When loved ones pass away, they leave us with so many questions we forgot to ask and stories we wish we could hear again and again. Having known Miguel Ravago—beloved chef at Austin’s Fonda San Miguel restaurant for nearly 45 years—I might mix up recollections of the countless times, travels and meals we shared, the laughter and the tears. I might accidentally omit details of memories, or even spice them up a bit. But Miguel’s smiling face, generosity, genteel manners and exquisite grace will always remain crystal clear in my mind. At age 72, Miguel lost his battle with lung cancer. He took his last breath on June 24, 2017, leaving behind a wake of the brokenhearted.
Miguel brought beauty and delight to all, illuminating every room he entered. He was everyone’s best friend. A consummate host, he took interest in the lives of all—friends and strangers, patrons and staff. He was always a true gentleman, even when he whispered ribald and irreverent thoughts (with a mischievous giggle!), so as not to offend others. A trickster at heart, his playful sense of humor found him pulling pranks whenever he could. In his presence, a warm abrazo was always close at hand.
Miguel and Fonda San Miguel co-founder Tom Gilliland met while working at the Texas House of Representatives in the 1960s. This perhaps unlikely pair of visionaries—a dashing, dark-skinned Latino from Arizona and an inquisitive Scot-Irish Nebraskan—became partners and soon began traveling throughout Mexico. Miguel’s abuelita, Guadalupe Velasquez, native to Mexico’s northern state of Sonora, had helped raise Miguel in Phoenix—teaching him to speak Spanish fluently and sharing her culinary magic. This made Miguel a perfect guide on the many Mexican sojourns with Tom—enabling them to experience the culture, restaurants, markets, home kitchens and art galleries on a deeper level than that of the average tourists.
Tom’s entrepreneurial élan, coupled with Miguel’s culinary skills and their mutual love of art, made a fortuitous match. And in 1975—at a time when most Austinites were eating Tex-Mex-restaurant enchiladas and processed-cheese queso under swaying piñatas—Miguel and Tom opened Fonda San Miguel, introducing complex, traditional recipes using hard-to-find ingredients from south of the border. To international acclaim, Fonda San Miguel has since regaled hungry diners and distinguished guests—from politicos and presidents, screen stars and musicians, celebrity chefs and academics—with authentic food from the interior of Mexico in a lovely hacienda ambiance among an unrivaled collection of contemporary Mexican art and furnishings.
Miguel was always a presence in the dining room, but perhaps Fonda’s Sunday brunch best personifies his unique touch. He would arrange lavish centerpieces on colorful-clothed tables in the center of the restaurant and serve guests from huge hand-painted talavera cazuelas (terra-cotta bowls) and copper pots. Palm fronds, flowers, folk art and handwoven baskets, spilling forth with fruit and chiles, made his centerpieces as stunning as the art hanging on the walls.
Each Sunday, there was always something new to discover as the ever-curious Chef Miguel celebrated cuisines from many Mexican states: Oaxaca’s mole verde with tender chicken bathed in a thick, green sauce flavored with sassafras-scented hoja santa; Yucatan’s cochinita pibil with spicy steamed pork and pickled red onions wrapped in banana leaves; pescado a la Veracruzano, a classic fish dish stewed in a savory tomato sauce speckled with capers and olives; or enchiladas de mole poblano smothered in thick chocolate and chile-flavored sauce made famous in Puebla.
Sometimes he’d offer mouth-watering tamales filled with huitlacoche, a truffle-like delicacy derived from a corn fungus. Or he’d serve interpretative recipes of other prominent Mexican chefs—Patricia Quintana’s velvety corn pudding, or Diana Kennedy’s poblanos stuffed with picadillo. In fact, Kennedy served as a consultant for Fonda for many years, utilizing her penchant for preserving Mexican traditions and recipes. But it was Miguel who brought the recipes to life.
On the dessert table, Miguel paid homage to his family by serving his grandmother’s Sonoran-style capirotada bread pudding or aromatic orange flan de naranja and his sister Betty’s favorite Mexican-chocolate ice cream, and platters of cookies, such as his mother Amelia’s bizcochitos, little balls of cinnamon-dusted pecan shortbread.
