My meeting with Susan Kuehler and Mike McCathern was moved from Bistro 108 next door to Vin 114, their wine bar, because the restaurant was being scrubbed from top to bottom. When I arrived on their day off, the couple was enjoying a quick lunch that included wine. It gave me an excuse to sip a perfectly chilled glass of dry, unoaked California Chardonnay because they assured me, “it was indeed five o’clock somewhere” even though it was only one o’clock in La Grange.
By the time we finished talking and laughing, it was almost five o’clock in Fayette County. In my humble estimation, you’ll come for the food and stay for the conversation.
RTR: What is the first thing you ever cooked?
SK: Liver. In 1973 for my late husband. We were newlyweds. The liver was so overcooked you could’ve driven a nail with it.
MMcC: I grew up eating my grandmother’s homemade biscuits every day. She had no recipe. They were perfect every time. Mine not so much.
RTR: What is your signature dish?
SK: Some people have a signature dish and a plan. I have “What sounds good today?” MMcC: I think Susan should claim her shrimp or crawfish bisque as a signature. It’s that good.
RTR: If you could only eat one food forever, what would it be?
MMcC: Fish or salad.
SK: A sandwich. Anything between two slices of bread. I love, love, love bread.
RTR: What is your favorite sandwich?
SK: White bread, Miracle Whip, lettuce, tomato, leftover Thanksgiving turkey and dressing. I don’t care about Thanksgiving lunch. I want the sandwich the day after.
MMcC: A salad…not between slices of bread.
RTR: What food will never touch your lips?
MMcC: I will eat anything that doesn’t bite back. My grandmother used to make pig’s feet, and I love organ meat.
SK: Brains. The whole concept just seems awful.
RTR: Wine, beer or cocktails? SK: Wine. MMcC: Wine then cocktails, but only Scotch or vodka, and then beer. And I don’t ever say no to a good martini.
RTR: It’s midnight and you’re hungry, what do you grab? MMcC: Potato chips and cream cheese. SK: A foot-long cheese Coney from Sonic. I will walk away from $35/pound sea bass for a Sonic hot dog.
RTR: What’s always in your fridge?
SK: 500 condiments.
MMcC: There’s never any food, just condiments. If you want real food at our house, you have to go to the grocery store.
The Recipe for a Restaurant
Kuehler’s passion for condiments may stem back to her college days when she was paying for her undergraduate music degree by working at a local drugstore for $1/hour. She subsisted on crackers, jelly and other condiments she grabbed at the university cafeteria as her friends enjoyed their meal plans.
Her fortunes took an upturn when she got a job as the hostess at the San Francisco Steakhouse in Austin for $5/hour. The job not only drastically upgraded her lifestyle but introduced her to the food industry. During college she held several jobs at the Steakhouse including being “the girl on the swing.”
After graduation she married. Her husband’s career as an Air Force pilot took them around the country. Whenever she wanted extra household money and a challenge in addition to motherhood, she cooked and baked for the public, running the business out of her house.
Her career in food transitioned from a hobby to a necessity when her husband died in an F-15 accident. Reeling from the tragedy, she moved her children to New Braunfels and eventually rented a small space near their home. The building inspired her to create, The Mustard Seed Tea Room.
“I chose the name because I needed that kind of faith to make it work,” Kuehler said.
As her children hit their teenage years, she determined that she needed a regular schedule, something that self-employment didn’t allow. She took on the job of manager at the Magnolia Café South, an Austin landmark for its breakfasts and fresh fare.
“When I interviewed, I kept telling the owners that I wasn’t the person they needed because I’d never managed a restaurant for someone else before,” Kuehler said. “They hired me despite myself, but by the time I got there, I knew the food industry was my life’s work.”
After an extended stint at the café, the economics of the Austin housing market prompted her to look outside the fast-growing city. A long-time La Grange restaurant needed a manager.
In the meantime, Kuehler had crossed paths with McCathern at a Fourth of July picnic in Austin. Sparks—not associated with the fireworks show—flew. McCathern, who had grown up on a diversified farm and ranch near Hereford, was a veteran of agricultural activism in the American Ag Movement and a long-term employee of the Texas Water Development Board. He made the move to Fayette County and the hospitality industry along with Kuehler.
When the restaurant that brought her to La Grange closed, Kuehler and McCathern found themselves facing too much space and too much rent. When word got out that the restaurateurs were considering leaving La Grange, patrons and friends offered to invest in a new venture. In 2001, they became restaurant owners.
“It was Crowd Funding before Crowd Funding was a thing,” Mike said. “It’s hard to describe the feeling of being a part of a community that wanted us to be part of it enough to help us stay.”
In 2003, the couple transitioned from 10,000 square feet to just over a 1,000 square feet. Bistro 108 was born. It’s been a work in progress since it relocated to its current location in 2003. In the ensuing years, the couple added Bistro’s patio, Celebrations and most recently Vin 114.
“Our restaurant is an extension of who we are,” Kuehler said. “We want it to feel as if you’re being entertained in our home because we consider our customers part of our family—and our staff is the other part.
McCathern runs the front of the house while Kuehler stays behind the scenes in the kitchen.
“Susan is the heart and soul of this business, but I’ve inadvertently become the face,” McCathern said. “Because I’m up front, I get more credit than I deserve for how special this place is. Susan is the talent behind the tastes and the experience.”
“If the Food Network showed up tomorrow, the producer would want to talk to Mike just like our customers do,” Kuehler said. “It takes both of us doing what we do to make Bistro 108 a place where people want to be.”
108 South Main
La Grange, Texas
Tues. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Thurs. – Sat. 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
(Early Bird Specials 5 p.m. – 6 p.m.)
Sun. 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Bistro 108, a restaurant specializing in New American food, is one-third of Susan Kuehler’s and Mike McCathern’s flavorful enterprise. The husband and wife team also own and manage La Grange’s Vin 114, a wine bar, and Celebrations, a full-service catering and special events venue.
The restaurant, which is, according to the couple, “not a gourmet restaurant, but home to well-prepared, good food” offers an ever-changing list of specials inspired by fresh ingredients and a core menu that features pasta, fresh seafood, choice steaks, salads and pizzas. Lunch and dinner dining are built on different menus and different experiences. Kuehler’s culinary creativity is most evident at dinner.
Through Celebrations the duo will cater everything from box lunches for small groups to full-blown formal events for hundreds complete with food, lighting, linens, seating and staging. With advance notice, the team will even specially prepare a family-sized dinner such as a pan of lasagna and a garden salad.
_______________________________________________________________________________________by Lorie A. Woodward
photos by Dixie Ray Hamilton, Dixie Ray Photography