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Kurt “The IRISH Chef” Ramborger
Eater.com’s “Hottest Chef in America” 2012

Kurt Ramborger entered Eater.com’s “Hottest Chef in America” competition as a lark. Thanks in part to a vigorous vlog and Facebook campaign by his sisters, Marlena Ramborger and Heidi Branch (both Deaf), and an iconic photo by Paul Rutowski showing him playfully brandishing his cook’s tools, he became the first Deaf winner—first in Austin, Texas, then the Western Division, then on the national level. There are no awards or trophies, but the publicity surrounding the competition is the real prize.

Ramborger and Paul Rutowski have been running Arouse Your Palate Catering, and on July 21, 2011, launched Viuda Bistro in partnership with René Alcala, who, together with his mother Helen Alcala, runs Casa Alde, a cozy Mexican restaurant in Buda, Texas, near Austin. The cuisine emphasizes fresh local ingredients, and is eclectic, imaginative, and offbeat. The menu changes seasonally. Viuda has already built up a local fan following, and the “Hottest Chef” victory can’t hurt.

Like many fine chefs, Ramborger started out in the humblest position—dishwasher—and worked his way up, learning on the job, although he did have mentors. He loves to experiment. His best-known dish is his “Sinful Brownies,” a glazed dessert so sensual that it has brought him several marriage proposals. He’s delighted about the “Hottest Chef” victory, as he hopes that it will send a clear message to the culinary-arts community that Deaf people can succeed on the highest levels.

He has posted some colorful stories on Arouse Your Palate Catering Company’s Facebook page. They deal with races against time, scrambles to find needed ingredients in a pinch, mishaps, adventures, and the challenges of cooking for large crowds. Ramborger’s children, Malvana and Jahren, have happily helped out in the kitchen.

Responding to E-mailed interview questions, Ramborger uses a distinctive dialect: “A’ight, be ware of mo arse writin’ in Irish brogue rollin’ with pirate-y, southern drawl, poetry, and expletive words.”

I’d like to know more about your background. Are you from a Deaf family? Where did you grow up, and where did you attend school? Did you graduate from Gallaudet?
Hailed from northern valley of the City of Angels [Van Nuys]. Mo parents, two younger sistahs, uncle, aunt, nieces, and nephews are deaf. Grew up in SoCal and attended California Skool fer the Deaf, Riverside.

Aye, once gone yonder East to Gallaudet University fer two years and half. Left there because there’s no major fer mo as Marine Biologist. Moved back to SoCal to attended CSUN, then swing unto Pierce Community College and took many different gigs and odd jobs.

How did you begin your career as chef?
Embedded in two kitchens of Deaf mamma and an Irish Gramma, mo grew up immersed with mo mi’ladies as ‘em whipped up the home-style food. The immersion went deep into mo soul and never left there. Alas, not till mo started dishwasher on weekend only. Felt the belongs to the kitchen. Passions grew into meself and wants to be a Chef. Dat’s how mo career hath begun when mo became Sous Chef within six months.

Where does the “Irish” come from?
Yea, oh yea, had to wanderin’ yonder way way and way back to autumn ‘85. Sh*t, been 26 years already, eh? Mo very first day of high school as frosh. A bright orangeish-red haired with shone emerald eye and freckled wimpy kid walkin’ down the hall durin’ breaktyme. A big jock quarter-backer guy who ‘twas not bright yet brilliance pure ASL tried to trippin’ mo leg. Saw his leg action and jumped out so fast then stood fiercely by him. He laughed so hard and literally fall on the cement floor and laughed his tear away. So puzzled with his action. He then stood up and signed big, “You IRISH.” Told me mo arse like a leprechaun without beard. With many people stands around agreed with him. Got stuck with dat name. Everybody called mo either Kurt or IRISH durin’ mo high skool years.

Got into college bein’ too kid amongst college friends. Got mo a small brotherhood and they branded kid to my nickname, IRISH kid. Liked that name and usin’ that till bore me firstborn faery daughter. No more bein’ kid and changed into an Irishpappy. Still use that by mo Wyns. ‘Em still callin’ me pappy or irishpappy.

Pretty much by now ‘that ye know how mo arse became the IRISH Chef. But why ‘the IRISH chef’ not Chef Irish. Hmm... Always like the nickname one of the famous gunfighter and an outlaw, Billy the Kid. Since mo arse already bein’ kid at heart and borrowed the coined Billy the Kid into Kurt the IRISH chef. Somehow, “Kurt” have fadin’ away from nickname. Maybe too long to say or type. Henceforth, the IRISH Chef.

