- By Addie Broyles American-Statesman Staff
Last weekend, one of the most noted chefs to have worked in Austin kitchens returned to the city that helped shape him to helm the Authentic Mexico gala at the Long Center.
Mexico City native Roberto Santibañez was the head chef at Fonda San Miguel from 1997 to 2001 before opening several restaurants in New York and writing a number of cookbooks. He returned to town as the featured chef at Sunday’s annual fundraiser for the Hispanic Alliance and its community projects, Emprendedor U, Austin Soundwaves and Oleh.
Each year, Authentic Mexico showcases a different state of Mexico at its event tied to Diez y Seis, Mexican Independence Day. This year, it was the North Central state of Zacatecas. Even though Santibañez grew up a few states away, he knows that one of the most popular dishes in Zacatecas is asado de bodas, a wedding stew of braised meat served in a sweet, simple mole.
“This mole is particular to Zacatecas,” he says. “They don’t have the availability of ingredients as southern and central Mexicans, so they used two kinds of dried chilies and a few spices, which is all it takes to make a mole.”
We’ve come a long way in how Americans and Austinites understand Mexican cuisine, he says. Santibañez trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and operated several high-end restaurants in Mexico City, but he knew he wanted to work in the U.S. In 1997, he took over Fonda San Miguel, where he learned lessons he still uses today.
“Fonda was where I truly jumped up and dived into it all,” he says. He watched founder Tom Gilliland work the front of house and run the back of house, finding a balance between operating a business that speaks to his soul and one that his customers demand.
“One of the wonderful things about Tom is that, almost seamlessly, he’s continuously making changes to the restaurant, and (customers) don’t realize that the wall has a different hue or a different design,” Santibañez says.
In 1997, Statesman freelance restaurant critic Linda Anthony wrote, “Service at Fonda San Miguel has always been professional, but with the arrival of Santibañez, everyone seems to step a bit livelier and smile a bit more. Even the restaurant itself, also one of the prettiest in town, seems to glow a bit brighter. In short, if you haven’t been to Fonda San Miguel recently, go. It’s better than it’s ever been. … The place literally seems to sparkle again, and so does the food.”
Santibañez has been back to Austin a number of times since he moved, including in 2015 for the big 40th anniversary party at Fonda. He’s in frequent contact with Gilliland, especially after the passing of Miguel Ravago, the co-founder of the restaurant who died earlier this year. “He’s so lucky to have Fonda as his creativity hub,” he says. “He can do anything. In NYC, if I put that picture of the Vatican in a storm, I will get killed by people complaining about things.”
Both Santibañez and his old boss are constantly trying to improve their own menus, but with the right amount of nouveau spin. “Mexican food loses its soul in the hands of people that don’t have the right knowledge of the ingredients or the sauces or the plates and flavors,” he says. Some chefs “want more people to like it, so they are cooking more European, but dishes are starting to lose their spiciness and complexity. I’m trying to be as innovative as I can with the traditionalism that is behind me and in me, while still moving forward.”
For instance, he’s still roasting the tomatillos the same way he always has, but the innovation might come in the presentation.
Santibañez also has a growing interest in the preservation of Mexican ingredients, such as the different kinds of chilies that are now grown in China instead of Mexico, which has a different climate and growing conditions that lead to different flavor profiles. “Chiles de árbol and guajillos taste different,” he says. “We have to put a lot of focus in that because if we stop using them and appreciating their differences, we can lose them.”