Viuda Bistro appeals to the deaf and hearing in Buda
Michael Barnes, Out & About
Casual customers might not even notice. Instead, diners at Viuda Bistro might focus on the ingenious food, the warm social glow or the funky décor, seemingly at odds with the complicated cuisine.
At some point in the evening, however, on nights when Helen's Casa Alde in downtown Buda doubles as Viuda Bistro, co-manager Paul Rutowski greets customers through a signing interpreter. The curious diner, peeking into the kitchen, might also catch chef Kurt Ramborger and sous chef Jacquelyn Doudt mid-discussion, fingers flying through American Sign Language.
They — as well as other employees and a subset of the regular crowd — are deaf or hard of hearing.
"The deaf community has always been very supportive of us," Rutowski says of the bistro that opened, at first monthly, now four days a week, last year. "They came in flocks at the beginning and it (has) kind of worn off a bit. But we continue to have a good number of loyal customers."
Still, the Wisconsin-born teacher and businessman doesn't mind when people don't notice the discreet ASL.
"Personally, I try to eliminate the perception of deafness," Rutowski, 43, states with customary tact. "As Kurt says, you don't need ears to cook. I try to be transparent, because I don't want people to either come (or) not come because of our deafness. We want them to come because they enjoy the ambience, service and food — nothing else."
So what's up with that name, which, if pronounced with a diphthong, resembles "Buda"?
"Viuda" is Spanish for widow. The Carrington Hotel, located in the 1880s along the railroad tracks in the Hays County town of "Du Pre," was staffed by widows. Thus, according to local lore, when forced to change its name because another Texas town had already claimed "Du Pre," "Buda" was borrowed from a corruption of "viuda."
Next up: The distinctive location of Viuda Bistro inside a folksy Mexican restaurant. For three decades, Helen's Casa Alde was among the only eateries in droopy downtown Buda. It served mostly breakfast and lunch, overseen today as in the past by 88-year-old Helen Alcala. Her son, Buda native Rene Alcala, met Rutowski through fitness classes.
"We became Facebook friends and that's how I found out that Paul was running a catering company," co-manager Rene Alcala, 54, says. "I was very impressed with the energy he put into his business."
So Rutowski, Alcala and Ramborger hatched a phased plan to re-introduce a certain cuisine to a community that, for a while, had supported chef Paul Petersen's excellent Little Texas Bistro.
Rutowski and Ramborger, who have lived north, south east and west, met in college.
"Deaf people tend to move around the country because of limited job opportunities, or to be where the deaf schools are," he says. "Some would like to stay where their families are, but it's hard."
Rutowski's gregarious mother mainstreamed her son until he, by chance, encountered students from a deaf school.
"I was 11 and had no idea there was such a thing," he says. "I said: ‘Hey mom, what's that?' ‘Oh, no, no, no that's not for you, because you're too special.' "
Rutowski grew up oral, speaking to everyone in the family and at school, where he was popular.
"When you are young, it's easy to get along with everybody," he says. "But at junior high, they develop groups or cliques and I couldn't really find a group I could fit in. I was a very good athlete, but the school had no support services, just a very pure hearing environment. So I twisted my mother's arm."
He visited the school for the deaf and never turned back. After graduating with honors, he attended Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., engaged in deaf activism and headed to Western Maryland College for a master's degree. His first job was teaching at Texas School for the Deaf, one of the best such schools in the country, in a city that maintains a reasonable comfort level with deafness.
"I don't feel deaf here in Austin," he says. "In Wisconsin I did. They don't have the type of exposure we enjoy here."
How did this charismatic businessman end up selling baked orange cake, Bacon Jalapoppers and Yammy Yak with herb-roasted sweet potatoes and sautéed spinach-cranberries to fascinated urbanites, suburbanites and exurbanites? While well-composed Rutowski operates as the brains of the business, fun-loving Ramborger could be considered its heart.
Los Angeles-born Ramborger, 40, who goes by the sobriquet "the Irish chef" and emails in a thick dialect, has cooked up and down the West Coast, hosting celebrities such as Bill Gates.
Ramborger grew up "embedded in two kitchens of (a) deaf mamma and an Irish gramma," he writes "I grew up immersed with mo mi'ladies as they whipped up the home-style food. The immersion went deep into mo soul and never left there. Pursuin' mo true passion ... bein' a self-taught chef in ‘90s."
