For Love and Food

Oscar Villarreal and Jordan Wegner of Fuegos restaurant talk family, loss, and finding and sharing love through a delicious alliance between innovative and traditional foods.

We’ve lived together in Madison since 2013; Oscar is originally from Crystal City, Texas, and Jordan from Horicon, Wisconsin. The journey that brought us together has been winding, with many ups and downs, but we’re excited to share this new venture—which is more than just a restaurant to us—with Madison.

We try to give back to the community by donating to charities that support children, animals, and domestic abuse survivors in particular. We also like to create local partnerships with businesses, especially including the farmers who grow our food. Much of that ethic comes from Oscar’s own upbringing, where farm-to-table was just the way things were, and using the whole animal—tongue-to-tail, it’s called—made both economic and gastronomic sense.

The best part of being partners and working together is seeing each other so often—a little eye candy to perk up our days. We love being able to take a break to give a smile, a hug, a kiss—some sort of affection at any time of the day.

There are challenges, too, like the need to create boundaries or time limits, and when to save a particular thought or idea for the next day. You have to try to be more aware of when the other person is just exhausted, or when the right time to address something is during a manager’s meeting as opposed to our personal time.

We also both have an entrepreneurial drive, which sometimes means we overwork and forget to take care of ourselves, like forgetting to eat, even though we own a restaurant! Having each other to say, “Hey, enough for today, let’s take a break and go for a walk at Olbrich gardens, or take our dog to the park. Let’s just make some ‘us’ time.”

Oscar

The long road  

My love of growing my own vegetables and raising my own meats was instilled within me from a very young age. Duties of weeding the large fields to supervising and overseeing the shipping, grading, and sizing of our beautiful potatoes all fell to me.

I remember watching my grandmother and mother preparing food for family and friends as we came in from working in the fields to have our lunch and dinner breaks. I enjoyed watching them making fresh, homemade tortillas, the smell from the griddle, and fresh vegetables directly from the fields to our plates/mouths.

I started cooking at a young age, too, helping with the family gatherings (40+ guests were typical) and all major Catholic holidays. When the farm went bankrupt in the 1980s, though, everyone went their separate ways. Fortunately, my parents and my uncles were able to keep their houses. I had to leave the farm and go to work for US Gypsum making ceiling tile. After a couple years there, I realized I had reached a ceiling of my own after becoming a lead supervisor. The only way to get further was to wait for somebody to retire or die. I decided to dig deep within to see which other career might better suit me.

I realized the most pleasurable times were when the family was together cooking, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company. This was a true calling for my spirit, and I pursued as much experience and education in cooking and the restaurant industry as I could.

Coming to terms  

I was married right out of high school, thinking that marriage would help me deny and then “fix” my true, gay identity. I thought it would help make me not want to come out and be open with myself and my family and God. 

I grew up in a large, Roman Catholic family and struggled while growing up. When I moved to Wisconsin from Texas at the age of six, I found out quickly how large my family really was: the entire school bus minus a few kids were all related to me. Our family owned Turtle Lake Valley (a 2,300 acre vegetable farm with beautiful black dirt). 

I remember other cousins being picked on by cousins and uncles because of the way they talked or suspicions of being gay. This made me very uncomfortable, knowing that I would not be accepted. Since my best friends were cousins, it was a little hard to get out of the family circle. It wasn’t until my second relationship with a woman that I finally came out, unknown to her, as I promised her she would be the last woman I would be with if it didn’t work out with her. 

My children’s mother cheated on me and, after 10 years of being in relationships with women but not being true to myself, I decided to use the opportunity to just end all relationships with women. By this point I had fathered five children (two girls, three boys). I was divorced, unhappy, and could not get along with my inner demons. I turned to alcohol and other substances to suppress my true feelings.

Through all my accomplishments and education in my professional life, I was simultaneously fighting a battle against alcoholism. I came to the realization that I needed to make changes in my life in order for real dreams to come true. It took three years to even gather the strength and courage to enter my first gay bar. 

