Fonda San Miguel chef and co-founder Miguel Ravago has died

    Miguel Ravago, chef of Fonda San Miguel, with a welcoming smile at the well-known front doors of the restaurant. American-Statesman 2003

One of the early leaders of the Austin culinary scene and a founder of seminal interior Mexican restaurant Fonda San Miguel, chef Miguel Ravago has died, according to friends of the chef. He was 72.

The Phoenix, Arizona, native learned to cook at a young age, assisting his grandmother, Guadalupe Velasquez, a native of Sonora, Mexico, in her kitchen.

In 1968, Ravago moved to Austin. Four years later he and Tom Gilliland, a native Midwesterner who shared the chef’s love of Mexican cuisine and culture, opened their first restaurant in Houston, the San Angel Inn. They would open Fonda San Miguel, the restaurant that came to define their careers, in Rosedale in 1975. Fonda San Miguel prided itself on high quality ingredients, such as dried chiles, black beans and spices, sourced directly from Mexico.

The restaurant, widely regarded as the most important Mexican restaurant in Texas, was supported by notable regulars that included members of United States Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush’s families. Fonda San Miguel helped shift the way Austinites understood its neighbor to the south, and before the ubiquity of celebrity chefs on television, Ravago served as a shining light in the Austin restaurant world, traveling throughout the country as an ambassador for Austin at food events on both coasts.

Fonda San Miguel, which has long served as a popular home to locals and visitors to Austin looking for an authentic taste of Mexico, built its reputation on regional Mexican dishes, hands-on service and a massive Sunday brunch spread, which Ravago served at the James Beard House in New York City in 1993, the first of his two visits.

“What a loss for Austin. He was a pioneer in introducing interior Mexican cuisine to the city of Austin,” longtime Austin food writer Kitty Crider said via email. “He and Tom Gilliland founded Fonda San Miguel decades ago, daring to leave chips and salsa off the table, at least initially, and to show Central Texans there was so much more to Mexican food than tacos and enchiladas.”

Ravago, who studied with Mexican food experts Diana Kennedy and Patricia Quintana and traveled extensively in Mexico, co-wrote the cookbook “Cocina de la Familia” with Marilyn Tausend. The book, which won the Julia Child Cookbook Award for the best volume in the American category in 1997, features recipes that reflect the food Mexican-American families cook in their homes, with many recipes coming from Ravago’s family. Ravago and Gilliland also wrote “Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art” with longtime Austin Chronicle food writer Virginia Wood. The book was updated and re-released by the University of Texas Press last year.

Chef Iliana de la Vega of El Naranjo called Ravago a pioneer in Austin and credited him with introducing “authentic Mexican cuisine” to Austin and changing the perception of the cuisine by “presenting elegant food in a beautiful setting.”

“I met Miguel during one of my visits to Austin many years ago, before I even dreamed to live here. Friends invited me to dinner at Fonda San Miguel where the food was incredible and Miguel was kind enough to come out and meet me,” De la Vega said. “Over the years our paths crossed many times, and I had the pleasure of hosting him as well. His passing is a great loss to Austin’s community and even more so to the Mexican culinary scene. Miguel will be remembered fondly and for all that he did in the culinary world.”

Ravago, who for many years was a regular presence in his white chef’s coat at the restaurant, was as well known for his personality as he was for his mastery of Mexican cuisine.

“He was just such a sweet guy. He exuded friendliness. He always had a big smile on his face and such a positive attitude,” said Ron Weiss, co-founder of Jeffrey’s, which also opened in 1975. “He and Tom brought something to Austin that was way beyond Tex-Mex. And they were incredibly generous in the community.”

The popular chef, who showcased his cooking on the 1994 PBS show “The Chile Pepper Kitchen,” left Fonda San Miguel in 1996 and worked for a time as chef and partner at Bertram’s Restaurant and Bar near the Texas Capitol, but he later returned to the restaurant that helped make him famous.

Ravago, who loved to dance as a young man and even appeared on episodes of “Arizona Bandstand,” met his husband of 25 years, Phillipe Mercier, on a trip to France in the 1990s. The couple moved to Madrid, Spain, about a decade ago, acting as doting uncles to Mercier’s nieces, Paloma and Carlota, but Ravago maintained his role at the restaurant he opened in 1975. They relocated to Brighton, England, in 2012 and spent much time traveling around Europe in between trips to Austin and hosting visiting guests.

Ravago was diagnosed with lung cancer earlier this year. He was preceded in death by his mother, Amelia, two uncles and two aunts. He is survived by his spouse, Phillipe Mercier; his and Phillipe’s beloved chow chows, Dita and Digby; his sister Betty; numerous cousins; his sister-in-law, Stephanie Medina; brother-in-law, Enrique Medina; two nieces, Paloma and Carlota; longtime friend and business partner Tom Gilliland; and the staff and families of Fonda San Miguel.

A celebration of Ravago’s life will be held at Fonda San Miguel on July 2 at 5:30 p.m., following Fonda’s Hacienda Sunday Buffet service.

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