Long after college, Ramborger ran into Rutowski while serving as a chef on a deaf movie production in Austin. They launched Arouse Your Palate Catering. The first event that they tested at Casa Alde was a wine and cheese tasting. Then they launched the bistro concept on the first Thursdays of the month — including a memorable outdoor wild boar roast — which led to regular hours Thursdays through Sundays.
"I think the city of Buda has been very accepting of us," Alcala says. "Kurt has become a fixture on Main Street."
Ohio-born Doudt — educated at Gallaudet and Le Cordon Bleu (Austin) — was working as a line cook when Rutowski and Ramborger asked her to join the effort. Working in the kitchen, she isn't afforded the opportunity to interact with deaf and hearing customers as often.
"My vision is to establish a base at the restaurant to show hearing people — customers, employers, owners, managers and chefs — that it is very possible to work with deaf people in front of house and back of house," Doudt, 23, says. "I am hoping Viuda Bistro will set an example to all restaurants."
Although they are grateful to the City of Buda for business assistance, the managers feel the inability to obtain a wine-and-beer license has hampered growth there.
"I'm hoping to stick around for the long term," says Rutowski. "I would love to expand Viuda into the Austin scene one day. But we need to first become self-sustainable with the Buda location. It takes time and patience."
12 medium jalapeños
10 oz. whipped cream cheese
6 oz. Cheddar cheese
1 Tbsp. finely minced red or purple onion
1 1/2 tsp. granulated garlic
1 tsp. lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 egg white
1 cup Italian bread crumbs
12 thick slices of hardwood-smoked bacon
Slice the jalapeños in half, lengthwise. Remove the innards and seeds. Put aside. In a mixing bowl, combine cream cheese, Cheddar cheese, granulated garlic, onion and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Mix well. Spoon the mixture into the jalapeño halves. In a shallow bowl, beat the egg and egg white. Dip the filled peppers into the egg, then coat with bread crumbs. Bake at 250 degrees until bread crumbs turn brown (10 to 15 minutes). Set aside to cool. Wrap with bacon and insert toothpick. Deep fry for a minute or two at 350 degrees.
— Jacquelyn Doudt, sous chef at Viuda Bistro
Baked Orange Cake
12 Valencia oranges
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 cup sweet cream butter at room temperature
1 cup baker's sugar
2 medium eggs
3/4 tsp. Mexican vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. orange oil
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut oranges in half and remove the flesh, wash the rinds, then pat dry. (You can use orange flesh for something else.) Sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and sea salt. Set aside. Whip butter and sugar until fluffy, five to eight minutes. Add eggs, one by one. Then add vanilla extract and orange oil to blend. Alternate blending portions of buttermilk mix and flour mix. Foil the bottom of orange rind and fill 3/4 full with cake batter. Bake for 45 minutes. Add your own icing or whipped cream.
— Kurt Ramborger, chef at Viuda Bistro
Yammy Yak with Herbed-Roasted Sweet Potatoes and Sautéed Spinach-Cranberries
For the sweet potatoes:
2 lbs. sweet potatoes cut into 1/4 inch dices
3 Tbsp. dried basil
2 Tbsp. dried oregano
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1 Tbsp. onion powder
2 tsp. sea salt
2 tsp. black pepper
1/4 cup olive pomace oil, or olive oil and canola oil blended
For the spinach-cranberry mix:
4 cups fresh spinach
1/2 cup dried cranberries
2 Tbsp. sweet cream butter, or 2 oz. clarified butter
2 tsp. freshly grated or minced garlic
1 Tbsp. basil oil, or extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lb. sirloin or T-bone yak steak (available at www.Texasyaks.com)
Pre-heat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the sweet potatoes with other ingredients and bake for 20 to 30 minutes, or until soft. Season the yak with sea salt and black pepper. Heat an iron skillet for 10 minutes, then cook yak on high heat until medium rare to maximize flavor, searing three to four minutes on each side. Then cook further in oven for six to eight minutes. Once yak is in the oven, heat butter and basil oil in a large pan until bubbling. Add garlic, salt and pepper for another minute. Add cranberries and cook two more minutes before adding spinach. Toss. Pull yak out of oven and plate. Heap herbed-roasted sweet potatoes on one half and sautéed spinach-cranberries on the other half.
— Kurt Ramborger, chef at Viuda Bistro