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A Chat with Chef Monica Pope


FoodMan
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in response to pan,

well i didn't set out to be the most authentic cuban restaurant in houston; i set out to be the most passionately local houston restaurant in houston and from that intention every decision flows. we have more embassies than any city in the country, second only to nyc in theater seats, the third largest artist population. and world-class museums, what we're known for is tex-mex, bbq, beef and everything texas-sized--the largest liquor store, the largest ikea, ...houston is influenced by all of its population; so my menu reflects them and my travels, my familial origins. my mother's mother and father came from eastern europe and ended up in kansas; we all come from someplace else, but food comes from a place. i wanted my food source to come from houston through the farmer's markets, from ranches and cheesemakers and winemakers from texas. our restaurant was designed and built by local artists and artisans. i wanted to show our community and the world that we can and do have wonderful things other than the items you noted. the world has a view of us that isn't totally undeserved or negative, but there is a whole wonderful quality of life that is under most of the world's radar and i would like to see us get some notice of these things in the future.

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Chef Pope,

thanks for being here with us and for your extremely interesting thoughts. It has been a pleasure reading and replies in this chat. So much so that I would really be intrigued to come to T'afia. Unfortunately, living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, my chances of trying out your cuisine are pretty low at the moment. Maybe in the future :smile: .

Reading your replies and Elie's very nice introduction to this chat I see that you are a strong advocate of local ingredients and that your cuisine has its strong points in seasonality, healthiness and simplicity. Being Italian, my gastronomic background is strongly connected to these concepts and so I feel a great affinity and sympathy for your food philosophy. This ideas, on the other hand, seem to less popular, at least with some people, than it might have been a while back. Many of today's "hot" chefs are moving in a completely different direction, like molecular gastronomy, which could hardly be defined as simple. With them there's a certain number of food lovers is leaning towards more complex and avant-garde techniques. What are your feelings regarding this way of cooking? And also: do you ever get the feeling that a certain kind of food lover might be prejudiced against your cooking because of its simplicity?

Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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in response to albiston,

i agree and agree. in certain parts of our country, this simple, seasonal and sustainable cooking isn't understood. most americans are conditioned to be oversated after a restaurant meal and expect the WOW factor if they are going to pay money for a meal out. one of our manyambitions, starting with boulevard bistrot 11 years ago, was that we walked a fine line of everyday dining and destination dining. my customers may not always know that is going on. alot of people were begging for "clean food" by way of insinuating that my food was too "ethnic" or flavor driven i think; alot of customers now say to me as a compliment, that this is the way they cook at home or the way they like to eat. many times, in these food as entertainment extravaganza, one leaves not even being able to remember what they ate. until recently, i didn't feel i could cook or combine ingredients so simply because the ingredients weren't as good. in answer to your feeling that there might be foodies or gastronauts out there you don't appreciate what i do, absolutely. dining at t'afia is more about a deep, intimate relationship with us on any level you choose; it is not the one night stand, if you know what i mean. i didn't get into science in high school or culinary school so i'm never going in the molecular direction ever, but i think the main thing we can all learn from these chefs or the raw food trend is that it is all about flavor--get how and where you can but get it. if something is just for effect or WOW i don't take it anymore seriously than when my 2 1/2 year old daughter sobs and whines that so and so hit her ......yesterday just to see if we care; we pretend concern. p.s. i find prejudice on every level of what we created at t'afia and it saddens me to no end that people are incapable of opening their minds to all different expressions of life.

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Not a question (though I thank you for answering my previous questions), but I just have to provide a testimonial as one who has eaten at t'afia a number of times...

I think that the simplicity of philosophy that you have described so many times on this thread is what has made t'afia my favorite restaurant in Houston. There are lots of restaurants I enjoy for various reasons, but when I get to pick that's where I want to go. I don't feel razzle-dazzled, I don't get wide-eyed at the spectacle or event... instead I settle in for food I can think about and enjoy as the sum of its parts AS WELL AS the whole. That's not to say that t'afia is comfort food... not at all. I have never been there that I haven't been challenged. But it's more that I feel free when I'm there - I don't wonder if I'm having the experience the chef is trying to make me have, I don't feel that pressure. I don't know if this makes sense... it's just food that makes me really happy.

Oh, and my favorite Texas wine was a t'afia discovery during a pairing meal - Peregrine Pinot Noir 2001 :)

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Monica,

Thanks for taking the time that you have in giving such thorough and informative answers. They have been a pleasure to read. Next time I am in Houston (usually go a time or two every summer for baseball and a quick trip on over to Schlitterbahn with my boys) I will absolutely put T'afia at the top of the list.

Thanks again.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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This conversation is officially closed to anymore questions. Thanks to all who participated. I would like to thank Chef Pope for taking the time to post detailed and informative replies as well.

Elie

E. Nassar
Houston, TX

My Blog
contact: enassar(AT)gmail(DOT)com

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