Award-winning chef, restaurateur, author and television personality Rick Bayless has been credited with introducing Americans to authentic Mexican cuisine and changing the image of Mexican food in America. Chef Bayless comes from an Oklahoma family of restaurateurs and grocers. After studying Spanish and Latin American Studies as an undergraduate, and doing doctoral work in Anthropological Linguistics at the University of Michigan, Bayless lived in Mexico with his wife and wrote his now-classic Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From The Heart of Mexico.
In 1987, having moved to Chicago, he opened Frontera Grill, which specializes in contemporary regional Mexican cooking. In 1988, Food & Wine magazine selected Bayless as “Best New Chef of the Year,” and in 1991, he won a James Beard Award for “Best American Chef: Midwest.” In 1995, he won another James Beard Award for “National Chef of the Year” as well as an award for “Chef of the Year” from the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP). In 1998, the Beard Foundation honored Bayless as “Humanitarian of the Year.” In 2002, Bon Appétit honored him with the “Cooking Teacher of the Year Award.”
On the heels of Frontera Grill’s success, he opened the Topolobampo in 1989. Adjacent to Frontera Grill, Tobolobampo is one of America’s only fine-dining Mexican restaurants. In 1996, Bayless opened a prepared food line of salsas, chips, and grilling rubs under the Frontera Foods label. Frontera Foods went on to open Frontera Fresco—a food kiosk chain at several Macy’s locations.
RED O, on Melrose Avenue, is the first Los Angeles restaurant by Bayless, and his only outside of Chicago. The menu features both authentic Mexican fare and lighter “California-style” dishes that are updated seasonally. The Daily Meal recently visited Bayless at RED O for a quick demo and tasting on margaritas and guacamole and to celebrate his new book, Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks. I sat down and chatted with Bayless about his philosophy on food, the emergence of Mexican cuisine in the US, and his latest projects.
Why did you decide to focus on Mexican food?
I went to Mexico on a family vacation when I was fourteen, and the vitality of the food, culture and the people of Mexico captivated me.
You studied linguistics in college, what made you decide to change career paths and become a chef?
I always cooked through school and I had a catering business in graduate school. When I was working on my dissertation for my Ph.D., I decided academics wasn’t the right environment for me. I wanted to take my interest in culture, specifically Mexican culture, and marry that with my love for food.
How has Mexican food changed in the U.S. since you opened Frontera Grill?
I would say it has changed dramatically. When we opened Frontera there were very few restaurants that did any kind of real, what we call “interior,” Mexican cuisine. And certainly there wasn’t the regional kinds of restaurants you see now. In the 25 years that I have been doing this and hopefully through our books and shows we have had the opportunity to introduce people to this great regional food but also hopefully we have given chefs the opportunity to say, “Bayless is doing it, why can’t I?”
Your new book, Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles and Snacks, has 35 recipes for margaritas and a guacamole recipe for every month. How did you come up with the concept for the book?
I wrote this book because people always ask me for the margarita and guacamole recipes that we serve at Frontera. I wanted to capture what we do in the restaurant in terms of our bar program. We do seasonal drinks, mescal drinks, tequila drinks, after dinner drinks and much more. People always have a need when they invite friends over to make a special drink and snack before dinner so this book is oriented towards that.
Can you talk a bit about the varieties of guacamole?
When you eat in Mexico, you find that it is different in every region. The avocados change and the ingredients added are slightly different. Our restaurant in Chicago is so seasonally and locally oriented that we decided to add seasonal guacamoles and change them monthly. I included a year’s worth of guacamole in the book where each recipe reflects a season. I hope people will start to cook where they are located and utilize seasonal ingredients. Some recipes from the book are grilled corn and poblano guacamole, apple and roasted fennel guacamole and watermelon ginger guacamole.
Any advice to the home chef for making guacamole?
The important thing to understand is how to build a guacamole and how all the ingredients you typically associate with guacamole work together and then you can start to understand how you can add ingredients. It’s the same with margaritas, once you understand the concepts behind the foundation of the recipes you can create the modern stuff.
The book starts with two master classes – one on how to make a classic margarita and one on how to make a classic guacamole. Then it builds and includes a variety of different recipes.
What is most important for home cooks interested in cooking authentic Mexican cuisine?
I would emphasize learning about the culture. Visit Mexican grocery stores in your area and eat at the local good restaurants. Remember that Mexican food is way more than just tacos. The people that say, “I love Mexican food, I love going to the tacoritos,” is just like saying, “I love American food, I only eat hamburgers.”
What’s next for you?
I always have a book in the works and now I am working on a new book on street food. I am also filming the 9th season of “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” which will air in Spring 2013.