Monica Pope

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Beaver’s, Sparrow Bar + Cookshop (Houston)

In addition to her restaurants, F&W Best New Chef 1996 Monica Pope works as a private chef and instructor, and volunteers through Recipe for Success, which encourages good nutrition in elementary school students. Though she has spent the past two decades in Houston, Pope studied with chef Prue Leith in London, and has worked in Greece, Baltimore and San Francisco. In the next year, the erstwhile English literature major plans to publish her memoir and open a second Beaver’s in Houston.

What’s your signature dish?
Crispy flattened chicken with milled potatoes, salsa verde and beurre blanc. I’ve been doing it for 20 years, and it’s the dish that just won’t die. It’s essentially a bastardized version of chicken under a brick, or a glorified chicken-fried steak. You take a boneless chicken breast, pound it, bread crumb it and sauté it.

What’s the first dish you ever cooked?
I did a carrot-pineapple-pudding cake with a box of this and a can of that, but it was a darn good cake.

What’s the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Pasta with homemade tomato sauce. It’s usually five or six ingredients, but it’s a challenge to get it rock solid. It’s an easy dinner and there are so many fun variations.

Who’s your mentor?
Alice Waters, but it’s kind of a love/hate relationship. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. I think as much as a lot of people get sick and tired of her, and she can come off as sort of a privileged know-it-all, she does always come down to what is important: starting a garden and engaging in it. I started doing cooking classes for my family and I followed her book The Art of Simple Food. People want to complicate everything but from Alice I learned it’s pretty simple to make absolutely perfect food.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Skye Gyngell’s My Favorite Ingredients. I love her visual approach.

What skill do you need to be a great chef?
You need to know how to taste. I know so many chefs who can’t taste because they smoke, drink or eat too much.

Best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Salt. I wish people would use it while they were cooking. It’s so frustrating when something’s beautifully cooked, but you can’t taste it. Salt is the backstory for food, whether it’s kosher salt or one of our fancier mixes, with hibiscus salt, black salt and gray sea salt.

Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
West Texas, the towns of Alpine, Marfa and Marathon. In Marfa, I’d like to eat at the Pizza Foundation, Cochineal and Maiya’s. I’d order Marfalafel from the Food Shark truck, and I’d eat at the Gage Hotel, in Marathon.

What’s your talent, besides cooking?
I hope it’s writing. I’ve been writing a memoir for a few years, and in college I majored in English literature with an emphasis on creative writing.

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
My French coffee press, a campfire stove and a portable potty. I can’t live without coffee and I can’t deal with public bathrooms.

Best new store-bought ingredients?
My favorites come from Indian Harvest: green-wheat freekeh and charcoal wheat. They also sell an unbelievable farro and bamboo rice.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold cheese pizza.

1996 Best New Chef Bio

Won Best New Chef at: Boulevard Bistrot, Houston (closed)