[Photo: Raphael Brion / Eater]
Chef Rick Bayless has two Chicago projects in the works: a second location of his cafe XOCO, and a mysterious project Bayless promises will be "a completely new concept like we've never seen before." He has also started a new podcast and is coming off the first year of his Mexican food conference, Mod Mex. Below, he joined Eater by the beach at the Ritz-Carlton on Grand Cayman to discuss the hazards of putting restaurants in old buildings, the new wave of Mexican chefs, and the difference between making Mexican food in Mexico and making Mexican food in the US (context is everything).
You're doing a new podcast with food writer Steve Dolinsky, right?
I am. We've been putting it together for the last month and half or so. Our goal really was to do a Chicago-based podcast that had national tentacles out. We interview people all over the country. I'm a huge fan of cooking and eating on the radio. Everybody says "You're not suppose to do it, that's only video." And I say that's completely the wrong approach. Video actually distances you from the food. Audio takes you right into the food and because audio brings so much of each listener's imagination to your experience. Listening to somebody cook on the radio or eat something on the radio is so rich. Who knows if you're imagining what they're experiencing but you just bring so much to yourself to it.
I've been wanting to do this for a long time. Steve is just an amazing pro and he's got all the technical background and experience. I'm the guy that you stick in front of the camera or the microphone and I talk. But he really knows how to put it all together. We've been playing around with this idea for the last two or three years. The last six months we really started finalizing things, and then we said "You know what, let's just do it."
We've made two episodes of it now. We thought we would just release those two, release one now and then in a couple of weeks we release the second one. To see what people say, to see if people like it, see if they jump on it and all of that. In the first few hours we had a thousand downloads. So we're not too unhappy about that.
What's the format of the show?
It's just really fast paced. We do news, so we have a news reader. She also does a quiz and the listener calls in. We just do silly culinary questions and talk about things and it sparks conversation and all of that. So we do a celebrity interview, some celebrity that is known for having a penchant for something culinary.
Then I do a chef challenge. Nobody wins it, but it's a chefs challenge with another chef. We cook an ingredient that is something you might get into CSA box that you don't have the slightest idea what to do with. You have to cook a dish with five ingredients in 15 minutes with that crazy ingredient. We did one on celery root, one on mustard greens. We each come up with a completely different dish, obviously, because we all cook in very different ways, but it's something that people could actually make. We also do a video component of that, that's on the website. So if you listen to it, the 15 minute challenge is edited down to five minutes for the podcast, but if you want to see the 15 minutes you can just go online and see the whole thing.
Are you a fan of radio and podcasts?
I listen to them constantly. I'm not a person that ever sits down very much, so podcasts are my friend. I just download everything onto my phone and then whenever I'm walking someplace, I just put a podcast on.
I get my greatest inspiration listening to non-food stuff.
I have really wide range in taste. It's really interesting because I get my greatest inspiration listening to non-food stuff. I listen to this one called On the Media, that comes from NPR. I like it because it makes you stop and think about what the media is hitting you with constantly. And then Radiolab. I think that's amazing and I really listen to that all the time.
And then my guilty pleasure. It's not so guilty though, because everybody likes it, Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me. [Host Peter Sagal] has now become a friend of mine and I just think he's the most hilarious guy ever. We did a conference last year called Mod Mex that was looking at the future of Mexican food, and we got him to be our MC for the whole thing introducing everybody. He did 15 minutes of stand up at the beginning of the thing. I've never heard him do anything like that, because he doesn't really come from the stand up world. He's brilliant, he's brilliant, I had so much fun.
Steve and I both travel a fair amount and so we've collected a whole lot of audio wherever we travel, we make short interviews with people and stuff like that. I was just in Istanbul, sitting in the middle of the market with this woman that just knew that market backwards and forwards and had the greatest conversation with her. So, I think that will make our podcast really distinctive, because I have one perspective and Steve has a very different perspective. He's never work a day in a restaurant, and it's all I've ever done, I grew up in the restaurant business. So, I see it from one perspective he sees it from another and I think there's a nice tension that way.
Are you the straight man or is he the straight man?
Rick: I'm never a straight man. [Laughs] Oh, he's funny. He's totally funny. He's sort of the ultimate professional. I really, really, really liked working with him. I've known him for 20 years.
I want to ask you about your Randolph Street restaurant. You have said before it's going to be "a completely new concept that you've never seen before." Which is a very bold thing to say.
Don't you love that? I love saying things like that. [Laughs] I can't, I can't, I can't say a thing. We're not there. We're not at the announcement stage yet. We're not at the unveiling thing yet.
What's the time frame we're looking at?
Nine months to a year. It's in a really, really old building. Before that, we're opening second XOCO in Wicker Park and that was supposed to be open by now. It was actually supposed to be open late Fall . But again it's a really old building and we got in there and oh my gosh, even the structural engineers couldn't figure it out.
We needed to dig out the basement some so we could put a prep kitchen in there. They started digging in that basement and they realize that the first floor was just about to collapse in on the basement. So as they started digging, we had to just stop and re-shore up everything. We had to really, literally build it from the basement up again to the first floor so that it wouldn't fall apart.
We had to really, literally build it from the basement up again so that it wouldn't fall apart.
When you're working in really old buildings — because every building that we have worked in is over 100 years old — through the years people do all different kinds of weird things to buildings. Sometimes they do things that you can't imagine, that they don't realize it's going to cause somebody some problems later on. But the next thing you know, it's on to the next person and to the next and the next and the next. But Randolph Street will be about a year.