Reckonin’ there’s ‘nother nickname fer me when mo arse bein’ limpy and holdin’ a grand kid, shall call me Irishpa . . . Nice ring to it, ain’t that truth?

Always good to know there’s many Irish descendent! As mo always sayeth, There’s two people in the world. One’s an Irish and other’s Irish wannabe! Just loves the Irish’s wit n humour!

As fer mo birth name, Kurt Alan Ramborger: mo da’s side are half Austrian and half Irish and bein’ 13th generation American. Mo momma are almost full Irish/Scottish and third-generation American. Mo da always thought our Ramborger clan came from Germany and wants to stick the first name. Henceforth called me Kurt whereas mo momma wanna a British name, Eric, but decided to named me Alan as middle name. Few years ago, mo uncle did a extensive genealogy research and found out our Ramborger came from Austria but dat land are occupied by Germany now. Also, mo 31st maternal Grandmother ‘twas Catherine the Great and 32nd paternal grandpa ‘twas King Henry VII. So, guess Queen Elizabeth II are mo 6th distant cousin. Kinda weird to find dat familia history we have!

Was 4-Leaf Catering based in Fremont?
Aye, started and run solo mo own 4-Leaf Clover Catering in Fremont and been caters all over Amerika fer 5 years.

Where did you first meet Paul Rutowski? At CSDF?
Paul and mo have ‘know’ each other yonder Gally fer only a year since he ‘twas a senior and mo a frosh in ‘89-‘90. Always heard his name all those years. Then bumped into him when mo have worked as ‘On-Set Chef’ fer [a film project] at Texas School fer the Deaf back in Sep ‘07. He got sampled of mo food fer casts and crews. He wants me to move Austin but mo have Wyns back in Bay Area. Three years later, brought Wyns ‘n Cat to Austin. Tried find me a job fer two months with no luck, then Paul contacted me to start up the Catering Biz. So, from there, we clicked together! He’s a brain and mo a heart n soul of our biz fer caterin’ called “Arouse Your Palate Catering.”

Then René Alcala and Paul Rutowski known each other at Fitness Center. René’s mother, Helen is the owner of her Mexican restaurant [Casa Alde], René her Business Manager. Helen, 87, is still chef and runnin’ in the morrow! Tough lady she is!!!

René’s hearing, right?
Aye, he is hearing but he has a deaf cousin.

Did you and Paul co-found Arouse Your Palate Catering, and are you still running that from Viuda Bistro?
Okay, aye, Paul Rutowski and I have started up Arouse Your Palate catering and still in business but we are focus on bistro. If anybody in need of our catering then we will do the caters.

What are your proudest achievements as a chef?
Mo just want to keep carryin’ the philosophy of bein’ Chef by explorin’ the perfect dishes to arouse every sense of yer palate of soul. Dat’s priceless feel fer bein’ Chef.

Did you ever “spoil” a dish (overcooking, a bit too flambeau, too much salt or vinegar, etc.), then “rescue” it by devising a new dish? I’m sure that every fine chef has at least one horrendous disaster . . . maybe lots!
At home, aye... happened few tymes in mo earlier year of journey. But not now, but mo sous-chef or line cook occasionally mess it up and mo ended up made few adjusted before use, OR throw it away and make a new batch and sic at their heads!

Knowing how to use a battery of knives is an important part of cooking, I know. What kind of knives do you swear by? Do you have a favorite brand?
Aye, always preached many new worker about knives skills. ALWAYS preached ‘em the right way and most effective way! Use right kind of knife to cut different ingredients. As fer knives mo arse swear by are 14 years old J. A. Henckels Chef knife. And mo eight assorted knives in wrapped pouch. Everybody knows they cannot touch mo knives! Only ask me permission beforehand. Fer professional kitchen J. A. Henckels and Forschner Victorinox knife are the best brand.

Do you have a signature dish, something that you’ve invented or adapted that you feel expresses your passion, sense of adventure, or playfulness? What are your favorites?
Do have a few signature dishes but one dish seems cannot get away from mo are “Sinful Brownies.” Because mo did created one secret ingredient that make it a sinful brownie.
Mo have been cookin’ and created countless dishes. Many tymes dat dishes mo created are first and last because mo are still in search fer a perfect dish. Dat what make me a true chef who exploration with different ingredients with passion. More than often, many people who have their dislike of ingredients but would end up devour mo dish and realized dat they need to open their palate sense and enjoy the last bite.

When mo started working at Flying Fish Restaurant in Seattle as prepmeister, learned how to create a dish everyday with Chef de Cuisine, Steven Smrstik, when fish and food purveyor brings in daily. Dat position where mo developin’ the sense of adventure with different kind of ingredients to play with.

