Fonda San Miguel chef shaped Austin’s food scene

June 25, 2017
Miguel Ravago co-founded Fonda San Miguel in 1975 and maintained a role at the restaurant even after moving to Europe. AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2003

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

Fonda San Miguel helped shift the way Austinites understood their 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.

“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.”

The Phoenix 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 Gilliland, a native Midwesterner who shared the chef’s love of Mexican cuisine and culture, opened San Angel Inn, their first restaurant in Houston. They would open Fonda San Miguel, the restaurant that came to define their careers, in Rosedale in 1975.

The North Loop restaurant prided itself on high-quality ingredients sourced directly from Mexico, such as dried chilies, black beans and spices, and 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 in 1993, on the first of his two visits.

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 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 the city and changing the perception of the cuisine by “presenting elegant food in a beautiful setting.”

“His passing is a great loss to Austin’s community and even more so to the Mexican culinary scene,” she said. “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 met his husband of 25 years, Phillipe Mercier, on a trip to France in the 1990s. The couple moved to Madrid about a decade ago, acting as doting uncles to Mercier’s nieces, Paloma and Carlota, but Ravago maintained his role at the restaurant he had opened in 1975. They moved to Brighton, England, in 2012 and spent much time traveling around Europe 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 Mercier; his and Mercier’s beloved chow chows, Dita and Digby; his sister, Betty; numerous cousins; his sister-in-law, Stephanie Medina; his brother-in-law, Enrique Medina; two nieces, Paloma and Carlota; longtime friend and business partner Gilliland; and the staff and families of Fonda San Miguel.

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