run, and create artificial experiences for diners? Why not think more about how food is grown, about the ways meals are consumed, about the meal’s larger effects on both the eater and the world?

In the dizzying parking-lot heat, both theories seemed plausible.

One day when Pope was 17, she and a swim-team friend hopped a Memorial High School fence and sneaked out to McDonald’s. The friend asked Pope what she planned to do after college.

“I’m going to open a restaurant,” Pope heard herself say, “and change the way Houston eats.”

Pope wasn’t sure exactly what she’d meant or where it had come from. Her friend stared. But there it was: the path her life would follow.

As real-life origin stories go, it’s a great one — destiny, leavened with light juvenile delinquency — so it’s no wonder Pope tells it frequently. It’s in the video of her TEDxHouston talk. It shows up in magazine profiles of her. Over the months that I hung out with her, we kept circling back to it.

But only in January did I really get it. That was when Pope casually mentioned, as an aside to an aside to some other story that she’d started telling, that she’s struggled all her life with anorexia and bulimia.

She didn’t eat that day at McDonald’s, she told me. She watched her friend eat.

The change that Pope wanted to make wasn’t just to Houston but to herself. To her, food wasn’t just about food. It was about love, and control, about who she was and what she was about. It wasn’t just the stuff that nourishes the body but that nourishes the soul. And Pope was starving.

From age 9, Pope spent hours every day in the pool, but still, she was a pudgy kid. After swim-team practice, she came home to a lonely 9 p.m. dinner of leftovers. Every night her mom left the same Post-It note on the microwave: “Hot it up 1 minute.”

As a teenager, Pope visited her Czech grandmother in Kansas, hoping to learn the family recipes and lore, to hear stories about who she was and where she came from while kneading dough for kolaches and shiski. Her grandmother showed her the baking techniques, but the stories never came.

“This is it?” Pope thought. “This is all I get?”

She got skinny in high school, then gained weight at Goucher College in Maryland. After graduation, she studied a few months in London at Prue Leith’s school of food and wine. She worked at restaurants in Europe, Baltimore and San Francisco. California, with its Alice-Waters-local-produce vibe, fit her sensibility, but Houston felt like home. She returned. She worked in chic places such as Cafe Annie.

Like all professional cooks, she tasted the food she served, adjusting salt and seasonings. But unlike most, Pope frequently decided that was all the food she needed, that maybe she’d have a glass or two of wine but didn’t need to sit and eat a meal. Lingering over a table, sharing a meal: that was for customers, not chefs.

In 1992, she opened her first restaurant, the Quilted Toque. On Montrose Boulevard, it sat both physically and psychologically between Houston’s affluent Museum District and Montrose, the funky gay ghetto. The interior was like nothing else in in the city: simultaneously colorful and minimal, inspired by the architect Ricardo Legoretta, with tables made from massive antique Mexican doors.

But it was the 27-year-old chef, and her food, that everyone talked about. She was unapologetically female, at a time when being male seemed part of the job description. And her food was like nothing Houston had seen.

It’s hard now to remember how different restaurants were in the early ’90s, in the United States as a whole and in Houston in particular. The words “sushi” and “salsa” were so foreign that Texas Monthly italicized them. Some of the city’s fanciest places still called themselves “continental,” as if there were only one continent worth emulating. But even much of Europe remained uncharted territory: The rare menus that offered espresso had to explain what it was.

Pope called her offerings “global comfort food,” but her high-flying menu offered more stimulation than warmth. Regulars were wowed by innovations that decades later seem run-of-the-mill. A scattering of thyme — fresh thyme! — adorned matchstick fries. The bar infused vodka with lemon peels, or bourbon with vanilla beans. “Where else can you have French, Italian, Greek, Moroccan and Japanese food all in one meal?” marveled the Houston Chronicle’s anonymous critic.

Even by restaurateurs’ crazy standards, Pope worked insanely long hours at Quilted Toque, serving not just lunch and dinner but breakfast, too. At the same time, she somehow managed to start a relationship with a serious girlfriend, Andrea Lazar, who worked in administration at DiverseWorks, the too-cool-for-school gallery/theater that prided itself on presenting the edgiest stuff in Houston. Near the height of the AIDS epidemic, Lazar and Pope’s relationship was a welcome subject of cheerful gossip: an artsy, out-and-proud neighborhood-celebrity couple!

Pope became a star in neighborhood legends. For instance: After a Quilted Toque business partner/landlord demanded a rent increase, Pope and Lazar launched a new restaurant just a few blocks away, prompting a long, messy battle with Pope’s old partners. In the saga’s most entertaining episode, she offered to sell her former partners the liquor license, which was in her name, at cost — around $500. They refused to buy her out, apparently not realizing that gave Pope the legal right to enter the Quilted Toque and haul away the contents of its bar — more than $10,000 in booze. Pope’s crew executed the caper, The Houston Press reported, “with glee.”