I had almost given up hope that I would ever find a real soul mate. In the least-expected place (for me), though, there he was. As I listened in during a self-help meeting, I could hear my story being told to me, but I wasn’t the one telling it. It felt like God was speaking my story, my truth through him. 

When I met Jordan, it felt like God opened my heart. We talked and talked and became best friends. Searching for answers to things that provided common ground between us, it was more of an intellectual and spiritual discovery of our true selves. We had deep discussions of our past hurts all while experiencing the cleansing of our spirits.

We have been inseparable since that day, and he is the true reason why I have not picked up a drink, even when I was faced with indescribable tragedy.

Shock to the heart  

Though it took me a while to get to where I am, I still would never want to change anything, especially when it came to being a father. I love my children and always will. I always wanted to be a father. 

There have been many joys, but also much pain, in parenthood. In January 2013, my world shattered when the Walworth Sheriff and Coroner told me that my son, Emilio, had been shot and killed. They said it was because he had been trying to escape from where he was being held in the hospital. When I asked who shot him, they told me it had been a sheriff’s deputy. I asked why was he at the hospital when he was suppose to be at the jail on a probation hold, but they had no answers.

It wasn’t until later that I found out—by seeing and holding his body—that he also had a broken nose. He had marks and bruising around his neck, wrists, legs, arms, body, and deep laceration to the back of his head. There were also five bullet wounds including a hole in my baby’s hand—not just the single shot the coroner had first claimed to me.

The Sheriff’s Department made my son out to be a criminal and gang member to the media. My son was not a gang member. He had tried to stop other cousins and friends from joining gangs. He was a lover and a family protector. He dressed in dress shirts, dress pants, and shined his shoes. This is what he wore to school, not because he had to but because he wanted to.

On January 21 of 2013, my 18-year-old son Emilio’s dream of going to college to become an architect was ended, along with his life. There is a good, painful reason for the phrase, “Parents are not meant to bury their children.” I struggle with what happened every day, the violent way my son was taken from this Earth. It makes me angry and frustrated, and was another reason why I moved to Dane County. I wanted to get away from Walworth and what had happened there. Questions still haunt me: Why did the officer that killed my son receive an award at the end of the year? Why was my son shot five times in a hospital? Why weren’t the protocols for calming down or sedating a patient ever attempted? And on and on….

Purple was Emilio’s favorite color, and because of this we have painted and dedicated an area at the restaurant that we call Emilio’s Lounge. It’s a place to celebrate love and special occasions. 

Leaving a legacy  

In March of 2014 I was called and told my son, Pablo, had been in a car accident. When I asked where he was, they told me they were still investigating and couldn’t release any information. I had to go to Rock County to actually find out that my son’s vehicle had rolled on slippery roads, hit a tree, and he and a friend had both died instantly. 

Just three days before that, Pablo’s son, Emilio (named in memory of his younger brother), had been born. He’d gotten a promotion at his job. His friend had accepted a new position in Madison as a head chef, and they were out celebrating. This tragedy, while incredibly painful, is more acceptable to me as it was God’s will. Their lives were taken by his hands not by the will or actions of another human. I feel in my heart that Pablo left this Earth with a smile on his face. He will always be remembered to me as my sous chef. 

Pablo loved his tequila, so we have devoted and named the bar area for him: Pablo’s Cantina. 

There’s a blue and purple cloud hanging in the middle of the restaurant, a beautiful piece of art, meant to signify that both of my boys are in heaven and watching over us every day.

My work and my family are what get me up in the morning. Emilio may have left this earth abruptly but, unbeknownst to him, God left behind his two beautiful daughters, too. Pablo’s three beautiful children are each a gift. We are trying to make the restaurant a success so that all of the children have something of a legacy from their fathers. 

We needed something to help us heal, and, with God’s help, this restaurant has helped provide us with that space. My boys are with me at the restaurant always, as their spirits provide me with strength, focus, and drive for each new day.

