For Monica Pope, food is the language of family. The German-born chef grew up in Southwest Houston with the bayou as her backyard, learning the art of cooking from her Czech grandmother, who sparked Pope’s love for food. As a teenager, she spent two summers “studying” with her mother’s mother in Kansas, with the purpose of learning about Czech food and family recipes that she could keep alive and pass on.
Pope also hoped to hear stories. “I wanted to hear about my family. I wanted to know who I was and where I came from; what we were going to pass on food-wise. It seemed to be the thing that was unique about us and that bound us together as a family.”
Nobody else in the family felt comfortable making the traditional dishes or taking over grandmother’s role, so that fell to Pope. After a summer with her grandmother, the budding teenage chef told a friend that she was going to open a restaurant and change the way Houston eats.
Indeed, she has.
Her current critically acclaimed restaurants — Beaver’s and Sparrow Bar + Cookshop — are among those that have set a new standard for dining in Houston. Pope is the only Texas woman to ever be named a Top 10 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine, was a 2007 James Beard Award nominee, was named Best Chef of 2009 at the Houston Culinary Awards, and was a contestant on season two of the Bravo television show Top Chef Masters in 2010.
“Most of my cooking career has not been about cooking,” Pope says. “Through food, I’ve always been searching for who I am, what I’m all about and what I’m supposed to do. My career has been about telling the stories behind the food.”
She calls her inventive cooking style “eat where your food lives.”