“I’m going to open a restaurant, and change the way Houston eats.”

The same giddy pirate-ship vibe animated Pope and Lazar’s new place, Boulevard Bistrot. Love and food, the private and the professional — things never cleanly separate in Pope’s world — were completely tangled. For a while, it worked.

Pope was in the kitchen, of course, and Lazar ruled the front of the house, making sure the bartenders were trained, the bills were paid and the booze never ran dry. “Lonely? Bitter?” she’d joke. “Belly up to the bar!”

After Pope connected with Urban Harvest, which promoted locally grown food, the restaurant acquired a noble, nourishing cause: Lunch or dinner wasn’t just about pleasure anymore but also about health, sustainability and a sense of place.

Life wasn’t perfect, but it was good. Pope was chronically sleep-deprived. But she and Lazar bought a two-story bungalow a few blocks from Boulevard Bistrot and started filling it with art and antiques. Eventually, Lazar became pregnant with their daughter, Lili.

Pope imagined that she’d be like one of those French chefs who presides over the same restaurant for 40 years.

White chocolate challah bread pudding with Meyer lemon curd and coulis at t’afia

(BRUCE BENNETT | Houston Chronicle)

Pope’s success meant that when she and Lazar lost the lease on Boulevard Bistrot, business partners and creditors suggested she level up, open something bigger and more ambitious. The week Lili was born, Pope and Lazar signed a lease on a building on Travis in Midtown.

In 2004, they opened t’afia, a place as coolly minimalist as its lowercase name. “It’s pronounced ‘ta-FEE-a,’” they explained over and over, short for “ratafia.” Then they had to elaborate even more: That’s a homemade liqueur, flavored with fruit or herbs.

T’afia wasn’t for everyone. Both the super-minimalist décor and menu offered little comfort to traditionalists. Like the place’s name, small plates, Texas wines and all-Texas tasting menus required long explanations. But many people, including critics, adored the restaurant. “I’m happy that chef Pope and her partner, Andrea Lazar, have finally created a world from scratch,” the Chronicle’s Alison Cook wrote.

A new baby, a new restaurant: Both generate never-ending to-do lists, sleep deprivation, exhaustion. Pope and Lazar leaned in, adding another big project: Houston’s second farmers market, which they hosted Saturdays outside t’afia. Baby Lili as a diapered dot of warmth, reigning over it all in chic natural-fiber outfits.

Amid the bustle, Pope didn’t notice strains in her relationship with Lazar.

One Monday in 2007, Pope called Lazar’s cellphone, wondering whether she’d taken Lili to a museum.

Lazar cut to the chase. “I want out,” she said. “Out of the marriage. It’s not about you. It’s me.”

Pope was stunned.

Technically, she and Lazar weren’t married — same-sex marriages were still rare — but their relationship felt permanent. In their 15 years together, they’d hardly ever fought.

“How could it not be about me?” she said into the phone.

Maybe never fighting was one of their problems, Pope thinks now.

Or maybe the problem was just reality. Relationships, like restaurants, end.

As splits go, Pope and Lazar’s was remarkably civilized. Lazar continued to work behind the scenes at t’afia. Pope bought her out of the house, and Lili continued to live there; the two moms worked out a schedule to share her. Pope and Lazar even embarked, with partners, on a new restaurant concept.

Beaver’s opened off Washington a few months later. These days, Pope admits that she wasn’t a fan of the name or her partners’ barbecue concept. “Beaver’s: Just South of Hooters” played on the fact that Pope and Lazar, the most visible partners, were well-known lesbians. But then, Pope didn’t have to be there much.

She designed the menu, then left the kitchen — and later, the kitchen of a second Beaver’s in west Houston — to a succession of other chefs.

Lazar spent her days at Beaver’s. She called it her “divorce restaurant.”

Pope didn’t want or know how to be alone. She spent as much time as she could with Lili, often at t’afia.

After Hurricane Ike walloped the restaurant’s cash flow, Pope took out a disaster loan and looked for other ways to bring in money. Working with the California group Oustanding in the Field, she pioneered pop-up dinners in the area, serving a family-style dinner to 170 people convened at a single, long outdoor table at a Brenham farm. She also threw herself into teaching cooking classes. As a chef, working in noisy hot restaurant kitchens, she felt disconnected from the people who ate her food. But in the cooking classes, sipping wine, she got to tell stories, answer questions, see people’s pleasure in the food they produced together. She got to be the person she’d wanted her Kansas grandmother to be.

Still, she was lonely. In 2009, she met Josette Edwards, who was hosting a party for “celesbians” at t’afia, and they hit it off. Edwards was in no hurry to settle down, but she got on well with Lili, and soon she and Pope were redecorating Pope’s house and adopting a pit bull puppy.

