The Making of a Chef
by Miguel Ravago, as told to Virginia B. Wood
Editor's Note: We are always fascinated to discover what motivates someone to become a food professional. Over and over, we hear of a mother, father, a grandparent who had a decisive influence. We asked Miguel Ravago, the chef and co-founder of Fonda San Miguel, who were the people who influenced his career and what steps he took to become a professional chef. You'll find a note about this unique and amazing restaurant at the end of Miguel's story.
When I was growing up in Phoenix, there was a lot of cooking going on because it was such a big family. My mother and my sister and I lived with my grandparents, and my grandmother would cook three meals a day - not just for us but for her other grown children and their families, too. Sometimes there were as many as twenty people at the table, and twelve was a "slow" day! My grandmother was a wonderful cook because, for her, it was a hobby. She and my grandfather traveled around Mexico a lot, and she was always bringing back special ingredients from Veracruz and the other states. Although she was from the northern state of Sonora, seeing other parts of the country and sampling the different foods really fascinated her.
I was always curious about cooking, so my grandmother started showing me things like how to fill tamales. By the time I was six or seven, I was helping in the kitchen quite a bit. Then later on, when my mother and grandmother had to go somewhere, my sister and I would get to make dinner. The things we cooked didn't always turn out right, but the family was always very polite and ate it anyway. Gradually, I started cooking meals several times a week, especially when a large number of people were coming for dinner. My sister, who was four years older, would say, "You do it. You're better at it." She would then wash the dishes and clean up after me.
So even when I was pretty young, I think I knew I wanted to be a chef
My first job when I moved to Houston was with Neiman-Marcus. Since I was bilingual, I helped entertain visitors from Mexico. I would take them to Mexican restaurants all over the city, but the food was never what they expected. In the restaurants at that time, there just wasn't any cooking like my grandmother's.
When Tom (Tom Gilliland - see below) and I decided to open San Angel, our first restaurant, I had taken some cooking classes in Houston. But my formal training in authentic Mexican cuisine really began when I spent two weeks studying with Diana Kennedy in the kitchen of her New York apartment. She would send me off each morning with a grocery list, and then we would spend the rest of the day cooking the most wonderful dishes - which we gave to her neighbors and other people who lived in the building. Sometimes I showed her a few things I had learned from my grandmother who was part Spanish, so her cooking had a bit os Spanish influence.
After thirty years, cooking is still great fun for me. I especially enjoy the Hacienda Sunday Buffet, which always features four entrees from four different states in Mexico. This gives me a chance to help people learn about the food. If customers tell me they're planning a trip to a certain region of Mexico, I show them what dishes to taste so they'll know what kind of food to expect. Sometimes they come back and say the food wasn't as good as Fonda San Miguel's, and that's always nice to hear.
The atrium at Fonda San Miguel
Fonda San Miguel: The decor of Fonda San Miguel is unique. Huge hand carved wooden doors from the state of Guanajuato open in welcome to an interior with a patio bar (photo). The interior is known for its distinctive Mexican artwork from Rufino Tamayo, Francisco Toledo, Arnulfo Mendoza, Jose Fors, and many more. The cuisine is traditional Mexican cooking that reflects the best of the major culinary center in Mexico: Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz, Yucatan. Miguel is a generous man: he credits many people for culinary support and the skills he learned from them - Diana Kennedy, Patricia Quintana, Lucinda Hudson, Shirley King, Maria Donores Torres Yzabal, and Bill Luft.
From Miguel's co-founder, Tom Gilliland: "When Miguel and I founded our first restaurant in Houston in 1972, we knew that we wanted to introduce the truly authentic and regional Mexican cuisines (with emphasis on the plural). To take on the ubiquitous and highly popular Tex-Mex was probably insane at the time, for the general public had never heard of "interior" or "classical" or "regional" Mexican food. There were no chipotle chilies, rarely even black beans and certainly no huitlacoche or anything in between. In the decades since, we've learned a great deal. We are still learning. With the diversity of Mexico and its incredible culinary history, we could conceivably (but not easily or likely) open twenty-five restaurants, each with a completely different menu. Our desire has always been to present intriguing Mexico at its best, and once the restaurant's cash flow improved, that desire led to the acquisition of art for the restaurant. Today Fonda San Miguel displays the works of some of Mexico's best and most intriguing artists, past and present (and probably future)."