Miguel made the brunch even more memorable by standing behind the tables in his immaculate, starched white chef’s jacket, joyfully greeting each guest and tirelessly tantalizing them with descriptions of each dish. It’s no wonder magazines and food, travel and lifestyle networks vied to feature him preparing dishes and sharing his smile for the world to see. Meanwhile, large fundraisers, special events, celebrity chef dinners, weddings and conferences kept the restaurant constantly booked. Miguel also co-authored two cookbooks ("Cocina de la Familia" and "Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art"), leaving a legacy of award-winning volumes filled with beautiful photos of his recipes.
How did this charming chef and I cross paths? In the late ’70s, Miguel attended a Mexican cooking class I taught at Bon Appétit, Austin’s first cooking school. The rest is our shared history, love of Mexico and many exciting adventures together. When Miguel was invited to cook for the James Beard House in New York City in 1993, he invited me along to serve one of my tequila punches. At the International Association of Culinary Professionals conferences in Oaxaca and San Antonio, Miguel and I each set up elaborate displays, but he always found time to help me with any last-minute details. And in the late ’80s, we joined Chef Patricia Quintana and a posse of prestigious Southwestern chefs to spend a week at her rancho in Veracruz. Miguel and I were the only ones brave enough to watch the butchering of the puerco to roast for our evening feast, and while others slept, we’d walk down dusty roads at 6 a.m. to peruse village markets, bakeries and tortillerias.
But in the ’90s, a new adventure beckoned. In Paris, Miguel met Philippe Mercier, the man who would change his life. And for the next few decades, Miguel sometimes left Fonda for other endeavors: as chef at Zócalo in New York, at Bertram’s in Austin and on a stint in Santa Fe (where we considered a restaurant project). After their marriage, Philippe and Miguel moved to Madrid to be close to Philippe’s family, and then to Brighton, England, in 2012. Their shared love of home décor, comforting meals, gardening and sophisticated style kept them contented spouses for the past 25 years.
These were perhaps Miguel’s most sanguine years—a reprieve from decades of long hours and limelight, and a well-deserved sabbatical. Even so, he kept in daily contact with Fonda via Skype—still ruling the kitchen, and returning every few months to an exhaustive schedule of cooking and PR, always with a cheerful attitude.
Miguel and Philippe loved the elegance of Europe. Fashionistas at heart, they donned haute couture to walk Dita, their beloved Chow Chow, through the streets of London, stopping for tea (and a croissant for Dita) or for spice-laden gin and tonics in Madrid. They frequented museums and the theater, neighborhood pubs, five-star locales and took long walks on Brighton Beach.
In April 2017, after transatlantic trips grew tiring, the couple returned to Austin and began to make a new home. But fate had other ideas.
I’ve painted a picture of what it was to know Miguel as my amigo querido so that you too may understand the enthusiasm and kindheartedness with which he approached life. My home is rich with the gifts he gave me: handblown Mexican glasses in swirls of amethyst and silver he found especially for my signature sangria; Spanish rose perfume; a silk purse from the newest Mexican designer; and talavera platters, like the ones he used in Fonda’s Sunday buffets to showcase his dishes so spectacularly. Memories of his love surround me…like him sneaking up behind me at Fonda with a birthday candle lighting up his crepas de cajeta—scrumptious crepes cloaked in a rich goat’s milk caramel and ice cream sprinkled with toasted almonds. I will always remember and miss the glimmer in his eyes, and dancing with him Sunday afternoons at Güero’s…he danced like a dream, just as he did on American Bandstand as a teen in Arizona.
For decades, I have created Day of the Dead altars in my home to celebrate and honor deceased loved ones. In 2007, I invited Miguel as a special guest when Central Texas Gardener filmed my altar for PBS. He brought a photo of his mother, a candle and a bowl of her favorite pozole stew, and talked about the importance of remembering family and friends by bringing their photos and favorite foods to a memorial altar.
On my altar this year, Miguel will hold a sacred spot. I’ll place his photos and a miniature Mexican kitchen cabinet filled with little dishes and cooking utensils so he can cook in the great beyond. The glass heart necklace he gave me will join a mélange of tin heart milagros, in remembrance of a man whose own heart beat so passionately. And I’ll light a candle in his name, reminding me of his gracious manner of living.
By Lucinda Hutson