Women in the Kitchen: Chefs Speak Out”
U of H Living Archives 2002
Laura Crucet and Monica Pope
November 12, 2002
[BEGIN SIDE A]
Moderator: Monica was born in Germany. Her father was in the service. And she started her cooking career at Cafe Annie in 1981 here in Houston. She went to __________ [word inaudible] College and majored in English literature. Actually [laughter]. And she’s cooked in Baltimore, England, Greece, San Francisco, Houston – and in Houston at Cafe Annie, Bistro Cuisine, La Griglia, and The Quilted Toque. She started her own restaurant in 1992 and has had Boulevard Bistro since 1994. And in 1996, Food & Wine voted her Best New Chef, and she just got through __________ [phrase inaudible].
Moderator: And, Laura, let me __________ [phrase inaudible]. She was also born in Germany.
[inaudible remarks and background laughter]
Moderator: Maybe not. Her mother is French and her father is Cuban. And she was raised in Louisiana and Texas.
[inaudible background remarks]
Moderator: She was educated at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. And she has worked at Brennan’s of Houston, and she opened the Commander’s Palace in Las Vegas, and she is now with the Rainbow Lodge.
Moderator: So those are our panelists. And our interviewer tonight is Alyce Eyster, who has a background in marketing and publishing and is a graduate of UT-Austin, a native Houstonian, and not born in Germany. She is the culture [sounds like] editorial director of Culinary Thymes, which is T-h-y-m-e-s Magazine, which is a bimonthly food, wine, cooking and entertaining magazine distributed throughout Texas. And she loves to cook. So she is going to...
Alyce Eyster: I have copies of the magazine. If you all would like to have one, I would love for you to take one.
Moderator: So would you please join me in welcoming our panel.
Alyce Eyster: I think we wanted to start and talk about these ladies and their background. So the first question I have for you is, “How did you get started in your career, and what sparks your interest in cooking?” Monica.
Monica Pope: Me? Well, I got started. I was just telling Laura that I was a swimmer all my life, and I kind of came up for air in my teens, and was interested in, I guess, or became interested in cooking on two different levels. I was an artist and I was a swimmer. That was my two things that I was intrigued by as a kid. So, in terms of cooking, I was looking for some outlet – creatively, obviously – and also on my mother’s side, my grandmother is Czechoslovakian, and she did a lot of different traditional breads and foods from Czechoslovakia, even though she basically grew up in Kansas. And as a teenager, it was my mission suddenly to carry on this tradition. So I spent two summers with my grandmother. I thought she was going to die soon.
Monica Pope: She is still alive. [laughter] She still doesn’t think I can do her work as well as she can, even in the hospital. So the other thing, I think, being a little budding artist, and my parents were art collectors, I __________ [word inaudible], other than being in the pool, what I got to do with my family was travel and go to these art shows. And food was always a part of that. Dining out in restaurants.
Monica Pope: So I think, for me, my spark of interest was just this connection to my family through the traditional stuff and also through dining with them. And when I stopped swimming, I started cooking for my family. And I got this great satisfaction from doing this. You know, shopping for my mother, or making these great meals that my family really did appreciate. And since I had sort of missed out on a lot of the meals with them, it was sort of my way to sort of reconnect with them.
Monica Pope: When I actually decided to get in the business, which it was my – after my first year in college – what’s great about this business is you can literally walk outside and walk into a restaurant and say, “Can I have an application?” Or, “Do you need some help in the kitchen?” And that’s what I did. I started at Ouisie’s because she had been around for 17 years and was sort of the equivalent for me of Alice Waters in Berkeley. And the odd thing, I hate to admit this to this day, is that when I walked in, she really looked at me and said, “Well, you don’t have any experience.” And I stupidly just walked out. I didn’t challenge that. But that was sort of odd to me, that this woman is saying, “Well, you don’t have any experience. You know, get out of here.”
Monica Pope: So I actually went back across town and arrived at the strip center of Cafe Annie and Neal’s Ice Cream. And I walked into Neal’s Ice Cream and was sort of appalled that they actually did give me an application. They didn’t just give me the job, you know. So I __________ [word inaudible] over to Cafe Annie and walked in. It was about 2:00, 2:30, and all of their kitchen crew, Robert, and Paul, all these guys from twenty years ago, sitting at a little banquette, and the chef out there is having lunch. And I walked in and said, “You know, if you all need any help this summer, you know, mopping floors or whatever.” And they kind of chuckled and said, “No, we have somebody to do that. But there’s three people in line. Whoever gets there first will have the job.” And I guess I got there first. So that was my first job, and the rest was history.
Alyce Eyster: How about you, Laura?
Laura Crucet: I sort of happened into cooking. My family just cooks. They cook for fun. They cook for anything. They don’t need an excuse. They just cook. On both sides. And so – and it’s how we express love, it’s how we express sadness. And so I grew up in a house where everybody was cooking, and nobody ever let me cook. I said, “One day when I live on my own, I am going to cook.” And that’s what I did. And it became a hobby at first, and then it grew into a passion, and then just my whole evolved around making up excuses to cook. And one day my friends confronted me and said, “This is getting out of hand. You really need to do something with this.” And so that’s when I realized – I had looked into it, and I found out that you could indeed make a living cooking. That people would pay you for this. Not well, but that’s okay.
Laura Crucet: And that’s how I started. I’ve knocked on the door at Brennan’s, and spoke with Mark Hawley. And I said, “I’d like to cook.” He said, “I don’t – I don’t think you have it in you.” I said, “You’re wrong.” And I did challenge him. And he called me a month later, and said, “Well, this is your lucky day.” And so that’s how I started.
Alyce Eyster: Wow! And I’ll let you take the next one. Who are your role models?
Laura Crucet: Role models? Professionally? Somebody mentioned Alice Waters. Simply because she is the godmother of all professional cooks, but really she speaks to women because she emphasizes more than anyone, anyone out there, respecting the food. And by respecting it, that is how you will elevate it to its best form. And she doesn’t go on TV and show you how to make big, fancy, exciting-looking foods. She is all about flavor. And then personally, my mother, because she taught me how to cook from the heart. And then Moza Reilly [sounds like] because she is the person who took me under her wing and said, “You’re not quitting! I need you. You keep cooking. You’ll be fine.” And then she taught me about cooking from the heart and also about flavor, and the importance of flavor above all else. That’s my role models.
Alyce Eyster: How about you, Monica? Who is your role model?
Monica Pope: Well, actually, I had a list of women that were cooking in Houston when I was a teenager. People like Amy Ferguson, Cassie Reeves [sounds like], Mary Nell Rack, Eloise Cooper. But I realized on some level they were – I guess they sort of gave me the idea, “Okay, well, this...” But I was lucky, being in Houston, there actually there were women out there cooking. They had their own businesses, and they were successful. So that obviously influenced me. But I do have to say, even though I never worked with her, Alice Waters has become sort of the huge model that I try to basically live my professional life by.
Monica Pope: And a funny story, just, I think, to help people understand sort of what we look up to, but what her sort of __________ [word inaudible], I guess. I was sitting in my restaurant, in my office, and a new waiter came back and said, “The owner of Chez Panisse is outside.” [inaudible] He was a new waiter. I thought he didn’t even know who she was. And I was sitting there like, “Yeah, whatever,” and I was proceeding to work. And he was like, “No. No, really. She’s out there.” And I walked out there, and sure enough, it’s actually Lindsay __________ [word inaudible], who’s the pastry chef; and she was her partner for almost 20 years. And she said, “Sit.” And I sat. I was really mortified, looking around like, “Oh, my God, what did they have?”
Monica Pope: And they actually had things that were completely derivative of her work. You know, the caramel __________ [phrase inaudible], or __________ [phrase inaudible]. And in a funny way I said, “You know, people call me the Alice Waters of the Third Coast.” And she is like, “Oh, my God, even Alice doesn’t want to be Alice.” And she used to tell me what they go through. You know, Alice actually, I guess upwards of five years, actually started or created a board of directors to help her achieve what she wanted to achieve. And what I, you know, I guess at this point in my ten years of being really successful locally and nationally, just is amazed by the power that she does wield; and for all of us who are out there trying to do a little bit of what she does and try to understand what she does.
