Follow my 15-day road trip exploring the Queer South at BuzzFeed.com/QueerSouth.
When Monica Pope confesses, “it’s taken me 20 years in this business to do everything that I was afraid of,” you can’t help but wonder what — if anything — there is left for her to fear. She’s opened six restaurants, won countless awards, competed on Top Chef, and she makes time to write a blog that emphasizes the importance of “eating where you live.”
Her career as a chef and restaurateur has been driven by a goal that is both simple and audacious: “changing the way Houston eats.” In a state known for bragging about its barbecue and commitment to the virtues of fried…everything, the chef, an out lesbian who speaks in enthusiastic paragraphs, has had her work cut out for her.
I sat down with her at her signature restaurant, Sparrow Bar & Cookshop, just outside downtown Houston, and we chatted about her stunning success as well as the challenges she’s faced along the way.
Honestly, it looks like Houston is well on its way to become the next San Francisco.
Monica Pope: We’re trying to shout it to the world. The last few years we were like, “OK, we’re sick of this.” We’re cool, the people are cool here, it’s about the people. All of us can do our thing, entrepreneurially, creatively, artistically, whatever. It’s like, this is the Houston that we know. And friends that came that aren’t necessarily from here either but have been here and start their art groups here or started their business here, it’s just like, yeah! This is it!
What’s Houston been like for LGBT business owners?
MP: Murky, at best. I mean, you know, 20 years ago, I remember — I won’t say the name — but I worked for somebody here, and I remember them — it was odd, this woman who was 28 was opening this very dramatic restaurant in the heart of Montrose and doing food that nobody even realized was food, and they labeled it “lesbian cuisine,” and I thought (snorts). Like, oh, that’s how we’re going to — I’ve seen a correlation all my career of what I started 20 years ago. So the story goes, I was a teenager, and a friend of mine said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I’m going to open a restaurant and change the way Houston eats.” [I was a] crazy 17-year-old, swam all my life — don’t ask me why I suddenly woke up and had to change the way Houston eats, but that’s what I said, and I’ve been trying to figure it out for about 33 years, cooking in this business and these restaurants for about 20 years. And for them to immediately label those people that I worked for and I knew, Houston, my hometown, to call it lesbian cuisine… Wow.
Twenty years ago, they thought I was part of a cult [because of my emphasis on eating and using local ingredients]. Ten years ago, they were like, “Y’know, Monica…” Five years later, ten years later, they’re like, “Oh. We got it.” But you don’t realize I’ve been dealing with all the prejudice and all the sexism and racism and everything just because you correlate, and I even tell people, “Look, you don’t understand.” People consume this. It’s not a shirt that you put on and decide you look pretty neat in it; they’re eating this. They actually think — and I saw it in a blog — they actually think if they eat it, they could go gay. If they walk through that door, they could go gay.
Wait, what? People thought eating your food would give them a case of “the gays” or something?
MP: I saw it in blogs, and it was refreshing actually to finally understand exactly what was being a lot of the resistance I was getting. I always wondered what all the “ooh, what’s that, that’s weird, that’s different,” the euphemisms, were really about.
How did you come up with the concept for Beaver’s Ice House [your second restaurant]?
MP: Well, so that was a lark. I was having a really crappy day. I saw this yellow construction tag on the window as I was going to deliver a party, and I said, “wait!” And I was really having a shitty day, so maybe Monica Pope should just disappear, because it’s bullshit, you know? And I go run up to the door, for whatever reason, Beaver’s Ice House was there, and I came back in the car, and I was with my partner at the time — business as well as personal — and I said, “News flash: Whatever happened to Monica Pope?” And I was just going through it in my mind, and I said, “I don’t know. I think she opened an Ice House called Beaver’s,” and I went home — I swear to god — dropped off the party, went home, wrote the menu, tucked it in a filing cabinet, cause I wasn’t that serious. Two months later, my business partners and I had the building!
We’re like, oh my god, we should just do this. And in the midst of all these decisions, I said, “Let’s just repaint the name,” ‘cause the story goes, it was originally, in the ’30s, a bar called Doodies. So I was like, “Doodies, beavers, doodies, beavers. I’ll go with Beaver’s.” It was funny.
There’s no getting around a pun like “Beaver’s” in a restaurant name.
MP: That’s what I realized. They’re gonna string me out no matter what. And that’s OK, I realize that. That’s fine. I was the one who was naive enough to think I could open a barbecue place called Beaver’s and not get some shit for it, and on top of that, barbecue’s just very polarizing. It’s like, you ain’t gonna make nobody happy, forget that, so don’t even try. What I love — there was a local chef, who again I won’t mention, but he said (our T-shirts are “Just South of Hooters”), “She can’t do that!”
