Almost five years after the passing of Fonda San Miguel co-founder and chef Miguel Ravago, owner Tom Gilliland decided it was time to entrust the stewardship of his kitchen to a new leader. But he didn’t just hire one chef to fill the unfillable shoes of the beloved Ravago. Gilliland brought on two new chefs.
Late last year, Gilliland hired chefs Carlos Monroy and Blanca Zesati to continue Ravago’s legacy and point Austin’s longest-running interior Mexican food restaurant toward the future.
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“The need was to find leadership like Miguel, who was adored and respected,” Gilliland said.
Gilliland found that leadership in the team of Mexico City chef Monroy and Zesati, an eight-year veteran of the health-conscious Miraval Resort & Spa.
“As it turned out, Blanca and Carlos came for interviews at around the same time. I was impressed greatly with both, ”Gilliland said. “Each had special skills. Both had wonderful attitudes. So I hired both, trusting that they could be co-chefs and work together harmoniously and effectively. This has proven even better than I had hoped for. “
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Monroy knew he wanted to be a part of the almost-50-year-old restaurant from the time he entered the grand space that Gilliland has curated with his personal collection of Mexican art.
“I thought this is the place I want to be, because it reminded me of home,” Monroy said. “Tom was a lot of the reason why I wanted to come here. The way he made me feel, the way he expressed his love for this place, he made me feel that, so that inspired me. ”
Monroy says the kitchen will continue with Fonda’s core menu while adding specials of traditional dishes that represent the vast array of Mexico’s many distinct regions.
“We want to bring the best of Mexico in every bite,” he said.
Zesati, who worked with organic products and created dishes designed at Miraval designed for those with dietary restrictions, was brought on in part to help guide the restaurant’s new plant-based offerings.
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New dishes include aguachile studded with pert bites of pickled heirloom cauliflower; fried cauliflower tacos that resemble fried fish tacos; and a chile relleno stuffed with lentils and pinto beans and bathed in a bright tomato sauce.
“Pre-Hispanic Mexican food is all from the earth; it’s plant based, ”Zesati said. “When the Spanish came, they brought over most of the animal proteins. So what we’re trying to do is recreate the pre-Hispanic piece of it, bring in the vegetables and the legumes and have enough protein to make it a meal, just like they did then. ”
Both chefs say they look forward to continuing to evolve diners’ understanding of the breadth and possibility of traditional Mexican food. And they intend to do so while acknowledging the impact of the man who helped give the restaurant its culinary identity for more than 40 years, the same man who looks down from a gorgeous painting on the wall of Fonda’s main dining room.
“We have big shoes to fill with Miguel,” Zesati said. “I definitely want to honor him with the food that we’re making and have that legacy live on through us.”