Monica Pope: But she needs help. You know, she needs all these different people who can sort of get her where she needs to go. And it’s amazing. I mean, I just bought her little – she has a little purveyor book, where you are going through and understanding all of the choices that she’s made. And like Laura said, it is about ingredients, and it’s about some sort of philosophy of – she describes it was the stick. That it’s – that one can be had without the other. The farmers on one end, and the customers on the other. The service that makes all that happen, and us trying to execute things with these humble ingredients. But we have to – I struggle every day, I have for ten years to bring either those ingredients to Houston or to try to inspire people here to grow them or make them or whatever. So it’s a huge thing. She – what I’m seeing now is all of the fruits of her labors for the last thirty years, you know; and who knows what’s going to happen in the next thirty years.
Alyce Eyster: Oh, let’s see. Do you all see similar personality traits in other women chefs, either in yourself or other women chefs? Or what are they, the personality traits?
Monica Pope: I don’t see anybody else... [inaudible] It’s always just me. [laughter] There really aren’t many of us, so it’s hard to – I mean, except that we’re all born in Germany – it’s hard to really...
[several voices talking and laughing at the same time]
Laura Crucet [?]: I guess – let’s see, a diplomatic way to say it. A tenacity. Tenacity, and conviction. And it sounds kind of cliche, but you really have to have a thick, thick, thick skin. Other than that, we, female chefs are as varied as male chefs. You know, we’re all from different ethnic backgrounds and different ages and different economic statuses. But we all have that thick skin and...
Monica Pope: Well, and the things is, I mean, I’ve been in the business for twenty years. And have only done this, so I don’t have – well, I did work for my father for two days, and finally down at the law firm. “Bye, dad. $5.15 an hour looks better than this.” But I guess there’s this inherent understanding that you’re going to have to be better than the guy next to you. And also, you are going to – you are just – I mean, there was a job. I went home every single night for three months and sobbed in the bathtub and said, “I’m not going back. I’m not going back. I’m not going back.” And every day that I was there, every single second, I was saying, “Do I run now? Should I leave now?” I mean, literally. I came to the place in London England. It was the worst job I’ve ever had in my entire life. And it’s probably the place where I learned not even the most about cooking or anything. I mean, I had a lot of responsibility. And I hated the people. They hated me I just – you know, they did everything in French, which I didn’t – you know, they have a little cellar up there for produce, and they’d send me for mange-tout [sounds like], and I didn’t know what mange-tout was.
Monica Pope: And it was just a test. Everything was a test. And I think, what I’ve seen, I don’t look at the male or the female. I look at the chef walking through. And whether intentionally or not, our job every single day is a test. I mean, it’s noticeable if you walk in the door and we haven’t done our job because there’s nothing on the menu. You know, and we’re ready to fix this, and we’re ready to fix that. So we have to produce something every day. And without really knowing it, I guess we give the people that work for us tests every single day.
Monica Pope: And I distinctly remember a young man who I clearly didn’t get the sense was committed. And I had to correct him on how to clean an asparagus, and he walked out. And I thought it was just perfect because it’s like, literally, when you think back why you left a career, you know, didn’t make, it’s as simple as that. Like, if you are willing to take that criticism, if you are willing to – I guess – well, I’m reading a book right now; and a lot of what she does after 25 years – this is Judy Rodgers from Zuni Cafe who actually worked with Alice Waters for a short time. She gave her a great opportunity. And a lot of what she does is sort the opposite of what we learned to do in cooking school. But she in her sort of education in France with the Troygrow [sounds like] Brothers, even though it was against what she thought was right, she realized it actually was good. And so she started incorporating that. And she still tests it to this day, and I think that’s what we do in this business, is try to think outside the box and say, “It may not feel good, but it’s good for us.” Or, “They are telling me to do it this way, but I think it should be this way.”
Monica Pope: And so what we end up with, I think, if we stay in this business, is a really unique vision of what we want to communicate to the people because we really have worked through what seems right to us and what doesn’t seem right to us. And you can virtually create whatever kind of place you want to. And that’s what I’ve done. You are probably in a little different situation in terms of working for somebody, but you can create what you want to do, and create your environment.
Alyce Eyster: How have things progressed for you all in your careers since you’ve started? Has it been an easy progression?
Monica Pope: Am I really going forward?
Laura Crucet: [inaudible] Mine was sort of odd. I don’t think I had a traditional beginning because I started by cooking. I thought that, “Well, nobody is going to hire me unless I have cooking experience.” But then I didn’t want to commit to more school until I was sure this was something I wanted to do. And so I thought, “Well, I’ll just cook for a little while. Then after six months, if I still like it, I’ll go to school.” Well, it took me three years to go to school. But then when I did, I got so much more out of it. And so it was okay to invest that kind of money. And of course that’s the advice I would have for anybody who is going into the business, to cook first. Because it’s not what you see on the Food Network at all.
Laura Crucet: So, for me, I cooked; and then I went to school; and then I went back to cooking. And then it changed my perspective completely. And it’s changed from just getting by to creating tangible things that people can enjoy. And then focusing more on the food and respecting it and bringing it to the next level, as we’ve been talking about. How about you, Monica?
Monica Pope: Well, ten years on Montrose and wherever it is. And I do feel like I kind of end up back in the same place. I think a lot of us do. If you do any kind of work on yourself, or any kind of dream that you have, that you just kind of feel like, are you really getting anywhere? Obviously I have. I look back on ten years, and I’ve had so much success. And I’ve had such great response. And obviously have a business. I make money, which is one of the few things that does need to happen, you know. It can be not so great, but you really do – if you’re not making money, it’s not – it’s too hard, the work is too hard. So that’s sort of the deciding factor, I think.
Monica Pope: But what’s interesting. We were talking – I am going to be forty in about a month – and we were talking about just the endurance that we feel like we have to have in order to be in this business. And I questioned the last five years. I guess I was working out my fear of forty. But it is – I guess I feel like the next ten or fifteen years is going to be where I really actually come into my own. There was no – I didn’t work with one particular person like Alice Waters for, you know, ten years, five years, whatever. I didn’t go to school for more than three months. My education was on the job, six months here, nine months here, three months there. And then most of my – you know, what I think I am trying to do – has been done on the job with having my own restaurants for the last ten years.
Monica Pope: I was talking to somebody recently, and it was like, she was saying, “Why can’t I do something this way?” And it’s like, “Yeah, I say that all the time. It’s like, why can’t I be like everybody else?” But the reality is, I’m not anybody else. I’m me. And I’m the only one who really knows what I’m trying to do. And if I spend my life doing that, so be it. But I’m so lucky that every single day I get people who tell me that what I do is great, and that they appreciate it. And I think that’s where I feel kind of guilty because I get paid to do this; but then they are paying to tell me how great I am. So it’s like...
Monica Pope: And I’m not sure – you know, we both said we wouldn’t want to be sitting in an office. That would be death to us, literally. And so, in that sense, my career has progressed. It evolves, you know. Progression sort of makes it seem like you are trying to get from a to z; but it’s this evolution thing, that we are trying to understand who we are, what we are about, and what we are trying to do. So...
Alyce Eyster: Well, the next section we are going to move on to is to talk about the hierarchy in the kitchen, and then what it’s like to be a woman in the kitchen. Which should be very interesting if you can figure it out. The first question is, “When does a cook become a chef, and how much education or training does it take until you are respected in the kitchen?” Do you want to take that, Laura?
Laura Crucet: Wow, those are really – those are both tough questions to answer. There are days that I don’t know if I’m really a chef, or if I’m just a very highly paid cook. Or maybe not even __________ [phrase inaudible]. But, when does a cook become a chef? The technical answer would be, “A cook becomes a chef when you have mastered the techniques that are necessary to fulfill the requirements of what you are doing.”
Laura Crucet: But even amongst chefs, I think there are probably three distinct tiers. There are working chefs. There are professional chefs. And then there are master chefs. And master chefs are people who can do the – who can cook in their sleep. Who can do things flawlessly with their eyes closed. Who can peel an onion with a samurai. I mean, these are master chefs. They are one in a million, and there may be only a dozen or two in the world.
Laura Crucet: And then there are professional chefs like Monica, who are maybe...
Monica Pope: I have a title.
Laura Crucet: You have a title.
Monica Pope: I have my degree.
Laura Crucet: And then I consider myself a working chef. I’m working towards being a professional chef, but it takes time. It’s a craft. And so, you know, when does an electrician become a master electrician? Or when does a carpenter become a master carpenter? You know, only – I don’t think it’s a title that somebody can bestow upon you, although you can walk into a restaurant and they can hire you as a chef. But it’s, I guess, something that you’ll know when it happens.
Laura Crucet: Education and training – all the education and training in the world can’t buy you respect. It can’t buy you the respect of your peers, and it can’t you the respect of your employees. It’s just like any other profession. You have to earn it. And that depends on the individual. So there are people who’ve been cooking for a long time, and maybe are not respected; and there are people who burst onto the scene and do things so well that immediately they are respected and looked up to. So...