As if one enormous project weren’t enough, they simultaneously planned both a wedding — with the ceremony at the uber-hip Hotel Saint Cecilia in Austin — and the hyperspeed launch of a more-ambitious-than-ever restaurant.

Sparrow Bar & Cookshop, it was to be called. One of its logos was an empty cage with two bars pried apart. Pope saw herself as the sparrow, bursting her bonds, finally able to fly high.

If t’afia had been a cage, it was a gilded one. It was still going strong, Pope says, still doing $1 million a year in revenue. Outsiders were surprised when, in August 2012, she closed it for good.

During the staff’s two-week vacation, a blitz renovation transformed t’afia’s austerity into Sparrow’s warm-but-industrial vibe, complete with quirky-cool hanging-light shades made of mesh pizza pans.

In the design, you could see Pope’s yearning for connection: the long community table, the emphasis on the upstairs kitchen where Pope led the cooking classes that mattered ever more to her.

Connecting and flying high pull a person in different directions. In retrospect, Sparrow’s successful grand-opening party seems a microcosm of Pope’s life: There was too much going on. The nighttime gospel-brunch-for-dinner celebration also celebrated Pope’s 50th birthday and her 30th year in the restaurant business. Suggested attire inexplicably included pajamas and smoking jackets. CultureMap reported that after a gospel trio sang “Happy Birthday,” Pope told the crowd that the restaurant’s name came from a classic gospel song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” But, she joked, a more appropriate song for this birthday would be Alicia Keys’ “This Girl Is on Fire.”

Pope was burning bright and flaming out.

At this point in the story, things happen head-spinningly fast.

Sparrow did great business at first — $2 million a year, Pope says — and drew a younger, more adventurous crowd than t’afia had. Critics praised her freer style of cooking. “I found myself admiring the way Pope has pared back her vision over the years, simplifying her cooking in a way that seems almost Italian in spirit,” Cook wrote. “What seemed like a growing austerity a couple of years ago now tastes more like purity and assurance.”

Pope’s personal life, though, was anything but simple. That planned wedding to Edwards at the Saint Cecilia never happened. They split, and Pope dove into another relationship. In November 2013, Pope spotted a woman working at a laptop at Sparrow’s communal table. “Are you waiting for anyone?” she asked Sara Eliason, a designer. A year later, they’d be married.

Sparrow’s new-restaurant glow began to dim. Pope struggled to make payroll, to pay child support, to pay off loans for the restaurant, to pay the mortgage on her house. She couldn’t sleep. She snapped at people. And she started to lose longtime staff: first a bartender who’d been with her 25 years; then the front-of-the-house crew walked out. She didn’t pay her taxes.

In November 2014, flying to meet Eliason before their wedding in San Francisco, Pope had a seizure. The California hospital staff thought she was on drugs, she said, but she wasn’t. Her neurologist in Houston chalked it up to a penicillin allergy and sleep deprivation.

She went to a therapist. She took anti-seizure meds, antidepressants. In photos from that time, she looks gaunt, haunted, hollow-eyed.

“People would ask, ‘Are you crazy?’” she said. “I was always crazy. They knew that.”

Sparrow’s business slowed further. To decide which bills to pay first, Pope asked herself, “If I don’t pay this one, will I end up in jail?”

She frantically booked catering gigs, pop-up dinners and cooking classes, leaving her restaurant staff to fend for itself. “I’d manage to bank $20K and pay off XYZ,” she remembered. “Business kept coming in, so I kept hanging in there by the hair of my chinny chin chin.”

In 2015, Lazar — who’d continued to handle business matters all those years after their relationship broke apart — said she, too, was leaving the restaurant. “Sparrow was going down in flames,” Pope said.

Things continued to fall away.

Pope fell out with old friends from the restaurant world.

Eliason asked for a divorce.

Sparrow’s kitchen staff left.

“I sort of let it go and sat in my metaphorical burning house,” Pope said. But not even her real house was safe: Wells Fargo started foreclosure on her bungalow.

Pope closed the restaurant portion of Sparrow in April 2016, subletting the downstairs space and teaching cooking classes upstairs until her lease ran out. She rented out almost all of her house, too, with the idea that she and Lili could live in the tiny addition — a one-room monk’s cell that Pope calls “the shack.” She told Lili that they could put in bunk beds.

For Lili, barely a teenager, that was too much. She moved in full time with Lazar.

Lili, Pope says, was the last person to leave her.

Pope had always feared being alone. But it became clear that even that wasn’t the worst thing.

In August 2018, a biopsy showed breast cancer.

Her brother suggested she ask for donations. “You have a community,” he said.

