Born in Oklahoma City into a family of restaurateurs and grocers, Rick Bayless studied Spanish and Latin American culture at the University of Oklahoma and anthropological linguistics at the University of Michigan. He and his wife, Deann, lived in Mexico from 1980 to 1986, out of which experience Bayless wrote his first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. After working as executive chef at Lopez, in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, considered that state's best Mexican/Southwestern restaurant, Bayless opened Frontera Grill in Chicago in 1987, adding the more upscale Topolobampo next door in 1989. In 2003, Bayless and his staff established the Frontera Farmer Foundation to support small Midwestern farms. Subsequently, the team launched the Frontera Scholarship, to send a Chicago Mexican-American high school student to Kendall College to study culinary arts. Bayless is the author of eight cookbooks, and the winner of numerous James Beard Awards, including ones for Best Chef: Midwest, America's Outstanding Chef, and Humanitarian of the Year. Bayless's PBS television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time is now in its ninth season — and last year, Bayless and two collaborators wrote and produced, and Bayless starred in, the well-reviewed Cascabel: Dinner — Daring — Desire, the story of a meal song, dance, and physical feats., at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre (the production will return in 2014).
The Daily Meal: What's your earliest food memory?
Rick Bayless: Probably the smell of hickory smoke in my father's work shirts. I grew up in a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City and my father smelled as delicious as everything we served at the restaurant
When did you first decide that you wanted to be a chef, and why?
I cooked at my parents' restaurant from the time I was about 7. I cooked at home. I cooked at my grandmother's. I cooked Julia Child recipes the first year she was on television in the '60s and I watched on a little black-and-white set. But I knew I didn't want to inherit my parents’ restaurant, so I decided to study culture —specifically Mexican culture — and I did it through language. I was captivated by the unique ways languages express their culture in words and phrases. It wasn't until I was finishing my Ph.D. In anthropology and linguistics — and cooking more than I was working on my dissertation — that I woke up to the fact that my true passion is food and culture. So I took a year off, traveled to Mexico, started research on my first book (my dissertation replacement), and thought I'd be a food writer. When that book was complete, I knew I was built for cooking food, not just writing about it. That's when my wife and I opened Frontera Grill and I knew that the restaurant kitchen is the place I feel most at home. Unless it's out discovering different cuisines and writing about them.
Who was your most important culinary influence?
In my formative years there were three, all female: My grandmother, who taught me that you can bring a whole lot more than simple nourishment to a dinner table. Julia Child, who opened my eyes to cuisine as a richly developed craft to be mastered. And Alice Waters, who put into words the sense of richness that comes from cooking with local, seasonal ingredients from people you know; I'd grown up with that in my parents' restaurant and discovered it even more intimately during my years living in Mexico.
What are the most important lessons you learned from that culinary influence?
What drew you to Mexican cuisine?
The generosity of the culture, the complexity of the food, and the clarity with which each dish reflected elements of history, culture, and geography.
What do you think Americans don't understand about the food of Mexico?
That tacos and the like are a very small part of the cuisine. That Mexican cuisine is incredibly diverse. That Mexican cuisine isn't very spicy. That Mexico has a very sophisticated side to its cuisine. That Mexican food isn't all served with beans and rice. That Mexican cuisine doesn't rely much on sour cream and melted cheese.
What advice would you give to a young would-be chef just starting out?
Cooking is a craft and is only mastered by years of repetitive practice. You have to love the act of cooking — cooking the same thing over and over again. You have to be able to get into the flow of cooking and learn from the products. Great cooking is a deep relationship between a cook and the ingredients — it's not a cook's domination of the ingredients. Ingredients have a lot to teach us cooks, if we'll just stop to listen.
How would you judge the quality of restaurants in America today compared with 20 years ago, and what has changed most about them?
We are a much more sophisticated restaurant culture than 20 years ago. Our expectations of what'll be on the menu, how it will be served, and what level of service we'll receive has increased a hundred fold. This has been the result of the confluence of different cultural developments, not the least of which are that we now have loads of culinary schools turning out very skilled chefs, and the availability of fresher and more diverse product from local sources.
Do restaurateurs have social responsibility beyond simply feeding people honestly in their restaurants?
Of course they do. We are a huge buying force in our country. We are voting with every dollar we spend. If we care about something, we should support it through our purchasing. To say "our customers don't care" is a cheap scapegoat, the reflection of a passionless or weak-spirited chef.
What future project, real or imagined, excites you most?
To have a culinary center that celebrates all aspects of Mexican cuisine, from the highest-end modern cuisine to the street food.