Alyce Eyster: Do you have anything to add to that, Monica?
Monica Pope: Yeah, just a little bit. I mean, I think it is a little – it’s not just as straightforward as, like, if you’re a lawyer, it’s because you went to law school and got your degree; or if you’re a doctor, etc. But I think what we do, you know, there’s this sort of European model, and then there’s this sort of new American model. And of course Americans just think we can do whatever we want. And the Europeans, you know, they start when they are really, really young. Mostly men. And they just work their way up, and they prove themselves. And they’ve worked for – you know, they send people off and say, “Go work with this person. Go work with this person.” So they get this huge amount of experience, and that’s where they get their sort of chef experience or title.
Monica Pope: And I guess my feeling, having come into it more in my mind as an artist – and I don’t mean to say that I even think that cooking is really artistry, although there is – people elevate it to art. I think it really is an artisanal craft, so I think, in my feeling, I have this wonderful kitchen of ten Mexicans who really know their craft. They really hone it every single day. In some ways, technically, they are far better than I am in fabricating a fish or beef or something, or making a sauce. I think the next issue is just tasting and understanding flavors. I mean, there is obviously – I have spent many years wishing I had maybe spent more time really learning my craft, or working with somebody who could really kind of take me there __________ [word inaudible]. Again, you just sort of fumble along.
Monica Pope: But I think the thing that I now – I think there are lots of cooks out there, and I think there are lots of chefs out there. And like you said, the TV Food Network isn’t necessarily giving us the real deal basically. But what I look for in a chef, and I guess who I am attracted to, male or female, is somebody who has a vision, just as I would be with an artist. If they don’t have a vision, if they don’t have their unique expression of what they want to say. And also there has to come – and it technically doesn’t mean it has to look or be a certain way – I will never be a Thomas Keller from French Laundry. I will never cook that way. Mainly because I haven’t built a situation to have sixty chefs in my kitchen doing this really fine work. But he has a vision, and it’s a great experience to go do that.
Monica Pope: And then there’s somebody like Gabrielle Hamilton from Prune who just worked for twenty years and just decided she never wanted to do another torsion [sounds like] de foie gras or something, which is what Keller does. And she wanted to do what, in her mind, was food that she was connected to. Triskets [sounds like]. I mean, she has Triskets on the menu. I mean, that just gives you sort of a basic idea of kind of the generation that she grew up in. And also, you know, her validating that as just a taste that, “Hey, look, we’ll all connect with that.” And then of course she does all these unusual things, and really beautiful food. It’s really – I mean, she’ll go down to the Union Square Market. This is in New York. But that’s the kind of person that I just connect with immediately. And she really connects with the community, and she writes really beautifully. I think she writes in Food & Wine where the community isn’t just the East Village, it really is the world. And that’s where we’re really lucky, as chefs or cooks or whatever, that we’re connecting with the world on some level. So...
Alyce Eyster: Well, Laura had mentioned that there are not many women chefs. And then you had mentioned something about the European model being...
Monica Pope: Not here. We’re just not here.
Alyce Eyster: ...the European model being mostly men. So tell us what it’s like working in a male dominated kitchen. And is that something that sort of started in Europe, or that is predominant over there, and are there more women [inaudible]
Monica Pope: Well, there are women cooking in those countries. I mean, I could name fifty if you made me, right now. And there’s a great women chefs and restaurant tourist group where I could be standing in a room with 300 really exciting women who are in this business, who have families, who don’t have families, who have one business, have a hundred businesses. I mean, it’s astounding. It’s just not here in this city, women who are getting any kind of recognition. I wish Karen was here because there’s Karen. There’s – we’ve called Ginny, our friend from Ginny’s Noodles. I mean, she is cooking. There is Anita from...
Laura Crucet: From Liberty Noodles.
Monica Pope: ...from Liberty Noodles. There’s...
Laura Crucet: Morrie [sounds like] from The Houstonian.
Monica Pope: Yeah, I mean, they are out there. It’s just they don’t quite the glory that I get, nationally or even locally. And I always kind of think of myself as sort of the one token woman that they have to keep putting on the top ten list because, you know...
Monica Pope: And there are women cooking in Europe. That’s why I guess I was attracted to the bistro concept because it really is more of a women-generated food concept, if you will. It sounds kind of crazy. But it’s really more this home cooking. The men in Europe went off and did this sort of stodgy thing, where all of the men are carrying the boys up so they can all be three star chefs. But the women were cooking in more comfort style, little casual homelike places; and I think that’s what women just do. You know, they just connect with people in that way.
Laura Crucet: Nurturing and...
Monica Pope: But, I don’t know, it’s something that bothers me because I haven’t been very – I have one woman in my kitchen. At times I’ve had upwards of maybe three or four out of the ten. And my guys can’t hear this now, but the guys that I actually attract are very sensitive, and they are very focused on what they do. The kitchen is really balanced. I mean, that’s the other thing is, I don’t think I’d want a kitchen full of women, to be honest. I think it might be a little crazy. I like my guys that are just gay enough, you know. And, you know, they are Mexican, just because I think that’s our population. Their work ethic marries with mine, and their skill level is just unbelievable. And they want to do what you want them to do. I mean, they really want to do that.
Monica Pope: And I’ve found it difficult to work – I think I’m answering a different question now – to work with people who don’t want to achieve my vision. And it’s not that I don’t want to nurture somebody and send them on their way to have their own place. I do. I would love that. But there seems to be more of a little bit of a battle. And so I have people who want me to lead them and show them. But I try to learn from them as well, and I do every day.
Alyce Eyster: So what is it like working in a male dominated kitchen? Can you...
Laura Crucet: I think have probably a much different perspective than Monica because she is the ultimate boss where she works. There is never a question of her authority. And...
Monica Pope: Well...
Laura Crucet: ...well...
Monica Pope: You just wait.
Laura Crucet: ...but, for example, I trained in France, and I had the opportunity to stay for three years, six months, and do a __________ [word inaudible]. And I spoke with some of the women who had gone to school with me and had stayed and done a __________ [word inaudible]. And they were just absolute nightmares, what I heard. That they are so not welcome in French kitchens. Women are seen as a disruption. It’s not their place. And just horror stories, you know. I mean, they take – they definitely elevate cooking to its highest level. And apparently they’ve done the same for sexual harassment there. So I was like, “Okay, thank you. I don’t have...” So I didn’t have either the time, money, or patience to withstand three to six months of gratuitous abuse.
Laura Crucet: So I cam back home thinking you would be different. And [laughter] – but then since day one it’s always been a male dominated field. And you go in trying to think it’s not about male or female. And I’m working just as hard as anybody else. And then you go to pick up something that weighs fifty pounds, and try not to grunt. And there are times people come along and help you, and they are sort of chivalrous. And that’s when it’s nice. And then unfortunately I speak Spanish, so I hear everything that they say, and understand it. And because the kitchens in Houston are predominantly Central American cooks, and that is both good, but for women at times it is very bad.
Laura Crucet: In their – or I should say in our, because I’m Hispanic also – traditionally in our culture, women are supposed to be subservient. Maybe not in the new generation of Hispanic women. Definitely not mine. But traditionally they’ve always been subservient, and you can’t be a subservient woman and work in the kitchen. So for me at least there is always that conflict with the Hispanic men that, if I ask them to do something, they just kind of laugh and walk away sometimes. And then – I communicate with them as best as I can. Sometimes. So that’s – so for me, yes, it’s very tough working in a male dominated kitchen. Very.
Alyce Eyster: Well, that sort of leads us into the next question, which is, “Typically, cooking, for women, has been a domestic activity. And, you know, women are nurturers, all that sort of thing. So how did it evolve into a career path for women in this male dominated field? I guess, when did women sort of first start getting into the kitchen?” Julia Childs.
Laura Crucet: She was the first one. And she didn’t begin until she was 36. She didn’t begin cooking professionally. But I don’t think that it has – and you probably have a different opinion. But I don’t think it’s evolved into a popular career path for women yet. And if it has, there’s a huge dropout rate as soon as reality hits. There really is. I think it’s become popular because of the Food Network. Because this thing that used to be so blue collar has suddenly popularity, and so, you know, people like Monica and I, who are more – who see the realistic side, it’s like, this isn’t that cool. This isn’t as cool as you think it is. This is tough, and it’s kind of dirty; and we don’t – we’re not Two Hot Tamales, or we’re not kicking it up a notch. We are sweating, and we don’t wear makeup and pink jackets to work.