Mo fave dish... Italian Chicken Piccata, never get tired of dat dish. Pizza as well because ‘tis contained 4 food groups; Meat, Grain, Vegetable and Dairy.

How would you describe your culinary repertoire? Eclectic? International? Fusion? Do you feature any traditional Irish dishes?
As fer traditional Irish dishes, have a lot of recipes from mo Irish Gramma. Did prepared 50 pounds of brisket into corned beef few days ago [early March] fer our annual St. Paddy day on 17th at ViUDA Bistro. Some actually thought mo would cook an Irish food all the tyme, nah. Always good fer comfort home eat. As fer mo culinary expertise, started off with Vegetarian and Italian cuisine. Just want to challenge meself by cookin’ a varies of cuisine to prove dat I can be a CHEF in hearing peeps’ eyes and palates. Which mo have became an international fusion cuisine whereas mo can whippin’ anythin’ fer a catering service. Just like to be a daring chef who will go furthermore with innovation dish into an art work!

How has business been at the Bistro?
At our first month with limit menu, we got a real good business with Deaf patrons but not much by Hearing. Words hath gotten around in small town of Buda which got local newspaper’s attention. We got publicized by Hays Free Press.* Dat sure did brought more hearing patrons and expanded more dishes. Then our Austin Statesman’s Social Columnist, Michael Barnes, visited our bistro last December and published in front page of Food and Wine section. Dat sure brings more Austinites to our bistro. Then the “Hottest Chef” things started gettin’ packed more now! We will have a new Spring Menu comin’ out next week [early March].

About your family . . .
Our kids which mo always called ‘em Wyns instead of kids—both are third-generation deaf, enrollin’ Texas Skool fer the Deaf. Eldest faery daughter goeth by Malvana Allawyn, 13, and mo impish Irish wee lad, Jahren Islwyn, 11. See the last three letters of their middle name, hence Wyns. Their mother, Cat Cassidy, and mo have been co-parentin’ them fer 8 years. Cat’s clan are strong Irish Catholic Clan. Out of her 6 siblings, 2 are deaf. Their parent are very strong involved with Deaf community and have 8 deaf and 4 hearing grandchildren. Mo sistah, Heidi Branch, bore 2 CODA reddish-headed boys. Mo last baby sistah are still carefree yet Deaf Activism!

Aye, Wyns are mo biological children with Cat Cassidy. Wyns born up yonder the Emerald City! Aye, still single but stick to the cistin [kitchen] fer tyme bein’ ‘till a gal who can win mo heart fer mo own personality, not a chef.

How did you get involved in the “Hottest Chef” competition?
AT first, Paul saw Eater via newswire on the Net. Send it fer fun. Told me about it, thought probably would do the cook-out contest. But didn’t realized ‘tis all about how aesthetically and sexy photo of Chef. Guess the bare-chested claw-knives doth work which vaulted me into Western Division Champion.

Once mo arse did tried Hell’s Kitchen Season 4. Got past three round of trial then remained with 30 before producers picked 15 finalists, didn’t make it but good experience. As fer Iron Chef, only well-reputed chef by their peers can get in to compete. Maybe “Hottest” stuff could gets me into one of contest and mo arse will win with dishes!

[As for the competition, we reminded them], just vote ye think who’s sexier, nuthin’ to do with their talents which mo have kept emphasize ‘em!

When did Eater.com’s “Hottest Chef” competition start? Your sisters Marlena and Heidi both launched a vigorous campaign on your behalf. (Of course, it’s not a talent-based competition, it’s just for fun.)
“Hottest Chef” start their announce of nomination in last week of Jan, mo believe so. Vote started last February 5th. A month of votin’!!!

Aye, Marlena did started first vlog after mo won first heat, very barely! Then she had to go tour the national park fer her own vlog. She’s very Deaf activism all over Amerika fer their causes!

Totally agreed with ye about contest bein’ fun but at the same tyme show Eater subscription dat Deaf can be successful in Eatery workforce! By the way, if not fer mo 2 sistahs’ endless vlogs, mo might not even go further than semifinal of Austin.

Congratulations on winning. Your inboxes must be overflowing!
Aye, still keep overflowin’ of mo emails!

We hope to meet ‘yall someday.
Lookin’ forward to meet ye and arouse yer palate whenever yer thoin a-comin down to the heart of Texas!
Beo sláinte fada bia!

* See, for example, http://haysfreepress.com/2011/08/10/honing-the-senses-buda%E2%80%99s-viuda-bistro-staff-shares-uncommon-similarity/
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