What's the timeline on XOCO then?
About three months from now. We're just getting ready to start the construction and everything.
Does an experience like XOCO make you want to only use new buildings?
No. Because I love the character. The place that Frontera is in, I just love with all my heart. It's got this 110 year old floor. It's all broken and cracked and it's hand laid one by one tiles that are varying in their colors because they didn't know how to keep consistency, It just looks like something that's just been there for ages and I love that.
What do you think of the state of Mexican cuisine right now?
I am super excited. In the past, I've always gone to the regional cooks of Mexico for my inspiration, for flavor, for depth, for integrity. But not for anything new or contemporary. When a cuisine isn't evolving it doesn't usually bode well for that cuisine. It needs to be taking steps forward all the time. That's the sort of history of cuisine in the world. The ones that are stagnant, that are questioning who they are, what they are doing. They don't know why they are doing it. We do it this way because we've always done it this way. That usually doesn't give it a really strong, vibrant feel. For a while there, there were really great regional cuisines in Mexico, very traditional. But I felt like I was sensing a little bit of distancing.
When was this?
Up until about five, six, seven years ago, something like that. Then all of a sudden chefs started emerging, young chefs that were not doing what the prior generation of chefs were doing. The prior generation of chefs were going to Europe, learning to make European food, coming back and making the equivalent of their Bearnaise sauce with chipotle in it and calling it Mexican.
These young chefs aren't doing that. These young chefs, yes, they've done their stint away so that they learn the professional kitchen at a really high level. But then they're coming back to Mexico, to re-envision the cuisine to their contemporary eye. Looking at the great depth of material that they have to work with. They're not trying to take a European model and forcing Mexico into it. So, I am super excited right now.
These young chefs aren't taking a European model and forcing Mexico into it.
Now the thing about Mexico is that they're really leading the pack right now on all of that, as they should, as they should always be. The U.S. chefs, we all have to dive even deeper into the cuisine. We can play in that field as long as we dive really deeply into the cuisine, really learn the basis of it. That's kind of where I have come from, but even sometimes now I feel really challenged by some of these young chefs in Mexico.
And the way that they are re-imagining things comes from the fact that they are working in the middle of that tradition, and I'm working outside that tradition. I see my food taking all of that depth of knowledge of their regional cuisine and evolving it in one way, because I'm doing it in the U.S. And they are evolving it in another. I'm finding it super exciting. I think that this is one of the most exciting moments for me in my the span of my career in seeing what's going on in Mexico.
What chefs are you referring to specifically?
Enrique Olvera is one that people look at a lot. He's jumped to another level, though. Now he's part of this other group that's an international group. That's all good. He was one of the first, a trailblazer and everything. But it's the same thing when you go to Copenhagen. It's not a René Redzepi town. There's amazing food that in my experience it's just as good as what you get in Noma and it's got its own perspective.
Redzepi is the one that has been vocal and gotten it all out there and so he's the name, and the same thing with Enrique. But there are a lot of really amazing chefs. Right now I'm really hot on this one fellow, Jorge Vallejo at Quintonil. I have eaten his tasting menu a number of times. It's not as wacky modern as what you could get at Pujol with Enrique but it's really, really fine and in some cases really brilliant.
Then you go to somebody like Alex Ruiz at Casa Oaxaca who has led the charge out down there for more than a decade. His food just gets better and better and better, and I've had some of the best meals that I've had in Mexico there. Roberto Solis out in the Yucatan in Mérida at a place called Nectar, he's doing great work.
Now the chefs are cross-pollinating, the bar is just going up and up and up.
There are a whole bunch of chefs in Baja. I know Anthony [Bourdain] is really hot on Baja because it's really phenomenal, there's such a great chefs movement there, several places around Ensenada and into the Valley of Guadalupe that are doing really amazing work. It's just not happening in Baja in Mexico, it's happening everywhere in Mexico. Now there are so many culinary festivals and they all invite the same chefs from all over the country. So those guys get to know each other a lot better. They're cross-pollinating and you're just seeing, the bars are just going up and up and up. I think that's really super cool.
Someone needs to do great festivals to bring those Mexican chefs up to the U.S. to see what they're doing.
That's kind of the reason we started our little festival, the Mod Mex thing. It was our first time, we just want to put our toes in the water and see what would happen. It was just two days. We had people flying in from around the country for it and we thought it was just a little thing we were doing for Chicago. We got to start really getting these chefs out, I want to get them talking about what their perspective is. Not just making their food for us, because sometimes if you don't understand where the food comes from, you don't have context to understand what they have done to change it.
Jeffrey Steingarten said, "I have no idea if this stuff is good or bad. I've never tasted any of this or anything like it in my entire life."
The first time I was on Iron Chef, the very first episode of Iron Chef America. It was me against Bobby Flay, and so I do all my traditional stuff — I do a contemporary presentation of it — but I did all these sauces that are really traditional and regional and stuff. Jeffrey Steingarten was one of the judges and he just said, "I have no idea if this stuff is good or bad. I've never tasted any of this or anything like it in my entire life. I don't even know how to judge it."
What can you say? But that's the thing, if you don't have some context for it. It really is hard for people to do. I want the chefs to talk. I think it will be that we can build that festival. We're going to do it again this year. We're going to make it a little bit bigger and try to figure out how we can incorporate more chefs.