Uncommon Generosity

Following restaurateur Michael Vilim's time and money

Michael Vilim with the board of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas
Michael Vilim with the board of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas (Photo By John Anderson)

"We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give." – Sir Winston Churchill

Michael Vilim prefers life away from the limelight. He's not one to try to hog publicity or jump in front of the cameraman. He's happier just plying his trade, getting in a little cycling time with friends, and generally going about his business. When I asked him to sit for an interview, his first question concerned why I would want to write about him, or why anyone would be interested. That is not disingenuous modesty; he just goes about doing the work he feels he needs to do.

Most people know Vilim in one of two roles. His most public role is as a restaurateur with two first-class restaurants: Mirabelle and Castle Hill Cafe. He also serves as president of the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas, a charitable organization that supports scholarships for deserving students and gives large annual donations – in the $100,000 range – to Austin's PBS affiliate, KLRU. Just knowing these two roles, we can safely say that Vilim feeds people well at a fair price and helps assure we have high-quality television programming in Central Texas. But this is just the public Michael Vilim. It's the next layer down where things get interesting.

Vilim grew up in San Antonio and watched his parents do a lot of volunteer work. His father, Herb, was the president of the Catholic Interracial Council during the 1950s and 1960s, a front-line soldier in Archbishop Robert E. Lucey's historic fight for racial equality in Texas. Lucey was a follower of one of the great Catholic reformers, the Jesuit John LaFarge. He believed that the Catholic Church should take the lead in destroying racism at its core level. Lucey started by setting up seminars on social justice for all of his priests and eventually moved to desegregate the Catholic schools in San Antonio long before the public schools. This was dangerous and difficult work. Vilim's father helped lead the initiative. When he died three years ago, the Texas Senate passed a resolution of sympathy acknowledging the man and his works.

Indicative of Vilim, the man, is that he didn't brag about what his father accomplished, the odds he faced, or the famous men he supported. He only mentioned in passing that his father had led the Interracial Council. I found all of the rest of the information on the Internet from old news stories, books, and Senate resolutions. Meanwhile, Vilim's mother, Aileen, coordinated volunteer efforts raising $2 million to restore the cathedral at Our Lady of the Lake University. And his brother, Patrick, who works with him at Mirabelle, quietly devotes weeks of work each year to AIDS Services of Austin.

Getting Vilim to talk about his own altruistic endeavors is difficult.

"I try to stay way undercover," he says. "I'm happy for my chefs or restaurants to get some attention. Hell, Arik Skot Williams [formerly of Castle Hill] had enough written about him that he got a job in the California wine country!" When I push him a little for more details about why and when he started giving his time and money, he deflects. "I didn't used to do charity the same way as I do now. When I was younger, I would donate my time, like coaching kids in basketball, or helping with speech and drama programs. Everything changed when I met Larry Peel."

"Since time is the one immaterial object which we cannot influence – neither speed up nor slow down, add to nor diminish – it is an imponderably valuable gift." – Maya Angelou

Larry Peel is a very wealthy builder in town, a self-made man who enjoys wine and other people who get pleasure from wine. Rather than sit on his wealth, Larry gives, and gives generously, to causes he and his psychiatrist wife, Debra, believe in.

We should all be pleased when rich people write checks: They are helpful. But there are an infinitesimal few benefactors who not only write checks but also give freely of their time. Larry Peel not only writes those big checks (for instance, enjoy seeing Nova on KLRU? – thank Larry), he gives dozens of hours each month working to support those causes. One way he uses his time to strengthen the organizations is by searching for other people who might be helpful. He ran across Michael Vilim.

"Michael's greatest gift is his bigheartedness," Peel assesses. "He's a very generous guy who does things for the right reasons. And when he's committed to a project, it's almost impossible to stop him from succeeding."

"I really got into helping people through Larry Peel," Vilim says. "We were getting ready to open Mirabelle [in 1998], and I had a little free time while we were dealing with the local officials about getting our licenses. Larry asked me to help put together wines for the auction for the Wine & Food Foundation." Vilim threw himself into finding incredible, diverse wines, and the auction raised a record amount of money.

