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Monica Pope. The Next Top Chef Master?

Maybe . . . maybe not, but we don’t care. We’ll always love Monica Pope.

by Marene Gustin • Photo by Jaimie Trueblood/Bravo

Come April 7, chef Monica Pope—who runs two restaurants (trendy t’afia and the laid–back Beaver’s Ice House), a farmer’s market, a cooking school, and, just for fun, writes a blog, Twitters, and has a Facebook page—will be chilling in front of her TV.

“I’ll be home alone with my cat Scruffy and a couple of glasses of wine watching the show,” laughs Pope.

The show, in this case, is the premiere of Top Chef Masters Season 2 on Bravo. And, despite the fact that the highly recognized chef and mother of the local Slow Food movement has only seen one episode of the previous season, Pope will be anxiously watching that Wednesday evening because she’s on it.

Not that she was really happy about that.

“I got this e-mail on a Friday asking me to do it,” she says. “And I was sick to my stomach. I know what I’m doing in a kitchen; I have no idea what to do in a TV studio. But everyone was, like, ‘You can’t turn down Top Chef!’”

So she watched that lone episode, which dealt with a dessert challenge that sent her scurrying into the kitchen in a panic to work on her dessert repertoire, packed, got on a plane the next week, and wound up on camera.

For non-TV foodies, each episode of Top Chef Masters has two challenges for teams of professional chefs. The first is a Quickfire Challenge that tests basic abilities and is judged by a blind taste test and a five-star system.?The second challenge is the Elimination Challenge, and is way more fun to watch. The chefs—and there are 22 of them this season—compete in unique challenges; they might be given odd or exotic foods to use, saddled with demanding dinner clients or hungry kids.

“This was the last thing I wanted to do,” admits Pope. In fact it takes another 15 minutes to get her to admit she enjoyed anything about it. “It’s a real honor to be asked, I know that. But I was just terrified; it’s a lot of work to be ‘on’ in front of the camera all the time. Luckily I was with a good group of chefs and we did get to hang out some. But no, it is not my idea of fun.”

Whether or not Pope won the contest—which the network, of course, will not divulge until the program airs—Pope already has plenty of accolades. In 2007, she was a nominee for the James Beard Awards Best Chef: Southwest, and is the only Texas woman to ever be named a Top 10 Best New Chef by Food & Wine magazine. She has also been featured in a host of other national magazines.

And she’s also gay.

“I’ve been out for a while,” says Pope. “But there I was in this interview room for the show with the news media and all these hot lights and I had to take my glasses off because of a glare on them and then I’m taking my jacket off because it’s so hot and I’m feeling a little, you know, and then the second question I get is about being gay!

“First there was the My Gay Houston promotion, then Annise Parker was elected mayor and now Top Chef Masters, and suddenly I’m out on a whole new, national level.”

Pope thinks her orientation may have played a part in her selection, but says nobody on the show really made a big deal about it.

Which is fine, because even though she’s been out in Houston for two decades, she does like to keep her private life fairly private. After three and a half years, a lot of people don’t realize that she and her longtime partner, Andrea Lazar, are no longer a couple.

They are, however, still in business together and still co-parenting their seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter Lili.

“We were together 15 years,” Pope says. “That’s like dog years in the restaurant business.” Pope admits it has been challenging, but both agreed they had to make it work because of the restaurant business they had built together and because of Lili.

“We never had a traditional family, because we were restaurant people,” Pope says. “So Lili totally got it that she had two homes.” About a year and a half later the child heard Pope talking about getting married and asked her how she could do that if she was still married to Andrea.

“So I explained about how sometimes two people fall out of love and get divorced. And then about a year after that she asked me why we still worked together, so I get these questions every year or so.”

Pope, who also somehow found time to create an interactive cookbook Eat Where Your Food Lives at chefmonicapope
.com, decided to start her Green Plum Cooking School last year as a way to be closer to Lili.

“She would say things like, ‘I want to be a celebrity like you,’ but then I wasn’t sure if she realized what I did,” says Pope. “And a friend asked me if Lili had ever seen me cook or even eat, because we weren’t the kind of family that sat down to dinner every night at five, what with having two restaurants. And I had to think about that for a while.”

So she decided to start Green Plum, and Lili came to the Saturday morning cooking classes at Pope’s Midtown Famers Market in the parking lot of t’afia. By the fifth class, Pope says, she was asking to help out her chef mommy.

“She peeled carrots,” says Pope. “She wouldn’t eat them, but she wanted to peel them.” And now Lili really does seem to get what Pope does. “I just want her to have a healthy relationship with food and with me and to realize that even though her two mommies don’t live together anymore, she still has a family.”

As for Pope herself, after going through another rocky relationship she is now casually dating a woman she describes as wonderful.

“Yes, I’m casually dating!” she laughs. “I had to text someone to ask what the heck that meant. But it’s good. For the first time in my 47 years, I am just enjoying someone’s company and realizing I don’t have to jump into anything too serious right away. I can just focus on myself right now and enjoy dating.”

Of course, juggling being a lesbian, a single woman, a busy chef, and a parent is not always easy.

“I was cranky when I got up this morning,” she laughs. “I ask myself how I can do it all. I tell folks, if you don’t see me working then I’m sleeping somewhere! But I have a great staff; I couldn’t do it without them. And we’re not out there drinking all night like some of the younger chefs, and even some older chefs, do.”

Nope, Pope’s no party girl. Which is why, getting back to Top Chef Masters, she, like Greta Garbo, wants to be alone on April 7.

“I want to watch it alone,” Pope says. “There’s no telling how it’s going to look, or how they portray people. I’m looking forward to seeing it, but I’m a little nervous.”

Be sure and tune in, because frankly, she doesn’t plan to ever do another reality chef show. So catch Pope on the tube while you can, and root her on. Just do it from your own sofa.

Top Chef Masters Season 2 premieres Wednesday, April 7, at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Food journalist Kelly Choi returns as the series’ host. Judges at the Critics’ Table will be Gael Greene, James Oseland, Jay Rayner, and Gail Simmons.

Marene Gustin also profiles Cat Cora in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

Got a comment?—[email protected].


Marene Gustin

Marene Gustin has written about Texas culture, food, fashion, the arts, and Lone Star politics and crime for television, magazines, the web and newspapers nationwide, and worked in Houston politics for six years. Her freelance work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Austin-American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Texas Monthly, Dance International, Dance Magazine, the Advocate, Prime Living, InTown magazine, OutSmart magazine and web sites CultureMap Houston and Austin, Eater Houston and, among others.

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