Rick Bayless is one of the leading practitioners of Mexican food in the U.S. and a pioneer in expressing an idea of the cuisine that goes beyond just tacos. He did it in Chicago, of all places, starting out in 1987 with Topolobampo, his fine dining concept, and Frontera Grill. Both restaurants remain vibrant and excellent to this day, and Bayless' stature has only continued to grow with cookbooks, casual spinoffs, a PBS show, James Beard Awards, humanitarian efforts, and the respect of his colleagues in Mexico. In the following interview, Bayless talks about his new cookbook, the state of Mexican cuisine in the U.S. and in Mexico, and the fact that he might be more embraced by Mexicans than by Mexican-Americans.
What's the new book about?
I hope that this is going to be one of the four books that captures the spirit of the restaurant here. I thought I would start off with the thing that people get a taste for when they walk in the front door, and that's guacamoles and margaritas. We've developed a mixology program here over many years, and our signature margarita was developed more through an understanding of the ingredients than an actual recipe. So, I've created two masterclasses in this book.
At the end of the one on margaritas, you should be able to go and make your own signature one. Same goes for the guacamole: you learn the classic guacamole, how I've chosen each ingredient, and how I've balanced all of those flavors, so you are equipped with a full understanding and aren't just painting by numbers. What I'm getting at is you can take the learning and then create something to suit your own tastes.
The book is filled out with all these recipes for things that have become signature dishes for us here. Because we change the menu so frequently, it lets us highlight seasonality and local products and capture a moment. That's what our restaurant is really about.
Would you say that you were highlighting things like mezcal way before they became almost obligatory for cocktail bars?
We put one of our best drinks ever, the mezcal margarita, on our menu exactly twenty years ago. We've had the Del Maguey years for like twenty years, too. It's great, single village stuff. Now, of course, there's been this flood of great, artisanal mezcals in the market. That gives us so much to play with. The mezcal margarita has been popular since the beginning, and about ten years ago, we started doing more drinks with mezcal. We didn't really wait until it became popular.
Would you like to continue to work on books more related to the restaurants?
Actually, I'm working on a second one that's focused on the restaurant recipes and the culture that we have here. Again, it's not so much about the actual recipes as it is about capturing the broader sense of what we do here. It's the culture of the restaurant that produces this wonderful food, and I'm trying to transmit that to people. It's going to be similar to this Frontera book, but about street food classics and how we weave those into our restaurant both in the more casual settings of Xoco and Frontera and the more formal Topolobampo.
This might be hard, but since you're talking about giving people an idea of the culture, can you give me a concise explanation of what makes what you do at the restaurants unique?
The first thing is that we go very deep into the culture. It wasn't a drive-by thing for me. I was in Mexico for years and wrote my first book before I came back to do it in a restaurant. We've continuously, over the course of the years, closed down for a period of time and taken people — sometimes as many as 35 — to Mexico so they can have firsthand experience with the cuisine.
The second thing that we do is that we have really seated all of our cooking in the place that we cook. Instead of bringing everything from Mexico and cooking dishes that may seem out of context, we learn all the classics of Mexico and express them with local ingredients. We led the charge twenty years ago to find all these local farms that could supply us with all of these ingredients, except something like a dried chili, whose flavor is really reflective of the place where it's grown.
So, in a nutshell, you're doing traditional Mexican with a sense of place.
Very much so. It's inspired by the regional cuisines of Mexico, but expressed with local ingredients.
Now I'd like you to talk about Mexican cuisine in the United States. How have you seen it change over the years, especially as more and more immigrants come to the country?
I think it's quite remarkable how far we have come since I first opened Frontera twenty-five years ago. The first customers would come in the door, see the menu, and walk out. They'd say, "I don't know what you're going to do. This isn't Mexican food. You're going to go out of business in a few days." I knew that once people started tasting the real food of Mexico, because I spent a lot of years learning how to cook it well, that they were going to find something really remarkable in it.
In that time, we've changed enormously as a culture. We don't only know the difference between Mexican food and Mexican-American food, but we've started to talk about all the regions of Mexico — Puebla, the north, Oaxaca, and all of these cuisines that are now being represented in restaurants in the U.S..
This is our second generation of immigrant families, and a lot of those kids are going to culinary school and getting a very solid training in classic fine cooking. And now they're coming out of that and saying that they want to learn their own cuisine, so they end up applying those techniques to their cuisine and really going deeply into it. That means that we're going to have a lot more of the cuisines of Mexico represented in fine restaurants across the country.
What needs to happen for that current to keep getting stronger?
We still have to step away from the idea that the best thing about Mexican food is tacos. It's like saying that the only thing that we eat in the U.S. is hamburgers. I know people get really excited about tacos, but there is so much more that the cuisine has to offer.
Are there any Mexican chefs in the U.S. you're particularly excited about, or is it too hard to list them all?
Right, if I give you a list I'm going to leave people out and it's going to get a bit weird. What I will say is that there are a lot of young chefs doing some really great work. It's interesting to me that as the Mexican population in New York has really grown in the last twenty years, we've started to see a lot of Mexican food pop up there.
The people that are doing it on the West Coast — there seems to be a bit more of a heritage of eating Mexican food there, but they seem to want it to be inexpensive and more oriented toward tacos. A few people are breaking out and going beyond that, but it seems apparent to me that there is a sense there that Mexican cuisine can't be the great cuisine that I think it could and should be. I'm waiting for a few more to pop up. In San Francisco, for example, people will tell me about great taco spots, but I think we need a great upscale Mexican restaurant.
Do you think the change will happen naturally?