Monica Pope: Do __________ [word inaudible] now.
Laura Crucet: You do.
Monica Pope: Have makeup. I’m almost forty. I mean...
Laura Crucet: I think there’s a very, very high dropout rate. And that’s why there are so few women. Because when you look at the dynamic of families, as modern as society may be, and everything is fifty-fifty in the household, the reality is that the women carry the household. If there are children involved, women run the house. And a woman can’t walk away from that. It’s just instinctively it’s not in her. So you have to make a choice. Do you want to never be married and have children, or do you want to cook professionally? And that’s a very tough choice for most women.
Alyce Eyster: You know, it’s depressing.
Laura Crucet: Isn’t it? Thank you.
Monica Pope: Well, you know, I’m not a big – like, fit person, or study person, or whatever. But it seems to me, if I’ve been in this career for twenty years, and a lot of the people that I know, like the Two Hot Tamales that have had restaurants for 25 years, and they are still my age – or a little bit, slightly older – or Alice Waters, who’s had Chez Panisse for thirty years. So I think kind of in the ’70s is when, for all of us, men and women, it kind of became kind of cool. Obviously it’s exploded now to where everybody – you see it everywhere; you know, there’s a whole channel devoted to it now. But what is really discouraging is for women, in particular, though, get into the business, and then they end up – you know, they might do, and I try to make them do at least some line work, which is, I think, the hardest thing to continuously do. I mean I even don’t want to do it at my age. Mainly because it is my own business, and that’s not where I’m best served, is doing the same plates over and over again for the rest of my life. So I have to envision the next menu or the next plates, and I have to figure out who is going to do it best and how they are going to do it, and really orchestrate in and out the door.
Monica Pope: But what’s discouraging is women who – you know, I catch them when they’re pretty young and pretty green – and they are excited. And then I kind of hear, “Well, eventually I’m going to do this.” Which is usually pastry chef or catering or something where they are more in control of their area or their life, their schedule. I mean, I don’t know if Laura has found that to be true. But, you know, running a restaurant, no matter what the hours or the schedules are, just absolutely – it’s just kind of anathema, I guess, to having what people consider a more normal life.
Monica Pope: Now I’m about to have a child in a month, so this will be the first time in twenty years that I have a child or a family that comes first. I’ve obviously put myself and my career and actually in my relationship first. I wanted to be – I didn’t want to just be a successful entrepreneur; I wanted to be a successful person. I wanted to be happy and satisfied with whom I was and my life. But the true test is going to come, I guess, in the next five or ten years, if I can still have a business. I’m lucky I’m not starting a business. And I know a lot of women that waited like me, who maybe got into the business a little bit later; and then they are thinking about having kids. But they haven’t done their business yet. That’s a double whammy, you know, where you’re like, “I’m starting a business and I’m starting a family.” And as I was telling Laura, it took me ten years to get used to this business. And she laughed. She was, “You’re used to it?”
Monica Pope: I think on some level I’m past the day in and day out bad stress of it. You know, the sexual harassment, the whole – I’m now in charge of who I surround myself with, as opposed to when I worked for the people, I walked into just loaded situations where I was attacked in a walk-in, or tested like, “Can she lift that?” Or, “How long can she doubles three days in a row?” That of course I could, but...
Monica Pope: But you go home, and you’re wrecked. It’s just hard. Does that answer your question?
Alyce Eyster: Yes. It all sounds like the physical thing.
Monica Pope: Totally physical.
Laura Crucet: Like not lifting [inaudible].
Alyce Eyster: Being able to lift.
Laura Crucet: And that was the biggest surprise.
Monica Pope: Although I’m always called, as you can see. I’m always called. But there are just – I had a guy come into my kitchen. Now, granted, he was older. He was probably in his 60s, early 60s. He had just retired from law, and he wanted to work in my kitchen. And I said, “Jim, why don’t you stay, and I’ll teach you how to expedite.” Because I think that’s kind of where the real art of having a business is. And, you know, it was like, it made no sense at all. And it was really noisy. I mean, it’s like the stock market, you know, on the floor. It’s just __________ [word inaudible]. And it’s hot. And it’s stressful. The guys who make it, the women who make it, are the ones who don’t lose their you know what because suddenly they have twenty tickets up there. It’s somebody who really knows what they’re doing, and has a system by which to do it, and doesn’t lose that system when they get a huge amount of business. But day in and day out you just have to stay on top of it.
Monica Pope: So I see it. I mean, like I said, I’m not yet a mother; but I see what we do as just what mothers do who have their own careers. I mean, you’re the laundry. You’re cleaning the fridge out. You’re making dinner for everybody. It’s all the same stuff. I mean, I go home, and I’m like – it’s the same thing. I just left my business, and I cleaned my walk-in, and I __________ [word inaudible] and changed all the containers. And I did my orders. And people were saying, “How do you know what to order?” And it’s like, “Well, how do you know what to buy at the grocery store every week?” It’s the same stuff, you know. And you know, oh, we need the eggs, and we need the cream, and we need the sugar.
Monica Pope: And I’m lucky that I have sheets by which to sort of... Oh, yes, I have to order my meat this week. It’s all basic domestic stuff. And the other thing that people ask is, “Why does it taste so good?” I’m not going to get into sort of the skill involved in making sure it tastes good. But the other thing is, it feels good to people because it is clean, and it’s organized, and everything is rotated in a proper manner. If you mother pulled out leftovers from like a week ago, and you’re like, “Mother, what are you doing?” “It’ll be fine. Don’t worry.” You’d be a little like, “Wait a second.” But that’s what we do. We look in our walk-in for leftovers and figure out what’s going to be – what’s going to fool the waiters? And then we can fool the customers.
Monica Pope: In a good way. In a good way.
Alyce Eyster: You could say that some women sort of have a complex relationship with food and are concerned about their shape more so than men. Does that affect the way women cook as opposed to men cook, or does it affect the way you cook at all?
Laura Crucet: I mean, you can’t, you really can’t watch calories if you are going to elevate something to its best form of food. If you want to bring out, say, an apple. If you want to make an apple taste like the best apple it’s ever been, you can’t say, “How can I make this apple taste and be low fat?” It’s just not – it doesn’t work like that. And so, no, so when I’m in the kitchen, and when I’m cooking, I don’t count calories, either when I’m buying the menu or I’m eating it, I just – no. But, no, it doesn’t come into play at all. And so what happens, and how you tend to not weigh 300 pounds is, you don’t have time to eat a lot. Seriously, you really, when you start working in a kitchen professionally, you immediately lose weight because you don’t have time to eat. And then, since you are smelling food all day, when you leave that environment, nothing, or very few things, sound appetizing or appeal to you. So, at least for me, it never comes into play. I never count calories or fat grams or anything. It’s just about the food and what’s going to taste good.
Monica Pope: I think I’m a little different. I used – as a kid, I had a weight problem. I was probably 30 or 40 pounds heavier than I am now, which on me, hello, it’s right here. And I really consciously, when I was thinking about sort of – somebody referred to me as courageous, and I had to laugh because everything I’ve done has sort been out of fear. Fear of the alternative. Even though this business was extremely hard, and I was extremely shy, and just thought this is not the right atmosphere for me, I put myself in the middle because I was afraid of the alternative, which was being maybe an artist holed away in a studio all by myself, going a little crazy.
Monica Pope: Now the other thing was that I was overweight. So you would think that’s like the opposite place that I should be. But what it did was put me right in kind of the eye of the storm, if you will. And then I also realized – I guess it was in a good way, and I feel for people that have food issue because it’s something that I just would love to be able to sort of cure for everybody – what worked for me – and we were talking about this, just being active, being on our feet all the time, is a better situation than being behind a desk. Also, for me, what worked for me was tasting a lot of different things, but not sitting down to three big meals or six big meals or whatever.
Monica Pope: You know, sometimes we’ll get a dessert, and we’ll each take a bite and go off on our business. Which is what I preach to everybody, which is moderation. Everything in moderation is probably better than just gorging on a bag of Snickers, which is what I used to do.
Monica Pope: The other thing about – and I think maybe you – I bet you do this. The other thing is, a lot of what’s happened to our food sources is, there is something wrong with it. You know, it doesn’t taste very good. And bam! you know, Emeril, bam all this stuff on the outside trying to make it taste good. But what’s happening now is there are some really great products out there. Really good ingredients. I just got some heirloom apples, you know. You were talking about apples. And I consciously was sort of taking each one, going, “God, you know, what...” Because I’m a big sort of anti-fruit person. I think you go to the store and you don’t get great fruit all...”
