Top | The Culinate Interview

Rick Bayless

(article, Tina Vasquez)

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p(blue). Rick Bayless may be Mexican food’s most visible champion. The 58-year-old Chicago-based chef has spent the majority of his adult life teaching North Americans about this complex cuisine. 

p(blue). The passion-sharing began with his groundbreaking first cookbook, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, published in 1987 after six years of culinary research in Mexico. His long-running PBS cooking series '"Mexico: was also hugely influential, demonstrating that a cuisine often derided as unhealthy and greasy could be refined and elegant; in the accompanying book, Mexico One Plate at a Time, Bayless showcased both traditional dishes and contemporary twists. 

p(blue). Bayless is now a Top Chef Master, with eight cookbooks under his belt and five award-winning restaurants to his name, including Topolobampo, one of America's first fine-dining Mexican restaurants. But he’s still a trailblazer, with his new restaurant, Red O, in Los Angeles, and his constant push for organic farming with his Frontera Farmer Foundation, established as a nonprofit in 2003 with the goal of promoting small, sustainable farms serving the Chicago area by providing them with capital development grants. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Rick Bayless takes the stage at Chase Sapphire’s Sunset Celebration Weekend earlier this summer."]

You’re the fourth generation in an Oklahoma family of restaurateurs and grocers, but when you were growing up, were you at all interested in joining the industry?
I wasn’t interested at all. I grew up in our family restaurant and worked there all the time, but I didn’t connect to the food. It wasn’t until I went to Mexico for the first time when I was 14 that I really felt like I had arrived, like I was home.

What was the first Mexican dish that really blew your mind?
Hands down, it was mole. I grew up eating Tex-Mex that was all one color, all one texture, and it was covered with cheese. On my trip to Mexico, I went to a restaurant that I read about in Mexico City, and I ordered the mole poblano, and it was amazing.

When mole is well made, it all sort of blends together, and you can’t pull apart the separate flavors — you can’t tell where the chiles start and the nuts and seeds end. It’s like a symphony in your mouth with distinct instruments playing together harmoniously. That dish changed my life.

Your first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, is now considered a classic that really changed the landscape for Mexican food in the states. When it was published, what perceptions were you trying to change about Mexican food as Americans knew it? Did you have any idea it would be so influential?
That was the whole point: I wanted to change how Americans viewed Mexican food. The way they were cooking in Mexico was completely different than how it was being presented in the U.S., and I wanted Americans to get a true sense of the culture, history, and makeup of Mexico.

When I started doing this, Italian food in the States had just started to get away from spaghetti and meatballs, bad red wine, and checkered tablecloths. That was my inspiration. People were really starting to learn about regional Italian food and I wanted that, I wanted people to know that the Mexican food being made in the Yucatán Peninsula was not even close to the same food you’d find in the Sonoran Desert.

I had no idea the book would be as influential as it was. I just wanted to write the book because I was passionate about the beauty and integrity of the cuisine.

In the 20-plus years you’ve been cooking and writing cookbooks, what have been the most noticeable changes to Mexican cuisine?
Right now I feel like it’s going in two completely different directions. There’s street food that’s influenced by the Slow Food movement, and then there’s chefs keeping their grandmothers' recipes alive, but serving them in a more modern way in fine-dining restaurants. Modern Mexican restaurants didn’t exist until about 10 years ago, so things are constantly changing. Mexico’s cuisine and food scene is ever-evolving.

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Your daughter Lanie is a frequent guest on your PBS cooking show, and you’ve even [%amazonProductLink asin=0810982587 "written a cookbook with her"]. What do you hope you’ve taught her about food?
I hope I’ve taught her the importance of sharing it with people. She just finished up her second year of college and she was living in a dorm, and though she and her roommates were very busy, she got everyone together to share a meal, and she did the cooking. 

Cooking is about more than food. When you cook a meal, you sit around the table and you create community. It’s how cultures evolve, and I strongly believe that there isn’t a group of people, family or otherwise, whose lives wouldn’t be enhanced by sitting around a table and eating together. This kind of sharing is what keeps culture alive. You pass it on to your kids and hope that they do the same with theirs.

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Three of your restaurants have been named the greenest in Chicago, and your Frontera Farmer Foundation is doing amazing work. When did you become interested in sustainability?
I think I did my first compost pile in 1969, so this is something that’s been on my mind a long time. When my wife and I opened our first restaurant in Chicago, we wanted to connect with local farmers, but in the 1980s there were no farmers’ markets. We basically had to start from scratch, and in that way, I think we’ve really changed the landscape for food in the past 25 years.

The idea of selling their produce to our restaurant seemed so foreign to many of the farmers we approached in the beginning, but now it’s so commonplace. Ninety percent of what we serve in our restaurants is locally sourced, and I’m very proud of that.

We set the bar really high for other people, but that also means we’ve set the bar really high for ourselves. My philosophy is that if you’re not pushing forward, then you’re moving backwards. 

You teach, you host a show, you write cookbooks, you cook and run restaurants, but when are you happiest? What do you enjoy the most?
As much as I tried to avoid this growing up, I’m a restaurant person at heart. As hard as cooking is, I really miss it when I’m not in the middle of it. I’m so not an executive chef type of person. I like to be in the kitchen, solving problems, creating dishes, making menus, working with the staff. 

I really love teaching, and you can teach all the time in restaurants. I left my family’s restaurant for academics; I was doing doctoral work in anthropological linguistics, but I felt like I was going stark raving mad in those quiet libraries. That’s why I started a catering business in grad school. It’s more difficult physically than academics, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

p(bio). Tina Vasquez is a hardcore home cook in Los Angeles. After years as a closeted food nerd, she now writes about cooking and food regularly for websites, magazines, and local newspapers.

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