With her episode of Top Chef: Masters set to air Wednesday at 9 p.m. (hopefully the first of many), Monica Pope — local foodie fave for her restaurants t'afia, Beaver's and the Midtown Farmers' Market — opens up about the show's quick demands, the marathon filming day, the edge her sister gave her in the competition and what part of cooking de-stresses her.
CultureMap: You competed to benefit Recipe for Success. How did you choose it as your charity?
Monica Pope: Oh, it was an easy decision. It's a cause that's really important for me, and it's so hard to raise money right now. It's the only charity that I'm on the board of and I've been involved for five or six years. Recipe for Success is really at a crossroads right now. It's about to spread out to make a huge impact across the country, and it's so important because we're really at a crisis stage, especially with our kids. It's a big deal. They asked me to pick a plan B charity — I don't even remember what I chose! — but I was really happy that it worked out with Recipe for Success.
CM: When did you first hear from the show? What was the time frame?
MP: It was back at the end of October... I got an email on Friday, and within 24 hours, I got a call that they needed an answer. By Monday I had contracts to sign, Tuesday they sent DVDs of the show for me to watch, and I flew out Friday to compete that weekend. I did get a couple weekends to choose from, but I can't believe that so many chefs who are on the circuit can manage to get away at that notice. Maybe I was a last-minute pick, I don't know.
CM: Did you know the other chefs you competed against beforehand?
MP: There was one chef that I knew beforehand ... before I went, I was thinking 'I hope I'm with him,' so I was really glad he was there. We all had one big dinner together, and everyone had these great stories. David Burke is this veteran chef from New York, and he's just hysterical, and Marcus [Samuelsson] is just a different character.
CM: What was the most unexpected part of the Top Chef process? What was your favorite part?
MP: I felt sort of prepared, because my sister works in TV so I know how some of the stuff works, doing certain shots over and over again. But the interview process was different because we had to do so much of it and it's all in present tense. There's so much footage, it'll be interesting to watch because you don't know what the four other people were saying behind the closed doors. My favorite part was when it was over! I can't enjoy something while I'm in the middle of it, and at the end you feel all the emotion, and so proud to have gotten through it.
CM: The episode's preview shows the contestants catering a birthday party for Mehki Phifer. How was that? Were you able to have fun?
MP: That was fun for me. I like to present my food to people. I enjoyed it, and everyone was very complementary and sweet — it takes the stress off me to feed somebody. The stress is behind the scenes, when you are trying to get everything ready. We were on top of this hotel and it was a beautiful night, even though we were exhausted. We started at nine or ten in the morning and judges table started at 3:30 in the morning.
Pope is hosting a Top Chef viewing party Wednesday at t'afia. Large plasma TVs will be set up around the restaurant to show Pope in competition. T'afia will go with its happy-hour prices all night. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Recipe for Success. The restaurant opens at 4, five hours before showtime.