[END SIDE A]
[BEGIN SIDE B]
Monica Pope: ...that can be bought. I think then you need less sugar, butter...
Laura Crucet: Right.
Monica Pope: ...whatever it is. And you also, if you are – my little catch phrase if I’m ever an Emeril is, “You cook it down, or concentrate the flavor, rather than adding something on the outside to it.” So I think there’s different ways to get really great flavor, whether you dehydrate that and you’re just like, “Oh, my God, the texture and the flavor is unbelievable.”
Monica Pope: I am a strong proponent of using butter and sugar and cream and all the stuff, but I think in conjunction with all the other wonderful things, that I guess people think they don’t have the time for, which are whole spices and fresh herbs and those things in combination. Which is why I’m so attracted to Indian food, which is why I wish Karen was here. That was really the first cuisine that I, for whatever reason, was introduced to twenty years ago, and really thought, “Wow! This is unbelievable.” So there’s other ways to get flavor without it being cream or spice or butter or all the stuff that really, actually, we need to make sure...
Monica Pope: And I love olive oil. It’s really great. Olive oil is sometimes – I wouldn’t put it in my coffee in the morning, but it’s great.
Alyce Eyster: How competitive are each of you? And how competitive is the field?
Laura Crucet: I mean, personally, I am really not competitive at all. I mean, it’s not that – the moment that you become competitive and you start cooking from your ego, you lose a sense of what’s important. So it’s not about me. It’s about – like I said before, it’s about making tangible that people can enjoy. And so that’s it. That’s my goal. That’s what I’m doing.
Laura Crucet: How competitive is the field? I think it’s very competitive to rise, especially beyond a certain point. But it’s not a matter of knowing somebody always. We’re very lucky in this field that if you’re talented, you will rise. And if you are hardworking, you will rise. So I don’t – for me, at least, being competitive is not an issue at all. So...
Monica Pope: I’m extremely competitive. I have to watch it because, well, there’s this competition of, “How much sales am I doing versus somebody else?” But then I realize there were times that I am truly successful because I’m extremely happy. I make enough money. And again, I get all this great recognition from everybody. From my peers. You know, a lot of these guys – and they are guys – who have come up in like the last three to five years, they look at me like I’m the matriarch or something. And sometimes they are a little older than I am; but I’ve been around for ten years, and they tell me that I have sort of helped them believe that it was possible they could do their own place. Which is great.
Monica Pope: But I am competitive, I guess, just fundamentally. Because I was a swimmer, and everything is a competition. You dive in, and you try to get to the other side first. But the longer I’m in the business, I realize this. There is no end of the pool. Like I’ve got to just work forever and ever. The big __________ [phrase inaudible] in my life because I got a little __________ [phrase inaudible] there for a while. But you just work towards who you are and what you are about.
Monica Pope: I will tell a funny story because I just think it’s hysterical. This is just a little insight into my mind. A neighbor kid of ours, Dean, he’s probably about six years old. Andrea [sounds like] is going to be embarrassed now. He had a little lemonade stand a couple days ago, so we stopped and gave him a dollar and got two lemonades. And we were walking back to the house, and I was like, “You know, when my kid is six, we’re going to have __________ [word inaudible] Vietnamese __________ [phrase inaudible due to background laughing].”
Alyce Eyster: Tell us about the relationship between the restaurant owner and the chef. I guess you are...
Monica Pope: The restaurant owner and the chef. Yeah, that would be me. I don’t know. I was wondering how I was going to answer that because I wonder what people would say with me as a restaurant owner and them as a chef. I guess at times it feels like at odds, but I guess, I don’t know, I may have to pass on this one. I’ve always loved, first and foremost, being a restaurant owner. So my actual – I don’t know; not my focus, because my focus, you know, part of it is definitely the food. But there is so much around the way the restaurant looks, and how it runs, and all of the people out front, which is mostly who you all see, makes or breaks me in terms of the food. Because people have said to me pointedly, “Monica, no matter how good the food is, if the service sucks, we’re out of here.”
Monica Pope: And so I have to, first and foremost, think about that. I’m not the kind of person who is just, you know, one plate at a time kind of person. I have never been like that. So I think it’s kind of, what I would hope as a chef that I would understand, and anybody else who is a chef who works for a restaurant owner would understand, that without the restaurant there would be no you doing what you do. So you have the respect the business side of it, and you have to respect what the customers want. And I know there’s a few people out there who have these bad reputations for not really doing what the customer wants. And sometimes being in the back of the kitchen and not seeing that person, that’s why I am partly drawn to being in the front, talking to people, meeting people. That’s really satisfying to me. But it’s also connecting to the very people who I’m trying to win over or make happy or satisfied. So I have to kind of remind my kitchen staff why they are there. And I think because, first and foremost, I’m a restaurant owner, that sort of trickles down, hopefully; and everybody kind of gets that equation that we’re all there for the customer.
Laura Crucet: I guess for me it’s always been a different dynamic because I’ve always worked in situations where the restaurant owner was one person and the chef was a different person. So it’s more of a teamwork. The restaurant owner has a vision. The chef has his or her vision. And then the final product, hopefully it’s always the best combination of the two.
Laura Crucet: But at times it’s frustrating because restaurant owners, especially when they are not professionally trained chefs, come up with the oddest ideas. And you just look at them and think, “Where did you see that or hear that?” And then your job becomes a challenge at that point to kind of sort defuse – take that idea, defuse it, and make it into something that you know will taste good, look good, and sell. And so – but it’s always – sometimes when it is divided like that, it is always an interesting combination because you – they’ll push you somewhere that you would maybe would not have normally gone. At least for me, the restaurant where I work now, she comes up with these – at first they sound like crazy ideas, and then I make it. I’m like, “Wow! That’s – I would never have thought to do that.” And so for me it’s good. Sometimes she usually pushes me out of my box and makes me learn. So it’s kind of frustrating at times, but in the end I think it’s usually for the best.
Alyce Eyster: Well, the next section, I have some questions about creativity in the kitchen. And I want to ask you what inspires you all, but I also want to ask, how much of it is about, since women are nurturers at heart, how much of it is about pleasing other people and making them happy and all that? I think you sort of touched on that earlier.
Laura Crucet: Yes.
Monica Pope: I think we both __________ [phrase inaudible]. Without that, it’s all kind of pointless, isn’t it?
Laura Crucet: For me, at least, it’s a real big part of me. And I actually love that I make tangible things that people can enjoy. I mean, you don’t – you can’t go into a law office and write a draft of a document that’s really going to make someone’s day. Or make this the most special anniversary they’ve ever celebrated. But, yeah, I can make a little, any little dessert, and plate it so beautifully, and then just really put the icing on the cake for someone. And that’s kind of cool. It’s very cool.
Alyce Eyster: Do you have anything to add, Monica?
Monica Pope: Well, I was going to say – I had my line here. I think what I’ve learned lately is that if you think about twenty, or even I guess my 39 years of living and experience with food, what inspires me – and people always ask, you know, “How do you come up with the stuff you come up with?” And it really is in a nutshell a three piece. People, places, and pleasure. If I’ve had any kind of dining experience that was really pleasurable, that inspires me to come back here and kind of almost recreate it. If I have met a person, like I did in London, who had a great meatball recipe from India, I still have the little card, Mita’s Meatballs. First of all, the sharing of that with me, something that her mother passed on to her. But also the experience of her making that for me, and then my experience of trying to recreate it. And then also the sort of creative spinoff of that, which is, “Oh, we can make all different kinds of meatballs.” And also, in my kitchen, Maria has a meatball thing that her mother... So it all kind of comes together, and you are connecting. And it’s fun to see then, when you serve that to a customer, that they connect in a different way.
Monica Pope: And also places. I believe strongly in chefs, cooks, people traveling. They don’t have to travel far. I mean, you can go to the Hill Country and probably experience something really kind of, I guess, almost indigenous to that place. And find a connection to that, whether it’s peak season blueberries or something like that. You’re just like, “Wow!” And so much of our enjoyment of what we do is either the people that you are with, or the place where you’re doing it, whether it’s my restaurant or Rainbow Lodge, or it’s a special occasion, or whatever.