It's going to happen naturally. You have to open a restaurant that's not going to be a taco place. You have to say that you're not going to do them. You're going to do entrées in a kind of upscale dining experience. It doesn't have to be fine dining, but definitely a place where you go in, people have appetizers, and then order their own entrée.
I think we are naturally going to see that happen. As we get this next generation of cooks coming up, they have it as part of their heritage, growing up and eating Mexican food and maybe spending some time with grandma in the summertime. They'll then go to culinary school and already have the understanding that tacos aren't the main thing, and they'll be able to compose menus knowing that.
You of course have people at the very high end doing their funky interpretations of the taco in the fine dining setting, which is of course a different story. They're trying to reinterpret what a taco can be.
You just mentioned reinterpretation, and before that the need for restaurants that don't serve tacos. What do you think, then, of Alex Stupak and Enrique Olvera? Stupak doesn't serve tacos at one of his restaurants, and Olvera is considered the most progressive of the Mexican chefs. But they both get their fair share of heat.
Doesn't anyone that's working at the highest level? I'll first talk about Enrique, who's a dear friend of mine. I really think he's pushed the envelope the most, certainly in Mexico City. You can find a taco on his menu, and it's a taco like you've never seen before. He's making people think about their cuisine, and there need to be people like that. Would you say that every dish you've eaten at Pujol is the most delicious thing you've ever put in your mouth? No, not necessarily, but it certainly makes you think at every turn about what that thing is. The interesting thing is that if you were to go there without knowing anything about Mexican food, you might not get most of what he's doing. I think he is doing really remarkable work.
Alex, on the other hand, is providing delicious food for people that don't necessarily know what all that is. He's bringing in other things that will be touched on for his audience. Cooking is like a dialogue between the chef and the people eating the food, and you need to be able to converse back-and-forth. You can see that with a lot of the things that he's doing. He's having that conversation. I would focus more on his restaurant Cocina, where he's pushing it more towards fine dining.
I'd like you to talk about what you're seeing going on in Mexico right now.
There's an explosion of really great chefs all across Mexico. I'm doing my entire PBS series, all thirteen shows, on Oaxaca this year. I just came back from an intense ten days of scouting, where we visited eighty places. There are amazingly good contemporary chefs there, and they're getting more and more mature. You have José Manuel Baños, who was doing some good stuff when he started off but now has a better kitchen and is much more mature. Then there's Alejandro Ruiz, who is sort of the pioneer of cooking contemporary food in Oaxaca, and the last meal I had there was tremendously delicious. It was so delicious that I ended up going back for more the next day.
There's a lot of that kind of thing going on throughout Mexico. It's very exciting for me to see. Every town seems to have a gastronomic festival, and they're focusing on contemporary and traditional food in the areas. I think that within the next fifteen or twenty years, Mexico will be kind of a different place to visit, because there is so much of an interest in the cuisine being reborn. That's not to say that the traditional food was falling out of fashion, it's that grandma maybe passed away and the cooks aren't at home making the food anymore. So there's a lot of enthusiasm right now about grabbing hold of the traditional stuff and also reinterpreting. And the reinterpretation isn't as esoteric as maybe with Enrique Olvera. It's more about saying, "How can I embrace this tradition and make it in a way that's right for me right now."
Do you feel like you need to be very much in touch with what's going on there to be confident about your work in Chicago?
Oh, yes. I'm in Mexico five or six times a year, and I wish I could be there more. There is so much going on, and I want to keep in touch with what these chefs are doing and what they're thinking about. That helps me understand the potential to evolve the cuisine, which is really what we're talking about here: evolving the cuisine into a modern era. It's not a cuisine that needs to be recreated, it just needs to be evolved, like all cuisines. There was a time a few decades ago where it seemed a little stuck. There was a lot of, "We cook it this way because this is the way we cook it," and that's never an acceptable answer to me. People are now starting to explain their methodology and reasoning, and I find that very positive.
You may not agree with this observation, but when I went down to Mexico, I noticed that the chefs there have overwhelmingly positive feelings about your and Alex Stupak's work. It's funny, considering that people in the U.S. might be more critical of you for being Americans that do Mexican food. Would you agree with that?
It's a very interesting thing that when someone who isn't from French or Italian descent and tries to do one of those cuisines in the U.S., nothing happens, and they are encouraged by the people in France and Italy to visit those countries, learn the cuisines, and then go represent that in their countries. For some reason, it isn't like that with cuisines from the third world. There seems to be this strange proprietary aspect to the cuisine, where if you don't have a last name attached to that culture, you shouldn't touch it. You may not even know that culture — you may not have even been born there or raised with it or anything like that — but if you have the right last name, you can adopt it. I don't get it.
In the music world, it's not like that at all. You get guys like Yo-Yo Ma playing with people from all over the world, and he opens himself up to them, and they open themselves to him. People find it amazing and cool, the way that people can exchange and communicate across cultures. For some reason, in some aspect of cuisine, we have not been able to take that step, and I don't understand.
Do you have any sense of why that might be?
I try to stay away from it a little bit, because the people I know in Mexico really do appreciate what I've done and they see me as one of the players in the evolution of the cuisine. Most of the chefs I'm close with in Mexico — I've been to their restaurants, they've been to mine, and we're in it together. Even the Mexican government has acknowledged what I've done. It's mostly Mexican-American that are critical, maybe because they don't feel as attached to their culture, but I really don't know. It's definitely not Mexicans from Mexico.
Finally, are there any new restaurants on the horizon?
All I can tell you is that we have an idea and it's going to be super, super cool, but I can't say anything until we sign the lease!