So Pope made a GoFundMe page. Its photo showed her sprawled on a wood floor, like a body at a crime scene, eyes closed and an arm thrown above her head in surrender: a joke, but not entirely a joke.

Donations poured in — $25, $250, $1,000 — often from people she barely knew or couldn’t place at all. In the end, there was almost $40,000.

The money gave her financial and psychological breathing room. She worked out a payment plan with the IRS, made a deal that let her keep her house, went on Medicaid to cover the cancer treatments. It mattered that the GoFundMe money had come from people who cared about her — people who’d connected to her through her food.

She had surgery to remove the lump, then radiation. Recovering, Pope moved back into the main part of her house. But she couldn’t face sleeping in her old bedroom. So she slept in the twin bed in the room that had once been Lili’s.

Still desperate for money, she continued to host pop-ups and cooking classes, but those were relegated to the bottom of her e-mail newsletters. At the top were stream-of-consciousness dispatches from a chef on fire.

“Debacle” was the subject line of an October 2018 email. Pope wrote that it was one of her favorite words. “It almost always seems apropos of something … ‘a general breakup … sudden downfall … a complete collapse/failure … breaking up of ice in a river.’ Who knew I’ve been embacling my whole life?”

Her ex-wife, she continued, was from Alaska. “Come to find out alcoholism is pretty high in Alaska like suicide in Seattle. Was that a movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan? Or was that my marriage?”

Fans nervously forwarded the emails among themselves, asking, Do you think she’s all right?

The emails unnervingly echoed with other recent Monica incidents: the Butchers Ball chef’s panel she’d rattled by saying she hated panels like that one; the Houston Press interview-with-wine where she rambled about an accusation that she habitually stole men’s wives.

After reading one of Pope’s dispatches, one woman offered to leave a book about grief in her mailbox. Grief, the woman told Pope, was like air in a balloon. Your outcome depends on how you let it out.

The cancer responded quickly to treatment. Then the question wasn’t whether Pope would live; it was how.

She read every self-help book she could find. She meditated. She did what she calls “all the hippy-dippy” stuff.

After a nutritionist told Pope that her body needed fat, something clicked. That was when Pope began making the bone broth. In some ways, it’s the least high-flying-chef food imaginable: plain to the point of spartan, unspiced, unsalted, un-Instagrammable. It’s food for invalids, for healing. It’s about nourishment, Pope says, and satisfaction.

It’s what she feeds herself at night when she’s alone in the house. She drinks a half cup before bedtime: “It’s like having warm milk: Now I can rest.”

During the day, her house is Sparrow Cookshop. Pope teaches cooking classes in the downstairs kitchen and living area — the public parts of the house, not connected to her old monk’s cell — and sometimes hosts pop-up dinners in the back garden. She cooks the foods she sells at the markets.

From the outside, the rest of her professional life looks hectic — a whirl of catering jobs, pop-up dinners, food festivals and projects, a tangle of dates, locations and ad-hoc crews. She’s hooking up with a new high-end medical concierge service, a “health management service” where she’ll give cooking classes tailored to individual clients’ nutritional needs. She’s working on a memoir. She’s talking with a guy about an app.

Compared to running a restaurant, she says, this gig-by-gig existence feels easy. She takes the projects one at a time, doesn’t have to worry about the long-term future or paying a staff during lean periods. Her credit is shot, and that’s fine with her. She doesn’t want more loans. She’s almost finished paying off her old suppliers.

Her daughter, Lili, goes by the name Garner now. She’s 17, a visual-arts kid at High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Pope sees her frequently and brags about her constantly.

But she’s not waiting for her daughter to move back in.

In January, Pope redid Garner’s bedroom, making it into her own, a cozy haven for one adult. Pope still hopes for another serious relationship. Next time, though, she doesn’t want to rush in, to grasp too hard, to try too desperately to control the chaos of a human connection. Anorexia isn’t just about food, she says. There’s such a thing as anorexic relationships.

The master bedroom — the larger room that Pope couldn’t bear to sleep in alone — has been remade into an office. That’s where she’s finishing “Eating Hope,” the memoir she’s been working on for the past decade or so. The book’s subtitle changes. Once it was “And other things I’ve had to stomach.” Once it was “Caution: Chef may be starving.”

The chef who always seemed to live in the future, who was always advocating some concept years before the rest of us caught up, says she’s learning to live in the present. “Struggle is the disease,” she said. “I was in that struggle to keep up with the rent, the staff, the wife, the kid. You get stuck at hope, keep thinking there’s something beyond.”

Through her office window, she could look out at the January rain. Houston’s cool, damp winter had finally arrived: good weather for taking stock of life; good weather, at last, for a hot drink.

Pope had 40 orders that week for bone broth, she said. Its time had come.



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