Monica Pope: So it’s almost like all of that has to kind of come into it. It isn’t just – I admire people on some level who focus just so much on whatever’s in their mind. The flavors, the combinations, or whatever. But it’s hard for me to not perceive it as some sort of – I’m coming up with a word that I really shouldn’t use – but it’s a little too ego-driven sometimes for me, if they don’t provide sort of this other thing that needs to come with it. Hospitality, or good service, or something. And I think that’s true of anybody across the board who is cooking for anybody. Sometimes it’s just a wonderful experience that somehow somebody just provides you, you know, because they are thinking of all these things.
Laura Crucet: Well, then, the seasons. I mean, that’s probably the number one thing that inspires us is, whatever is in season. You know, we try to – if something is in season, we try to tuck it into as many dishes as we can, that we can get away with. Because you know that it’s just – it’s going to taste so good, so easily. And that’s just great when you can make something taste wonderful without having to manipulate it a lot. That’s really – it kind of goes back to the Alice Waters thing.
Monica Pope: Just don’t want to mess with it.
Laura Crucet: Right. And your background, your family. You know, you try to recreate maybe a dish that was comforting as a child. My dad’s Cuban, and so guava and cream cheese, or flan, or...
Monica Pope: Well, that’s the thing, I think, when you start talking to different people from different areas of the world, are these things that are just solid combinations. And there was that book that came out, Culinary Artistry. It’s a husband and wife team that wrote Becoming a Chef, which I thought was appropriate for tonight. And then they did this book that was really actually a hard – it would have been a really daunting task. They did a great job, but the way they did it was literally just almost – well, they talked a lot about people and how they are creative, how they do it. They had a list of like twenty or thirty chefs that they keep asking sort of the same series of questions. But the way they broke it up was just all these ingredients, you know, whether it’s persimmon, and it’s like, “Well, what are all the combinations?”
Monica Pope: So there’s just these sort of blockettes [sounds like] where you get a quick idea; and if you’re in this business long enough, you imagine – you know, like she said guava and cream cheese. And there are so many different – like I just saw, you know, I have quince. Which I’m going to make quince paste. And it’s like quince and a cheese. It’s like, yeah, that’s...
Monica Pope: So it just sort of spins off, and it’s a really interesting experience. People often think you sit there and go, “Okay. Okay. What are...” No, it’s like you’re just influenced by everything. Whether you’ve read something, and it just kind of popped into your head, and you go, “Oh, I can buy quince.” And I’ve never done this before, so this week I am going to make membrillo, as my kitchen calls it, or quince paste. And then when I lock into sort of wow!, then it’s going to have all these different applications, if you will. Whether it’s a special cheese that I get from L.A., or I go back to __________ [phrase inaudible], it ends up in a sauce, you know. Because I’ve done quince. I’ve done __________ [word inaudible] quince. So it’s like, “Well, who knows? Maybe I’ll have this whole other rendition with this quince paste. Because it becomes a part of my pantry.
Alyce Eyster: So how do you manage being creative, but also managing your businesses, and not getting bogged down in the details, but still being able to be creative?
Laura Crucet: Well, I can imagine it’s going to be much tougher for Monica than for me because...
Monica Pope: [inaudible]
Laura Crucet: And honestly, people always ask me, “Oh, well, don’t you – wouldn’t you like to have your own business one day?” And I, “No way. No, thanks.” Because then I feel like I would not have the time to do what I love most. And that’s cook. And that, to me, would be so sad. Because I don’t know that I would enjoy being a restaurant owner. I don’t know that I’d enjoy being a business owner as much as I do cooking. And so when I – but even as just a working chef, I do get pulled away at times. And it’s frustrating because, number one, chefs in general aren’t known for their great attention spans. And so it’s hard to sit down in a meeting for any length of time. It’s odd but true. You never see like 2 or 3-hour long chef meetings ever.
Laura Crucet: But when I get to that point, I just kind of look at everybody and I go, “Excuse me, but I’m just going to concentrate on the food and ignore all the people.” And you do, you just have to kind of call time out and go back to the food because without the good food then nothing else is going to work. So let somebody else worry about the linen order. Because there are other people who can do that, but not everybody is going to have your food instincts. And that, I think, is more valuable than signing in the wine order or something that someone else can do. Just delegate. And ignore.
Monica Pope: I resent authority. [laughter] I mean, I have days when I feel like, “God, if I could just do that one thing.” And actually I realized just recently, and I know everybody will just be shocked, but I realized I actually – I mean, I really, really, really love the business part of it. I really love being a part of how we serve something, or making a change in the dining room, or really knowing that my staff is trained. Or whatever. I mean, I really get into all that stuff because I don’t think I would be happy just doing the food. I think I need that. I mean, my two reasons for getting in this business was not just – I mean, I was satisfied with serving my family wonderful meals occasionally, but there was something about having successful businesses that was really the thing for me.
Monica Pope: I would not be here today as a business owner without my partner Andrea, who really is the general manager of the front of the house. I like to overrule her as much as possible, as sort of the visionary and the artist and the chef, and all the stuff, but the reality is, she is allowing me – sometimes not maybe as much time – but allowing me the opportunity to be back in the kitchen and really focus on getting the food out. I know that she is working with the staff and making sure that they all do – and that they are all, I mean, the key is really that they’re proud to work there. I think that’s what comes across mostly to my customers. They are really proud to work there. They really do – I mean, we constantly work on what they don’t know; but the reality is, when they do end up leaving us, even after a year, two years, they know so much. David, who you know, went to Europe this summer; and he’s like, “When did I learn Italian, French, German?” You know, all the stuff. He knew all the food. He was ordering for everybody. It just sort of was part of his work at Boulevard Bistro, all these unusual words, and looking them up, and suddenly – I mean, he is bilingual, so I guess it comes easier to him.
Laura Crucet: Let me tell you something about Monica. That’s what I’ve heard about her. She has...
Monica Pope: Thanks for coming.
Laura Crucet: She has the toughest applications to wait tables at her restaurant of any restaurant in the city. You have to know more than most chefs to wait tables. Which is great. I mean, which is like an honor __________ [word inaudible]. So you know that it’s not some little college kid who just walked in off the streets who is going to be serving you.
Monica Pope: Actually, you know what, it is.
Laura Crucet: It’s true. You really have to...
Monica Pope: It’s not just anybody __________ [phrase inaudible] walk in off the street. But it’s the kid who will sit at the bar and not run away. We’ve had people come with __________ [phrase inaudible]. Andrea is pretty touch on people like that. And then we’ve had the person who’ll like, “I’ll be right back.” And then they run out and they never come back. Because they think they are going to have to answer every question before they get the job. And that’s not the case. The case is, if you are honest and say, “I don’t know.” Because I lost a job one time because I made up how to make hollandaise. And I lost a job because, “This just isn’t the way to make hollandaise.” “Well, I didn’t really know.” So I’m very – I always start in and tell people, “Look, you know, whatever you don’t know, just don’t answer.” But the person who runs away is going to be the person who runs away when I say, “Now this is how you clean asparagus.” And they are going to get upset, or their ego is going to get in the way, or whatever.
Monica Pope: If you come in, even as a blank slate, but – this is the other key question we ask, is, “Do you have any other applications out there?” It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve given them to everybody.” It’s like, “So you don’t really want to work here. You just want to work someplace.” But there are people who literally say, “Well, you’re the only place I’ve come to; and if I don’t get a job here, then I’m going to try here and here. But this is where I really want to work.” And that speaks more loudly than somebody who can tell me what is __________ [word inaudible]. You didn’t run away, did you?
Laura Crucet: I’ve never tried to wait tables, but I probably would have been scared to.
Monica Pope: The kitchen test is easier.
Laura Crucet: Oh, is it? Okay. I might be able to pass that.
Alyce Eyster: Well, you all talked about – mentioned the Food Network and how it presents sort of an unrealistic point of view, maybe, of chefs. But what would you say, that it probably has gotten more people interested in food?
Laura Crucet: Oh, absolutely.
Alyce Eyster: But what would you say makes a chef popular? Is it talent? Is it personality? Is it PR? What is it, in your opinion?
Laura Crucet: Popular nationally? It would have to be public relations because, I mean, there are people making wonderful food everywhere; but somebody has to go to the trouble of putting that person’s name out there and making them known because that just doesn’t, or rarely happens by itself. Locally, people can become famous because of their talent. Monica is a case in point. She started out in Houston, and she rose in Houston. And it was just her talent. I never saw __________ [phrase inaudible]. I never saw a big PR machine behind her. And I remember seeing her grow. Because she is my Alice Waters here in Houston.
Laura Crucet: But what makes you popular locally, and with __________ [word inaudible] it has to be talent. I mean, if you have a good personality, and you can talk to people, and you are articulate, that helps. But not all chefs are, and so it’s not a requisite. You could be a sort of a bumbling kind of person. People still like you if you cook well.
