Chef Rick Bayless is a great story teller. Catch him at a cooking demo, watch his hugely popular show Mexico — One Plate at a Time, or visit one of his restaurants, and you will find yourself hanging on his every word as he discusses life, travel, history, people, and, of course, food. We caught up with Rick during a recent visit to Orlando where he was a special guest at Disney’s Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. During his culinary demonstration, he told the story of Negra Modelo and how, in 1925, their brew masters crafted a Munich dunkel-style lager and created a surprisingly drinkable beer, and how he uses the beer as a complement to his food, often as part of the recipe itself.
“When I cook, I’m always telling you the story of a dish,” Bayless said. “I understand when you tell that story people remember and they have a fuller experience, so I really love that part of it.”
Amazingly enough, Bayless said he started out in the storytelling business rather than the food creation business. He became interested in language and was studying how it expressed a culture. Through this process, his passion about food was rediscovered. “To be honest I never really thought I would go back to being a chef even though I had grown up in the restaurant industry — I thought I would end up being a food writer,” he added. “But then I decided to get back into the restaurant business and now people recognize me more for that more than for what I first intended to do.”
Of course, a man this busy can’t be at each table every night to share anecdotes about a particular dish or discuss theming of the night’s menu; he relies on his staff for that. “All our servers can tell all the stories behind the food and I think that is the difference between success and failure for a restaurant,” Bayless said. “If it all comes down to whether a guest likes the food on the plate — that’s very subjective. I can give you a dish that you might not think you like, but if I put it in the right context and I give it a story, you might decide you like that dish.”
Bayless takes the storytelling back yet another step, fully believing that a properly written menu can start that conversation before the servers even approach a table. “We recently visited a Turkish place and it was a very nice restaurant, but they just put everything all on one menu, things from street vendors, little restaurants, single-dish restaurants, everything was just put all in one place,” he said. “Where they missed the mark is they weren’t telling any stories about any of the food. If they had just given different headings to the sections of the menu with a little background, this would give the guest a context in which to start to understand the cuisine.”
Bayless takes this a step further with his staff than many other restaurateurs do, by actually taking his management staff to Mexico in order for them to experience the food and culture on their own, thus obtaining their own stories and experiences to share with the customers.
This year will mark the 10th season of his award-winning show, and he’s extremely excited about what they have put together.
“This season focuses on those young chefs of Mexico City who are really thinking outside of the box and adding a completely new perspective to what the food of Mexico can be,” he said. “They are all young; this is a new crop of chefs, and they are all super smart, and really, really well educated. They have worlds of experience and have brought all that back to Mexico and are changing the way people think about the food there. It’s fantastic. ”
As busy as Bayless is, don’t look for him to pull back on the reins just quite yet. He’s got a new restaurant concept in the works, which he’s planning to open in the next year.
“We’ve already got the space but we are not quite sure which direction we’re going to take it yet. We are just in the menu development and then that will dictate what the kitchen will look like,” he said. “It’s going to have a focus of Mescal for sure because I want to do a Mescal bar. I know it’s going to be live fire cooking, because everything I do has live fire cooking, so it will be heavy in that arena, but I just don’t know exactly what the menu will be yet. It may be just live fire and nothing else. No fryer, no stove, just a great big long grill with things on top of it where you can simmer things and such but it will be super rustic.”