Since then, Vilim has been willing to help anyone as long as he believes in what they are doing, the event is well-planned, and it won't sink his business. The Wine & Food Foundation's Rebecca Robinson gives a perfect example: "I'm on a theatre board, and we had to raise $2,500 by the end of the year. Within a few weeks, Michael had put together the Midsummer Night's Dream Wine Dinner at Mirabelle and raised all the money!"

A list of the organizations he has helped would be as long as this article, but here's an abbreviated one: Project Transitions, the Women's Symphony League, the Umlauf Sculpture Gardens, the Lance Armstrong Foundation, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Hyde Park Theatre, the Zach Scott Theatre, the Austin Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, several local schools (both public and denominational), countless local churches/synagogues – and a couple that would make his parents proud: the Texas Freedom Network and Equality Texas.

With all this, I don't want you to get the idea that Vilim is some sort of a saint. Similar to his father, he doesn't mind jumping in the middle of an issue he sees as wrong, even if the rest of the world shrugs its collective shoulders. Like when he felt an organization he was dealing with was doing things inappropriately and he fired a three-page memo to anyone and everyone who would listen, naming names and calling for drastic actions. About half the readers thought, "Right on!" while smaller groups wondered why he thought he had the authority to address the issue. A few were downright angry. Vilim didn't care; he thought something he cared about was going down the drain, and he wanted to stop it.

He also can build up a big enough head of steam toward achieving a goal to piss off a few people who feel steamrollered in the process. But he's smart enough to surround himself with gentler souls – like his brother Patrick at Mirabelle and Rebecca Robinson at the foundation – to soften the impact.

And then there's the one problem everyone who knows him, even his most fervent admirers, admit. Vilim is, to use a nice term, loquacious, or, as Peel says, "He's a guy who's never finished a meeting on time or an e-mail in under three pages. But he's improving."

Besides these, he's usually late; he's forever resolving to update his wardrobe; his concept of high-tech is drawing dividing lines on a legal pad; and, as Robinson puts it, "He is an incurable flirt. He says that in Texas, flirting is an art. I am constantly telling him that calling women 'honey' is not okay." One of his favorite lines of advice about wine when he's speaking to a mixed crowd is to tell the men that if they love a wine enough, they should have it half in their glass and half on their lover, a quip guaranteed to quiet the women in the audience.

"You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others – something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it." – Albert Schweitzer

Vilim and I are sitting at Vespaio Enoteca having Sunday lunch. He's wearing some well-worn clothes and occasionally using a pair of glasses that are so bent out of shape, they look like a horse stepped on them. While his energy level is usually similar to a coiled spring, today he's actually kind of mellow. It's supposed to be a short talk; he's busy with a house remodel and I'm tired after coming home on a red-eye. I want to talk about him, and he wants to talk about the historic gains of the Wine & Food Foundation, the new wine bar at Mirabelle, how excited he is to have Christopher Lyttle cooking at Castle Hill. After a few glasses of wine, the afternoon starts to slip away.

I mention to Vilim that wherever I go, when there is a charity event for something I care about, he always seems to be there serving food, donating wine, or somehow giving his time. He rightly points out he's not alone; there are others who give generously to keep our city vibrant. "I think it is amazing how many of the small local restaurants support charitable causes. Restaurants and caterers like Cafe Josie, Wink, Uchi, Starlite, Amuse Bouche."

Vilim stops, pushes the bent glasses on top of his head, and smiles. "You know, I guess in the beginning, we did some of these charitable events to help people know about Mirabelle," he says. "Somewhere along the line, I guess I just started loving doing them." end story

If you're interested in meeting Michael Vilim and thanking him for what he does for Austin, he's teaching a class titled Wine 101 tonight, Thursday, Jan. 19, 6:30-8pm, at Castle Hill. The cost is $50 (you'll probably get that much wine), and, no surprise here, all proceeds go to charity, in this case the Wine & Food Foundation of Texas. Call 327-7555 for reservations.

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Michael Vilim, Wine and Food Foundation of Texas, Larry Peel, Rebecca Robinson, Mirabelle, Castle Hill Cafe

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