A Great Love of Mexico Comes Exquisite Cuisine: Award-winning Chef/Restaurateur, Cookbook Author and TV Host Rick Bayless
Time Magazine hailed him as a “cookbook superstar.” The New York Times’s Craig Claiborne praised his work as the “greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable.”
Stemming from a family of restaurateurs and grocers, Rick Bayless did everything to steer clear from this predisposed fate. On a family trip to Mexico at the age of 14, he fell in love with the country and began to learn about the cuisine. As an undergraduate, he studied Spanish and Latin American Studies and completed doctoral work in Anthropological Linguistics.
He might have been a professor in an Ivy League school but instead, he ended up in the kitchen as he finally accepted his fate and decided to combine his great love for Mexico with the restaurateur business. It was then that great things began to happen. From the classroom to the kitchen, luckily for the culinary world, a master artist/chef was born.
Rick moved to Chicago in 1987 and opened the hugely successful Frontera Grill, which specializes in contemporary regional Mexican cooking and remains one of Chicago’s hottest dining spots. Soon thereafter, on the heels of Frontera Grill’s success, he then opened the elegant Topolobampo. Both Chicago-based restaurants have received numerous distinctions from such publications as Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, Atlantic Monthly, Condé Nast Traveler, Zagat’s, The Wine Spectator, USA Today, Chicago Magazine and The Chicago Tribune. Topolobampo has been nominated twice by the James Beard Foundation as one of the most outstanding restaurants in our country.
From 1980 to 1986 you lived in Mexico. Where? My wife and I lived in Mexico City, but we traveled to all of the states over a span of three years.
Why did you choose to go to Mexico? I fell in love with Mexico when I was 14 years old. Once I finally decided that love was to be my career, I knew that I had to go to Mexico to learn, walk the markets and completely immerse myself in the culture.
Was it here (meaning Mexico) that you developed your great love of Mexican cuisine? I went to Mexico on a family trip when I was 14..,that is when I began learning about the cuisine. Later, when my wife and I traveled all over Mexico—it was really like studying for a Master’s degree. From all of that material, we wrote our first book: Authentic Mexican.
What prompted your love and dedication to Mexican cuisine? I knew that I wanted to share the love that I had for Authentic Mexican cuisine. I knew that the United States was not familiar with what the real cuisine of Mexico was…that drove me. Frontera Grill opened 23 years ago and was welcomed with open arms in my hometown of Chicago.
What do you think of the image of Mexican food in America? I think now the image is wonderful…it is not considered behind French and Italian! I would like to think I had something to do with that!
Growing up in a family / stemming from generations of restaurateurs, did you think that becoming a restaurateur was your destiny? At first I denied it…wanted to run from it. But I couldn’t. All through my college classes (I studied Anthropology) I couldn’t wait to get home and cook dinner—plan parties for friends. I finally accepted my fate!
What would you say are your top three favorite dishes to eat/and or prepare? This is too hard…I usually say…”the next dish I am going to eat will be my favorite.:”… I will say I have a fondness for goat birria, simple street tacos, and of course a freshly-made margarita.
I noticed that you frequent Oaxaca. How were you introduced to Oaxaca? I just got back from Oaxaca two days ago for our staff trip. Every year we close our restaurant over the 4th of July and we take our staff to a different region of Mexico…this year it was Oaxaca. My family has been going to Oaxaca for the Christmas holiday for the past 20 years. I was first introduced to Oaxaca when my wife and I were traveling, writing Authentic Mexican.
I’m sure you’re aware that there’s a Facebook Fan Club for you. But did you know that there’s also a group called ‘Damn it Rick Bayless cook for me’. With all the requests for you to cook for people, what do you say? I am always flattered by the clubs and fans…But actually there are some occasions where I do cook for folks—we auction off dinners for our charity events—so it does happen!
Would you consider opening up a restaurant in Southern California? Mexico? No…I really need to be hands on.
But wherever his kitchen is, you will find Mexico.
In addition to having received countless awards for his culinary talents, award-winning cookbooks on authentic Mexican cuisine, his own food line, Frontera Foods, and hosting the fifth season of “Mexico—One Plate at a Time” on PBS, Rick is also the founder of The Frontera Farmer Foundation, an organization that supports small local farmers and has been active in Share Our Strength, the nation’s largest hunger advocacy organization.
To learn more about Rick Bayless, visit www.rickbayless.com