Grow your own: Fonda San Miguel

 
 
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 07.10.12
 
Tom Gilliland — who owns Fonda San Miguel with chef Miguel Ravago — learned to make chorizo verde from Mexican cooking legend Diana Kennedy herself, and it’s been on the menu for 10 years, drawing on Swiss chard from the garden beside the restaurant. I spoke with Gilliland for a broadcast of Cecilia Nasti’s “Field and Feast” weekend radio show that airs on KUT, for a show focusing on restaurants that grow their own food. (Listen here)
 
At Fonda, the garden endures a tough climate in a small space, not nearly enough to feed the restaurant. “We have to grow a lot of a little,” Gilliland said. And so the herbs flourish, and hearty rows of Swiss chard, maybe some strawberries for drinks if the planets line up, plus other herbs and spices. Herbs like epazote for soups and beans, especially beans, because epazote is known for taming their side-effects.
 
The garden can’t make enough artichokes for a dish, so he let them flower instead to their full prehistoric glory, a shaggy purple cottonball bloom cradled by gnarled green fingers.  For everything the garden can’t provide, Gilliland relies on a pantry of local providers.
 
Can you taste the Swiss chard among the florid spice of the sausage in Fonda’s Queso Asado with Chorizo Verde? Not as much as you can sense it in the composition: less greasy, less volatile, more grounded. It’s served on an iron skillet in the grand tradition of the tableside presentation platter. Muenster cheese is broiled to a bubbled moonscape, sown with crumbled, spicy chorizo like a garden bed. Hardly an accident, because Fonda’s garden is represented there with majestic stalks of Swiss chard, aflame at the base with ribbed flames running through taffeta folds of green, some of it laced with the work of visitors who are never sprayed away from a garden where natural process is more important than yield.
 
In the garden, whispers of mint blow on breezes through patches that are harvested for a mojito in a thick tumbler of Mexican blue glass rimmed in a stained-glass spectrum, finished with a wet peel of sugar cane. Mint and lime and rum are all turned up to 11, especially the green-grass bouquet of the mint, picked just yards away from the bar.
 
It’s Fonda’s special talent, turning up the volume on the standards, something as simple as queso asadero finished with sausage made in-house using greens grown in the backyard, served with flour tortillas pressed at another counter just feet away from the kitchen. It feels like a way for Gilliland and Ravago to keep their fiercely loyal patrons happy while satisfying their own flights of creativity.
 
 
I spoke via e-mail with Fonda San Miguel executive chef Miguel Ravago, who splits his time between Austin and Spain.
 
Mike Sutter: Chorizo plays a dynamic, sometimes volcanic role in some Mexican cooking. Your chorizo verde seems more civilized, more grounded. What was the thought process behind bringing that dish to the menu and incorporating Swiss chard?
 
Chef Miguel Ravago: In Mexico we have about 125 varieties of chorizos, so we wanted to introduce the Chorizo Verde which is made with Swiss chard, so we serve it with a well-known dish called "Oueso Fundido con Rajas y Chorizo." We just wanted to show people that there are other chorizos, and that they do not all have to be green. I think that now that people are traveling more to Mexico, they are learning the foods much better. The chorizos were taken to Mexico via northern Spain, and it had lots of Roman influences in cooking. The pork in Mexican chorizos is chopped not ground. Some of it sold fresh, and the rest is dried for later use.
 
A garden of modest size obviously can't supply all the needs of a busy restaurant. Maybe it's a garnish market, maybe a mascot for keeping in touch with the soil. It's certainly a nice place to wander while you wait for a table. What role does the Fonda garden play in your menu planning? 
 
No, the garden cannot supply everything we would need for the business we have, so what we do is plant mostly herbs and salad items that we can use on a daily basis. We also plant flowers that can be cut to use on the tables. The garden came after the menu, so we work the garden around the menu with a few things that are seasonal like berries and baby tomatoes. We also plant Mexican herbs that are still hard to get. So our garden is planned around our menu and we get great use from it.
 
A more general cooking question: Tom spoke briefly about maintaining the integrity of the core menu while fostering the restaurant's ongoing vitality with specials. In other words, keeping things fresh without alienating a clientele fiercely loyal to their favorite dishes. How do you approach those sometimes contradictory ideas?
 
Working around the "Core Menu" at a restaurant is a very good idea because that keeps your menu fresh. And like I said before, some items in the garden are seasonal, and even if I am in Spain, we have a camera on the garden that lets me see what is ready to harvest. So many things are so much easier to do nowadays than years ago. I still cannot taste or feel the item, but you never know that they will come up with next year?
 
We also have cameras in the kitchen and around Fonda San Miguel which help me keep up with what is going on, and I can call when I see someone sitting on the table and tell them to get off it! They all know that I am watching, so I have no reason to feel bad about it, and they even wave hello at times.
 
 More grow-your-own: In the garden at Olivia
 
(TOP PHOTO, clockwise from top left: Swiss chard from the garden at Fonda San Miguel; the chard is incorporated into an appetizer of broiled cheese with chorizo verde; a patch of mint in the garden; the muddled mint plays an aromatic role in a mojito served with sugar cane. INSET PHOTO, from left: Fonda’s garden; tile work at the restaurant’s front entrance; an artichoke in full bloom. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)