Uh, if you can do Hooters, I can do Beaver’s. So I noticed they — not just as a gay woman, but as a woman, as a chef — don’t tell me I can’t do something. And again, not trying to be disrespectful to anybody, or disparaging, it’s just like, we’re just having fun, this is a community piece. I was there last night and people were coming up, going, “Oh, my god!” You know, I mean, they just love it. It’s a guilty pleasure.
You’ve blazed so many trails already, Monica. What’s next?
MP: I’ve been cleaning out my life in the past month. Well, I did this last year, August 14. I’m coming up on my year — I turned 50 in December, but I didn’t celebrate until April this year, which was also my 20th anniversary in the restaurant business. So I did this double celebration, and I’m determined to finish this memoir I’ve been writing called Eating Hope, and it’s for me. The book isn’t really for anybody else, although every single day I run into people who just come up and have to tell me something about something really beautiful and wonderful. So I’m just writing the story for me, and there’s something that happens when you just do that. Wherever it goes, I don’t care. I’m really excited about the next 50 years.
So would you say that Houston has started to change the way it eats?
MP: Obviously I meet these really pessimistic guys who say, “Really? Really? You think you’ve made a difference?” That’s part of the “hope” element of “can I be hopeful?” I think, yes, obviously, they have. This entire country is starting to understand what’s been going on. This city may be one of the last cities to understand it truly. There’s so many layers. I felt — I’m 50, so half of my life I’m here, and I knew something was wrong. I mean, just my own experience, my own family, my own trying to connect and understand, my own journey — I knew there was something wrong by the time I started to understand, and it’s been 20 years of doing four restaurants, and farmers markets and all this stuff. Then it’s like, “oh,” and then you come literally to this month and news reports that talk about specific varieties of vegetables that might have been grown 10,000 years ago that are four times the nutritional value; you realize it’s not just the way we’re growing in this country, and it’s horrible, and there’s no nutritional value left, and there’s no flavor, and there’s no joy, and it’s not good for the environment, but then you start to realize there are so many layers. We’ve got to get back to a different way of living, a different way of farming, a different way of eating, to understand. And again, it’s not “I’m supposed to eat steamed broccoli” — no, you’re not supposed to eat steamed broccoli that has no nutritional value and no flavor. You’re supposed to eat food that’s really, really good.
What is Michael Pollan’s first food rule? “Eat real food, mostly plants.” Why does he even have to say “real food?” Well, he has to because there’s 57,000 frickin’ ingredients in the store that aren’t real, that our grandparents wouldn’t even know what it is. It’s horrible. It’s salt, it’s sugar, it’s fat, that’s it. And it’s addictive, it’s a drug. It’s reduced to 56 simple — I was at the grocery store yesterday getting my daughter some stuff, and I look over at this woman who has plastic bag after plastic bag after plastic bag — I looked in, and every single one of those things was being sold at the local farmers market. I don’t want to shop like that; I don’t want to be on that conveyer belt, I don’t want that plastic, I don’t want to have all those stickers, I don’t want to have that experience. I want to go out to this beautiful local farmers market, meet these people hot as shit, and support them and buy their stuff. It is far better, far more nutritious, far more flavorful, far more fun. There are all these social interactions that you get along the way too. It’s different.
So are we changing? Yeah. I think so. Because you can see the market’s gone from 3,500 to 5,500 to 8,500. [In] this town, there’s a farmers market every night of the week except Monday, you know. Am I going to say have I made a dent? Yeah, because it’s 10 years later, and we still have farmers markets, and they’re going to grow, and they’re going to be more, and we’re going to start to change the way we eat. I host the CSA on Tuesdays and on Thursdays; that’s another way you can support. We have educational classes [that are] interactive. And as almost the third-largest city in this country, I can say…but we’re even changing. I can point to the non-change. I can go right next door and see 500 people standing in line for what I call Krack Korner with a K, and I love those guys, and they even admit it’s not real food, it’s processed and fat, and it’s horrible to see. I’m still here, so I feel like we’re changing it. And people come up to me all the time and thank me for what I’ve done. I also know that it’s hard. People will get a little layer of it, and then they’ll think that’s it, and I’ll think that’s it, and then there’s another layer, another layer. I see it with my daughter who’s 10½.
There’s still so much work to do.
MP: And that’s what the next 50 years is about. It’s just really, really connecting with people in a different way. It’s not about a clunk on the head, here’s my pedantic crap. Hopefully it will just be really enjoying what we do, really reveling in what we created in 10 years and what we need to support, and just keep going with that. Make sure you do good food, and good service, and good bar, and just let people enjoy that. And it will change their lives. And it will change the next generation’s lives.