With a Top Chef Masters victory, almost a dozen restaurants (and counting), eight cookbooks and nine seasons of a popular public television series under his belt, Rick Bayless uses his extraordinary passion to fuel his success. Bayless grew up in Oklahoma and developed a keen interest in Mexican culture at the young age of 14. He went on to study Spanish and Latin American culture as an undergraduate, followed by doctoral work in anthropological linguistics.
It was while living in Mexico in the 1980s that Bayless penned his first cookbook, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. Upon returning to the states, he opened his first restaurant, Frontera Grill. The Chicago-based establishment went on to receive a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2007. In between, the talented toque also garnered James Beard honors for Best Chef: Midwest (’91, ’02), National Chef of the Year (’95), Humanitarian of the Year (’98) and Cookbook of the Year for Mexico: One Plate at a Time (’01). When he debuted the more upscale Topolobampo, the Chicago restaurant made waves as one of the first fine-dining establishments in the country to specialize in interior Mexican cuisine. In 2009, he opened the Windy City’s casual Xoco, which specializes in caldos (soups) and wood-fired tortas, with hot churros and thick cups of Mexican chocolate for dessert.
Now, with Tortas Frontera at O’Hare International Airport and University of Pennsylvania; Frontera Fresco at Northwestern University; and a Frontera line of salsas chips available nationwide, Bayless is spreading his flavorful empire coast to coast. His newest venture is Red O in West Hollywood and Newport Beach, eateries that pair inspired cocktails with fresh and modern Mexican selections such as pork belly sopes (griddled masa boats) and Sonoma duck taquitos.
Between balancing all these popular restaurants, taking frequent culinary trips south of the border and teaching as a guest faculty member at San Antonio’s Culinary Institute of America, Bayless keeps busy. But he managed to find time to talk to us about his love affair with the culture and cuisine of Mexico.
You took an interest in Mexican cuisine and culture from a very young age. What originally drew you to it?
If you were to interview a couple and you asked them, “Okay, so why did you fall in love?,” it’s just a really hard question to answer. “The chemistry was right,” is about all you can say. “We had similar interests.” Or maybe you didn’t have similar interests. It all comes down to the chemistry was right. So, that’s what it was with me and Mexico — the chemistry was right.
You’ve managed to take a culture that wasn’t originally yours and embrace it to become your own. Can you talk a bit about that?
Where I grew up in Oklahoma, there is no cuisine to speak of, and there’s certainly not enough to make a career out of, I’ll put it that way. And almost every other chef that has really enriched our culinary culture, which right now is just astonishing and fabulous, has found it necessary to explore a place that has a really rich culinary tradition. And then they bring back whatever has enriched their lives and share that with a lot of other people. So, that’s what I did. I went to Mexico and it just felt super — it felt like it was my place. So, I kept going back there.
And how did you go about making this culture such a part of you?
There’s this thing that happens a lot of times when people are from a certain culture and they become sort of protective of that culture in a way that turns cuisine into a social issue kind of thing. [Some people say] you can’t do my cuisine unless you’ve been completely raised with it and you have the right last name. But the truth of the matter is that loads of people go and experience other cuisines, bring that [style] back and then create cuisine that is just remarkable stuff. Also, I did my homework. I majored in college in Latin American studies. I traveled to every state in Mexico and cooked with all different cooks. If you saw my notes from the five years I lived in Mexico, it’s just notebook after notebook after notebook. So, even if you’re from Oaxaca, you’d have to master the cuisine of the Yucatan, Hidalgo and the northern part of Mexico in order to get really proficient in the whole national cuisine. And a lot of the chefs haven’t had the opportunity to do that, but I made myself do that. It was grueling and I lived on pennies a day, but it was what I needed to do. Because I didn’t grow up with it, I knew I couldn’t say I know everything about Mexican food because my grandmother’s Mexican. I couldn’t do that.
What are your thoughts on the state of interior Mexican cuisine in the U.S.?
When you think you know Mexican food, why would you think there’s something else behind that? That’s the thing. Most people that are raised eating Tex Mex, Cal Mex, New Mex or whatever — that is their Mexican food. So, when they eat this new stuff, they don’t even know what it is. They don’t automatically go, “Oh, that’s interior Mexican food, so it must be better than what I’m eating!” No, it’s just different and weird. And they would just go back and eat what they’re used to. So, it doesn’t surprise me, in a place like Texas or New Mexico, that there are not a lot of places focusing on the food of the Yucatan, Mexico City or Baja California because you have to try to convince people that what they think of as Mexican food isn’t really as good as it gets. And I think it’s kind of hard to do that. Nonetheless, because of people like me trying to do what I’m doing on a broad, national scale, we’re awaking people to the fact that there’s all these different kinds of Mexican food. Maybe you should explore it. Maybe you’ll like it. But we’re still just awakening to it.
What are some of your favorite states of Mexico for Mexican cuisine?
Well, there’s a thing that I call the sort of “big triangle.” It’s Mexico City to Veracruz to Oaxaca. That triangle is very rich in cuisine. It doesn’t mean that that’s the only place you’ll find great cuisine — there’s great stuff everywhere — but that triangle is kind of an epicenter for really developed cuisine.
What are your thoughts on traditional interior Mexican versus innovative, modern Mexican cuisine?
There’s always a place for traditional cuisine because it’s the basis from which you can create modern. If you don’t learn the traditional first, you can never do modern well. You have to be incredibly well-taught. So, if the traditional places go away, there will be no training ground for the modern chefs. Yet, at the same time, you’re only looking backwards if you’re only saying, “We do it this way because this is the way we’ve always done it.” The cuisine tends to get a little bit out of touch with what people are wanting to do. It just becomes the nostalgic restaurant that you go to every once in a while. So, you have to really put your roots deep into traditional cuisine, and then say, “What do I want to eat?” Then you are influenced, and certainly, you’re schooled by all this tradition, and then that might be your base to say, “You know what? I just had this vision of this old-fashioned dish being kind of recast in this really modern way.” So, I think there’s a real strong need for both all the time.
Photo Courtesy of Veronica Meewes