Jordan

A plant-based diet  

Oscar and I are pretty different in terms of our diets, but we find common ground in our love of and commitment to fresh, organic, local ingredients. At heart I’m a yogi but also a millennial who prefers a plant-based diet, which stems from my mother’s holistic approach to eating. Growing up, I never liked the taste of pork or steak. Believing in compassion for sentient beings, I feel it’s wrong to take another life. I can survive without eating animals.

My inspiration also comes from my grandmother, Shelby Raschein, who still goes to the farmers’ market at age 81. She has lived in Madison since the 1980s, and my late grandfather, Roy, was a farmer and a bus driver for Madison Metro. They also had their own farm, so she has seen food evolve since the Great Depression and often says they have genetically modified so many things that her baking recipes don’t turn out like they used to. She appreciates Oscar’s cooking because she knows it’s safe to eat, the quality will be of the highest caliber possible, and the flavors are just unreal.

Having the need to cater to both diets/lifestyle at one location is the main driving factor behind our concept. I personally get annoyed having to decipher menus with the commonly found v/vg/plant image attached (instead, we have complete, entirely vegan menus for lunch, dinner, and brunch! No Egyptology degree required here). To fulfill Oscar’s desire for eating steak, we used to go to a steakhouse where I would typically be left eating from their iceberg salad bar. Our go-to compromise for eating out is Thai food: no tofu, extra veggies please!

In addition to our need, the couple for whom Oscar worked as a personal chef also said they’d run into similar challenges when dining with clients from different countries and cultures. There was no one location that fulfilled all dietary needs.

We believe we are that location. With Oscar’s talents and experience, we can and do offer the community an alternative. You can explore his background and skills by moving throughout all of the menus, where his “tail-to-tongue” ethic is on display as well. 

Fuegos’ one-year anniversary is May 17. Throughout the past year, we have met many couples and even families with various dietary and lifestyle food needs. They love that they finally have one place where everyone can enjoy their meals and drinks. It’s humbling knowing that we have provided the community with a viable solution and a healthy alternative, especially for those who are transitioning into a more plant-based diet. 

The secret is out  

Being environmentally aware is also one of my passions. I’m all for harm reduction and saving the Earth. One of my favorite movies is “The Butterfly Effect.” It reflects the phenomenon that one small change can have a major impact miles or even continents away. Having the restaurant as a platform to make that difference is just a hidden gift/blessing, and also a responsibility. When making changes with the restaurant, we do our best to think about and see how that change might impact our guests, our community, and the environment. 

Having Oscar as my partner is absolutely a saving grace. If I didn’t have him and his exquisite cooking abilities, I would likely be left eating raw plants, fruits, and vegetables. Prior to having Oscar in my life, my experiences with “real/gourmet food” were practically non-existent. He has opened up a whole new realm for me to experience flavors and knowledge previously inaccessible. It’s inspiring and fascinating when he talks and shares his knowledge with others. It’s one of the reasons I love the trivia nights at the restaurant, where Oscar quizzes you on the food he prepared and shares his expertise and passion with guests. 

I always felt like I had this little secret Madison didn’t know about in Oscar’s cooking, and it was a shame for his talents to be locked away. I’m beyond grateful he has been given this opportunity to create his edible plates of art for the rest of the world. 

Thank you  

Thank you Denise & Denise. Thank you to mother and father, Juanita and Alfredo Villarreal, for giving this world the gift of Oscar. He finds joy in what he does when he is able to express himself through food. It is truly an honor to be his life partner to share this journey.

Our end goal is to have our own farmette with goats, chickens, and other animals with beautiful vegetable fields and a bee farm—a literal farm-to-table experience in our own home.

No matter the struggles life presents, we worked together to overcome them, especially the tragedy of the death of Oscar’s sons. It’s a testament to our commitment to one another that we can cope with the ongoing stress of a new business, and everything else, together.

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