Monica Pope had her revelation about food in a McDonald’s of all places.
Pope, who has gone from Houston-area fame to national fame in recent years, thanks to recognition for her restaurant T’afia and her time on Top Chef, had spent her childhood as a competitive swimmer. But by the time she started thinking about college and her future, she shifted her focus and became interested in reconnecting with her family’s Czech roots. She started working with her grandmother to learn about her family’s background as wheat farmers and bakers, and the process opened her up to a new world.
“At 17, I wanted to open a restaurant, and that’s what I ended up doing,” she said. “I remember realizing that while sitting at a McDonald’s across from the high school. I spent 10 years going to college, traveling the world, and having a vague sense of returning home someday and changing the way Houston eats.”
To Pope, changing the way Houston eats has meant cultivating relationships—with the local food community and with diners.
“It works as a personal journey and a professional journey,” she said. “Everyone has to eat, so it’s important…what happens now in our communities and families is that people’s only experience is with fast food or convenient processed food. There’s no story behind it.”
Over the past two decades, Pope has worked to create local food communities, spark conversations and questions about how people eat, and create delicious and accessible “slow food.” This spring, she’ll bring her expertise to Austin for a weekend as part of the Austin Food & Wine Festival.
If the festival sounds new, that’s because it is. After 26 years as the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival, the organization has transitioned to become the Austin Food & Wine Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to awareness and innovation in the Central Texas culinary community. That community includes food, wine, spirits and craft brews.
AFWA is the designated beneficiary of the new Austin FOOD & WINE Festival and, as such, plans to give back to the area’s culinary community through a grant program to fund projects with a focus on culinary innovation. The Alliance will also feature educational programming and culinary events showcasing local chef talent, along with artisan and local producers, wine and spirit makers and brewers, according to the organization.
“We’re excited to further support the amazing culinary talent and happenings in Central Texas,” said Cathy Cochran-Lewis, AFWA president. “With the support of the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival…we will be able to give back to the culinary community while offering extraordinary artisan, interactive and educational experiences highlighting the best in food, wine, spirits and craft brews year-round.”
AFWA has named Mariam Parker as interim executive director. The Alliance will also be guided by the AFWA Chefs Council, a coalition of Central Texas chefs who will be named by the new board.
The inaugural Austin Food & Wine Festival, which is a collaboration between C3 Presents and some of Texas’ best- known chefs and restaurateurs, will feature demos and com- petitions from the local—like Tyson Cole—to other Texas chefs like Pope. It’s being presented by FOOD & WINE magazine, which brings three decades of culinary event production to the table.
Pope generally stays away from big food festivals, she said, although she has come to Austin to participate in past festivals, and she did win “Best New Chef” at an Aspen food festival in 1996. The fact that Austin’s event features both food and wine, though, is an intriguing new element, she added.
Pope said she didn’t attach her sexuality to her food, but others did.
“People have correlated my sexuality with this food I do, which is just different for them. I’ve seen blogs that say ‘you’ll go gay if you eat this food,’” she said. “(Being) a woman, it’s affected my career terribly down here. And as a gay woman, it’s easy pickings. But now I’m moving in a different direction. The journey for the next 20 years doesn’t look the same for me. Maybe that’s me trying to figure myself out, accept myself, but all that’s understood now, and accepted, and I’m really happy.”
Pope said she’s looking forward to coming to Austin and checking out the food scene in the Capitol City.
“It doesn’t have the same depth and breadth that Houston has,” she said of the Austin food scene. “But there are some very talented people there…and having gone through my own journey food-wise, it’s interesting to see these guys’ perspective.”