Monica Pope: There’s a lot of different types of ways to be popular out there, I guess. I have to – this is the wrong word, but just acknowledge my local popularity, which I don’t even think – I value so much the relationships that I have with people who come to the restaurant. But there are so many people who can’t or don’t come, but who still maybe put me as their most popular chef. But I do think the value – like, I did some commercials for Fiesta; and I had a lot of women come in and apply for a job because they didn’t know that I was even there. So what I was talking about with Alice Waters, just having this board of directors and certainly getting a lot of national and local press, it’s just helping you connect to people who, every time they read a book or see even a commercial or a little show...
Monica Pope: I mean, the cooking shows aren’t inherently bad. I mean, there are really good chefs on there. I think the Two Hot Tamales did a good job, and Mario Batali does a good job, and Michael Lomonaco. And they are all really unique personalities. So there’s got to be the sort of cult of the personality. Because, to be honest, Dean Fearing [sounds like] had a crappy show. It was painful to watch. And actually Wolfgang Puck had a pretty bad show, considering how he is such a great guy, and he really has a successful empire. I mean, if anybody has – I mean, I don’t know how many restaurants he’s up to now, but let’s say it’s at least 50. I don’t know if it’s 100. And he still has a great reputation. People love him. But something didn’t work on camera. He didn’t have the right format, or – I don’t know, who knows what it was.
Monica Pope: And that’s the same thing with what we do just in our own little places. Often the talent, the true talent – because I can list five people right now who aren’t in this business any more, who are so talented; and they couldn’t find the right platform for it. Or the right contacts. Hopefully Laura really shines at Rainbow Lodge because they allow her to. And that’s like having her own little business there, you know, and everybody comes for Laura’s pastries. But oftentimes the talent just can’t be found. And don’t get me started on PR people.
Laura Crucet: The Food Network has been great for our field, as far as popularizing it. But I guess when you watch those shows, you need to think of them as a cooking lesson, not as a true representation of what a professional kitchen is like. Because, first of all, it’s entertainment. And second of all, that’s a stage. They are done on sound stages with little kitchens built on them. And I don’t know about your kitchen, but the one I work in, all the appliances don’t match. And nobody has set up all the ingredients neatly in little bowls for me. That would be great and save me so much time. But it doesn’t happen.
Monica Pope: And I do – like I have had friends who have done that for __________ [phrase inaudible], not working, out of school, whatever. And at some point they just – you can see the fear in their eyes. It’s like, “I’ve got to get out of here because I haven’t been cooking. I’ve been assembling all these little ingredients, and it’s just like, six minutes, okay, it’s over. Next thing.” I wish Dominica had come here tonight because she does that for Oprah’s shows, and she works with the guy who wrote the cookbook. That’s a whole different part of the business. But all those things...
Monica Pope: The thing about the PR people which are – no, I’m sorry, but somebody out there asked. But there are a lot of people out there who are paying a lot of money. It’s a lot of money. It’s thousands of dollars a month. And oftentimes I see people that have this disconnect. It’s like – and I’m extremely unlucky, because if I get one little note in the magazine, they multiply by ten. You know, it’s like it’s great. But it really is just one little mention in an article that really is about somebody else. I mean, I’m serious. Because the somebody else has a PR person who made that story happen, which is great. I don’t want to pay for it. And I wish we didn’t have to pay for it. I wish the people in this town, in particular – and I don’t want to sound bitter or angry or resentful, because I have had a lot of – a step over the years.
Monica Pope: But I wish they were doing more to really talk about what everybody is trying to do. Because there are really a lot of people out there right now. And they are not doing – none of us are doing – I mean, on occasion I have a really great day. I’ll be extremely creative, and everything is just really unbelievable. The right person isn’t there. I have a great houseful of customers who go, “Wow! This is great.” But where is the reportage of what we are doing every single day for a thousand people? And also, like I said, in the last five years, this town really has exploded with lots of chefs out there doing what they do. And I think we could all benefit from having people, not just our customers, which is great. I listen to my customers. I’m not sure anybody else does.
Monica Pope: But that the food critics, and the people who really want to see – hopefully they want to see our cuisine elevated to where it should be. We’re the fourth largest city in the country. We eat out more than anybody else in this country, 4.9 times a week. And we have a huge amount of diversity out there with our food. I mean, go to Austin and there’s ten places. We’re really, really exceptionally spoiled. But where is that? In fact, on this panel, like I said, there is just probably ten women out there doing their food that I wish people knew about. Or at least maybe they go there, but really knew that there was somebody back there.
Alyce Eyster: Well, I’ve got a few questions for you all for our closing portion. I’m going to switch the order around. But tell me what are some of your favorite foods currently? Favorite recipes?
Laura Crucet: Method, or recipe. And maybe you don’t use recipes as faithfully as I do.
Monica Pope: Well, yeah, you sort of have to __________ [phrase inaudible].
Laura Crucet: You have to, just to work. There’s a lot more science involved, whereas hers may be more instinctive. But my favorite recipe is any recipe that works. I mean, because that is a blessing. There are millions of cookbooks that have been published, and yet so few of them, the recipes, when you actually go to make them, work, or work well. And you wonder, did anybody actually test these? So when you do find a recipe that works, and is consistent, then it becomes an instant favorite. And then of course recipes always get changed and personalized. You make them your own. And then you write your own – or you write your own recipes. So, yeah, any recipe that works.
Laura Crucet: And as far as foods, it changes from day to day. Today my favorite food is a persimmon. Tomorrow it might be whatever, heirloom apple. So, think about it too much, just like homing [sounds like] in on one thing.
Alyce Eyster: What about you?
Monica Pope: Well, I mentioned that I got Zuni Cafe’s newest cookbook, you know. And I guess what is wonderful about it, this was one of the places, when I came back from Europe, I moved to San Francisco. And she was doing __________ [phrase inaudible] dinner. And for some reason that was my place. I mean, I just connected to it. I knew a little bit about her. She is not one of these celebrity chefs. She probably never will be. She’s now, 25 years later, doing this book. And one of the statements she made is that it is her entire repertoire. I mean, she left nothing out. And she does repeat herself a lot, and the repetition helps. Because part of what we do, I think what I always worry about are these young kids who just try all these different things. Just keep trying stuff. And it’s like, you’ve got to lock into something that you know, maybe only you know that it is great. And then work and work. And many of the things that she – and I relate to this after ten years of being in the business – that many of the things that you just stick with, and you execute consistently by a recipe. Because we do use recipes. People – it’s kind of a misconception that we don’t cook with recipes. But the reality is that if you want to have a good consistent business where people keep coming back and have the same experience almost, is that we have great recipes.
Monica Pope: But she worked them and worked them and worked them to the point where they became really Zuni classics. You know, things that you just would never thing people would love, like sardines and pasta, which I’m going to do this week. And it will be interesting to see what happens. But I really like reading, because I have such a history with dining there, and have had such unbelievable experiences, it’s fun to read the little blurbs about the recipes and stuff, and kind of the back story, if you will, of those things.
Monica Pope: And it was unbelievable reading her life experience. And this is the other thing that I just keep saying. She didn’t really intend to go to France to be a cook. She just got this exchange program going with a neighbor friend, and it turned out to be these two chefs who had this restaurant. And she learned, you know – I mean, the guy said, “Take a notebook.” And of course she took a notebook, and she’s cooking with the mother, she’s cooking with the brothers, she’s out in the field with the father. It just became her life-changing experience, and even when she came back to Berkeley, she went to school; and she wasn’t going to be a chef. And then she got sucked into Chez Panisse because somebody said, “Hey, you know, if you did that, you might want to...” And then the rest is history.
Monica Pope: There’s a lot of books that I keep going back to. Kitchen Conversations, Joyce Goldstein, just came in the restaurant last week. I have French Laundry just as sort of – I don’t know, there’s a lot of technique that I just didn’t learn because I went to school for three months and have a hodgepodge career. So I kind of look and see if there is sort a classic framework that I need to be working from, and then sort of figure out what we are going to do in our kitchen.
Alyce Eyster: What do you all see as the next big food trend?
