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Farm to Table...Literally.

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By James Geneau

Chef Monica Pope with her "Principles of Good Cooking"

Houston, and Texas as a whole, is home to some of the most diverse agricultural production in the world but the local goods can be hard to come by.  When James Beard Award-nominated Chef Monica Pope could not get to the farmer, she brought the farmer to her doorstep by using her own restaurant as a market where certified local food is available for all to enjoy.  Proving that even the simplest of ideas can have a big impact on the local food movement.

The stereotypical view of urban Texas is that of a big buildings set in a republican state, criss-crossed with freeways, dominated by Wal-Mart, strip malls, and SUVs.  To a degree, that is true.  Outside of the “outer ring”, the suburban sprawl consuming Houston gradually gives way to abundant farmland, cattle ranches, gulf coast fishing villages, and even vineyards.  However, the distance one has to travel is vast and until recently, the distribution of certified local organic food in hard supply.  Consumer demand for local ingredients was part of the issue, but access was an even greater one.  That is, until a team of local food champions including Monica Pope rode into town.

Chef Monica is a star pupil of the school of Alice Waters, in fact, she has been referred to as “the Alice Waters of the Third Coast”.  Born in Germany, but raised in Kansas by her Czech parents, she decided between the ages of 16 and 17 that the chef’s life was for her.  “This was when my interest in food began” commented Ms. Pope, “I wanted to get back in touch with my family roots while pursuing artistic interests and food was a natural medium”.  She has, professionally, always been a cook – with the exception of a few days at her father’s law firm where it was clear to her that this was not the life she wanted.  “We both agreed those two days were more than enough”, she laughed.  For the past 13 years, she has been an important player in the good food movement happening in Houston and as a result of her culinary genius, was nominated in 2007 for a James Beard Award in the category of Best Chef/Southwest.

While her capabilities as a chef are impressive, it is her simplified methods of promoting local food that made me want to learn more from her.  Each and every day, countless strategies are developed, vetted, and poorly executed across North America in an effort to promote local food.  In the world of agro-cultural-social movements one could argue that there are great examples of “talk”, but fewer and fewer examples of “action”.  The problem for many is the scale of the project being undertaken, the expertise of the project lead, and the access to capital required for a big project with little promise of producing sustainable results.

For Chef Monica, small-ideas are delivering incredible returns.  When she opened T’Afia, a 16 table dining room in an open-concept brick warehouse space, she wanted to position it as a “center of excellence in local eating”.  No pretention, little flare.  The focus was to be on the food, great drinks from the casual bar/lounge that seats 30, and al fresco fun on the oversized garden patio.  The challenge was access to a certified-organic and local farmers’ market on a regular basis coupled with committing to regular orders from farmers directly.  To resolve this, she did something simple – she started her own farmers’ market.

The Valet Parking Lot at T'Afia on a Saturday Morning

Saturday mornings, while other restaurants are focused on brunch, T’Afia is transformed into a temple of artisan foods.  The tables in the restaurant are moved around and become farmers’ market stalls.  Pick-up trucks set up on the garden patio and the parking lot is lined with tents filled with the latest, most local, and freshest ingredients Texas has to offer.  Loyal T’Afia diners, friends, and die-hard Houston locavores flood the Midtown Farmers’ Market, as it is formally referred to.  They can grab a coffee and a baked treat from the bar at T’afia, tour the market stands, and essentially fill all of their grocery needs in one morning.  For first-time patrons, it is an opportunity for them to “stop and really appreciate the raw ingredient”, as Chef Monica would put it.

The concept of turning her restaurant into a farmers’ market served two purposes.  First, it provided a reliable venue for a certified market in Houston and the opportunity for her loyal patrons to meet the farmers.  Two, it ensured a regular supply of fresh and seasonal produce landing on her doorstep every Saturday.  Exposure for the restaurant in the local community, healthier relationships between her cooks and suppliers, and further spin-off benefits can all be documented but one simply needs to attend the market on a Saturday to see the impact it has.

Crowds meander through the restaurant, the parking lot and garden patio.  On the second floor, the private dining area becomes a cooking school lovingly referred to as “The Green Plumb”.  Here, Chef Monica selects two “Waters-esque” recipes and prepares them for the free class.  The attendees learn how to incorporate seasonal farmers’ market items available downstairs, taste the difference between local and imported fruits and vegetables, as well as basic cooking skills.  In the classes, much like in the restaurant, the recipes and discussions focus on changing perceptions when it comes to local food, or as Chef Monica likes to say... “what will speak to somebody”.

The "Green Plumb" Cooking School

In Houston, as it would appear, it only takes a few simple ideas to speak to a metro region of 5.7 million people.  Without the use of massive or excessive committees, clubs, memberships, and strategic plans, Chef Monica and her colleagues were able to bring the farmer to the table and over the past 8 years, developed a micro-hub at her restaurant’s doorstep for local food in Houston.  As a result, she was named “most creative chef” by O (as in Oprah) Magazine, declared one of the 40 best restaurants in North America by Travel & Leisure, and profiled as a “Superchef” in Food & Wine.  The Midtown Farmers’ Market is considered one of the best sources for fresh, sustainable, and local ingredients by both consumers and local chefs in Houston.  Her participation in the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, a program designed to promote the use of seafood caught using sustainable and eco-responsible methods, has seen local attitudes to Gulf seafood harvesting change significantly. 

With 28 years as a chef, and a little innovation, Chef Monica along with her chef colleagues have and continue to play a significant role in Houston’s good food renaissance.  All it takes is a commitment to local eating, keeping it simple, and patience.


This would be a great thing for us in Toronto - especially in the winter months. I have doubts however that any restaurants here would give up their dining revenues to support a farmer.
Post Reply By Martha in TORONTO on 1/25/2018 3:43:37 PM

Great piece. Always nice to see what chefs are doing in other regions to promote local food. Some good ideas here!
Post Reply By mark in ST THOMAS on 1/25/2018 1:00:46 PM

What a great story, keep them coming! My two cents...I think our problem in Canada is that we get too involved in the planning and strategy and as a result, we miss out on the opportunity to execute properly. Not all the time, but we do tend to take caution whenever we do things as opposed to just diving in and hoping for the best. Probably because the US is more of a risk-taking entrepreneurial society. Just part of their culture. I think this is a great solution for those in smaller communities trying to build awareness of local food!
Post Reply By Indira in KINGSTON on 1/25/2018 9:18:48 AM

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