Laura Crucet: Well, not to go back to the heirloom produce again, but, yes, I think we are going to start moving back towards foods that taste like what they’re supposed to taste like. And I’m not one who is willing to go completely organic right away, but I think – and I do think it will happen that slowly we’ll start taking the hormones and the preservatives, and start taking the wax off the produce. For example, I think this heirloom produce is a wonderful trend. And for those who don’t know, heirloom produce are fruits or vegetables that have never been cross-cultivated or bioengineered in order to be a bigger, better, redder apple. And so if you are eating an heirloom tomato, an heirloom apple, it’s the same apple or tomato that somebody would have been eating 150 or 200 years ago. And so you just pick it up, and it just smells different. You eat it, and it just tastes truer. And I think that’s the trend that we are moving towards. At least, I hope. Is truer foods.
Monica Pope: I have some stuff down. I have a home in California, so I can kind of see the trends that are happening there, I guess. And then kind of see what’s going on here. I’ve been here for ten years. What’s encouraging, having been doing this sort of local organic thing for the last five or six years, is now my customers are kind of asking me, or demanding from me, “What’s organic?” Or what – somebody was saying, the woman made wine [sounds like]. You know, people are now aware of that you make a choice of what they support, what they want.
Monica Pope: Grass-fed beef is something that is big out in California right now. We’ve made some connections with the Texas Grass-Fed Beef Company, and we are taking little tiny steps to see what that’s like. It’s hugely, hugely healthy. It’s got the omega-3 fatty acids just like salmon does and lots of seafood. Very lean. And now what our task is probably within the next thirty years is undoing basically the big lie that we’ve been sold for the last thirty, forty years. I hope we are going away from super size to intimate, smaller scale stuff. As scary as that may be to some people who don’t want to get too close, don’t want to have that kind of experience, the bigger the ladder, the better.
Monica Pope: But I think after what’s happened in the last year, and what could happen in the next few years, is that we’re all a little bit closer to home. A little bit more places that make us feel a little bit better, a little bit closer connected to things that make us feel good.
Monica Pope: Traditional things. Like, I buy a buratta, which is a fresh mozzarella. It really only has a 5-day shelf life, and I get it from L.A., from __________ [word inaudible] Vido, who came from Italy and started this – you know, everybody has to emigrate to kind of like bring what it is that they do, so that they can then find a place where they can do it and kind of have a better life or make a living. Everybody is doing buratta in Italy, but they decided to come over here and do it here. So I am always searching for supporting family-owned businesses, or people who are really trying to revive a tradition that just hasn’t existed for 50, 60 years, for whatever reason. Industrial agriculture has sort of taken over this country, unfortunately. The heirloom fruits and vegetables. There are some other unique products like __________ [phrase inaudible]. I buy a lot of different types of salt from all over the world. There’s a smoked salt that is like an old Norwegian technique that they revived, and I can only buy it out of Aspen Cooking School. But you try them, and you’re buying it because you think, well, okay, it sounds interesting. But then the actual product turns out to be really good and really interesting. So it’s just stuff like that. I think that probably the biggest trend is going to be healthy stuff, and it’s going to be a huge education for people to unlearn what they think is healthy.
Monica Pope: The other trend, unfortunately, is literally nobody really eating at all. You know, they’ve got a drink. There’s vitamins in their water. There’s going to be all these nutrients in their shakes and stuff. And it’s like, they’re not even chewing. [inaudible due to background laughter] And they’ll end up like, everybody is sitting in the bistro just [slurping sound]. It’s not going to be pretty. But hopefully we are actually getting back to really experiencing food the way it used to be. And getting satisfaction from it, because I think that’s – there’s been a huge – I know my generation was probably the start of it, where our mothers started working and kind of stopped cooking. And you were like, “Oh, but I loved it when you made...” And then we just sort of have a 30-year gap of, “Well, now what do we do?” I think now all of us are really trying to get back to that and carry on a little bit.
Alyce Eyster: And last question relating to you all. What advice do you all have to women entering the field?
Laura Crucet: I jokingly said to Monica, like, “What advice do you have for women?” Said, “Run. Run. Don’t do it!” But that is not true. It’s that you just have to make sure that you are doing it for the right reasons. It’s not to make this grander than it is, but in a way it is sort of like entering the clergy. And the food is almost – you almost to have to approach it like it’s a religion. And be aware of the sacrifices that you are going to have to make. And it really has to be something that comes from the heart. It’s not something that you can do because you want to be rich. Because that’s not realistic. Or because you want to be famous. Because then you’re not going to be true to the food. Not because it’s fun. I mean, if it’s what you want to do, it’ll be satisfying; and that’s wonderful. But you just have to do it for the right reasons, almost like you’re entering the clergy. And then, and only then, whether you’re man or woman, will you be happy.
Laura Crucet: And then also, make sure that you have the physical stamina to do it. Start early. And don’t go to cooking school until you are positive. Cooking schools are expensive. And they are crowded with people who think this is a glamorous thing to do. And so, just really do your research. I mean, I guarantee you that 90% of the people who think that they want to be a chef would change their mind after one week of working in a professional kitchen. But that 10% might stick it out.
Monica Pope: Well, twenty, I guess 20-plus years ago, I was in a kitchen in San Francisco. And it was a woman. Well, there was a woman in a corporation. She had four restaurants at that point, and she wanted to have twenty by the time she was forty. And when she would come in the kitchen, which wasn’t very often, I would see her – I was there for about a year; I saw her maybe six times or something, but – and everybody would call her Mom. Which kind of bugged the crap out of me. But she came up to me one day because I was leaving to go back home here. And she was like, “Well, why are you going to Houston?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to open a restaurant there.” And she goes, “Why are you going there? Nothing is happening there.” And it’s like, that’s the point.
Monica Pope: And I thought to myself from that moment on, as a woman-owned businessperson, that I would never, hopefully, ever discourage anybody from either going wherever they wanted to go to do what they want to do. And I would certainly never discourage somebody who actually is telling me that they want to open their own business. Of course I’m skeptical because so many people say they want to do it. Very few people actually do it. Or, so many people actually try to do it and just don’t succeed. There are so many variables that has absolutely nothing to do with, are you a good cook at home? And that’s why I have like an open kitchen policy. I have a person coming in on Saturday who just wants to kind of just see how my kitchen works.
Monica Pope: But I have – Jim, the person I mentioned earlier who retired from law, he really, I think, thought he wanted to have a restaurant. And he kind of came around a couple of times and was sort of hinting that, you know, what would one do if one... And I said, “Why don’t you come out in the kitchen?” I mean, he ended up being with me for two years, coming in on Fridays and Saturdays from about 9:00 to 2:00. But I think that first week he just said, “No way. No way.” And now he’s totally cured of it. He loves what he learned there, and he loved that connection; but the real reality of it for him was it was not going to happen.
Monica Pope: But I would have to tell whoever it was, like Laura said, definitely don’t go to cooking school like that’s going to seal the deal. But really work in the business. I’ve worked in the business for eight years before I went to the cooking school in London; and I really only went to the last semester of a 3-semester course. And then continued to work another five or six years in the business. And also, I would always try to encourage somebody to go to Europe, or travel, or go to California. I think I would be a little – it’s just me – I would be a little skeptical of somebody who hadn’t really gotten that exposure on some level.
Monica Pope: So that’s what I tell people to do. But I just tell them to go for it. And I always remind people that what I’ve done at Boulevard was for less than $50,000. At Quilted Toque, it was about $72,000. You know, try to tell people that it does not have to – you know, a lot of people will throw out figures like $300, $400, $500,000. In reality, over the course of eight, nine, ten years, I’ve spent that much on doing all the things that I couldn’t do when I first opened. But I didn’t have to. I was extremely lucky, and this is what a lot of people, a lot of the guys tell me, you know, that have 20, 40, 50 investors. They aren’t really working for themselves. And so I’m very lucky that I don’t have investors, and that I don’t have a huge amount of debt. And that I can make all of my choices, good, bad, or indifferent. And the money that I make is mine, and it doesn’t go to all these people who have money, obviously, or they wouldn’t even given me theirs.
Monica Pope: And actually a lot of these guys look at me and say, “Well, Monica, if I had your situation, I wouldn’t be doing four more restaurants. So you have to ask yourself, and we all do, just how much do we need? And is this enough? And my little 65-seat bistro is plenty for me. It’s got a lot of challenges every single day. So bigger isn’t necessarily better. And some people – try to find somebody that you really think you might connect with, and see if [inaudible]. Try to think of something else.
Monica Pope: You know, my sister works for David Letterman. She’s been there for twenty years. The reason why she connected with him is she created the internship program from SMU. I mean, she had...
[END SIDE B]
“Women in the Kitchen: Chefs Speak Out” – U of H Living Archive 2002 – Crucet and Pope – 11-12-02 Page 1