In a year when he's already planning two new restaurants and launching a podcast, Chicago chef Rick Bayless revealed this week some big changes at his one Michelin starred fine dining institution Topolobampo. These include a dining room renovation, an overhauled menu that now focuses on the flavor profiles of Mexican cuisine, and — brace, please — a rotating seven-course menu that will time-travel through significant points in Mexican history over the course of this year. The menu will change monthly. Every other month will be devoted to six of these time-and-place based menus, while the others will offer up themes such as March's forthcoming "Winter farmers' market" menu. First up: Mexico City 1491.
On Tuesday, Bayless and Topolobampo chef de cuisine Andrés Padilla launched this first iteration of what Padilla calls their "gastronomical history lesson." The Mexico City 1491 menu takes a look at what was happening in Mexico's culinary history in the year before Christopher Columbus set sail and changed everything. Though the chefs are still using modern cooking techniques, they're imposing strict ingredient limitations on each of these time-and-place menus. In the pre-Columbian era, for example, Bayless, Padilla, and pastry chef Jennifer Jones had to cut out garlic, onions, wheat, refined sugar, protein from domesticated animals, as well as all of their byproducts such as dairy.
"If you can do anything, nobody is terribly creative."—Bayless
"Everybody in the creative world will tell you that if you can do anything, nobody is terribly creative," Bayless says. "If you say you can't do anything but this little narrow thing, then you get super creative." For example, instead of relying on the sweetness of garlic and onions, Bayless says the chefs used the sweetener capacities of zucchini, pumpkin, honey, and more in constructing this menu.
Topolobampo chef Andrés Padilla. [Photo: Arthur Mullen]
As Padilla explains, these limitations are where the team's research came in handy. For each new menu, they'll spend about three or four weeks doing research and testing in the 3,000-volume library and test kitchen above Topolobampo. "What's really cool is, being a student of Mexican food and Mexican culture, I've learned so much and there's still so much for me to learn," Padilla says. "You can't have one without the other: You can't have food without the history. You can't have the history without the food."
Future menus will illustrate inflection points in Mexico's history.
According to Padilla, the Topolobampo team is still working out some of the details for future menu locations. Perhaps some will be pegged to Oaxaca or Veracruz, for example. But the dates selected are intended to illustrate inflection points in Mexico's history, such as the pre-Columbian era, Mexico in 1650 (the next dated menu coming up this year), the Mexican Revolution, and all the way up to modern day. The last menu, Bayless says, will look at "what a lot of young chefs are doing in Mexico City right now."
[Photos: Arthur Mullen]
Beyond the seven-course menu, though, there are even more changes at Topolobampo. Bayless and Padilla have officially shifted the regular menu away from the traditional appetizer-entree-dessert format to one that files each dish into eight traditional flavor categories of Mexican cuisine: bold, vibrant, fresh, complex, ancient, soulful, enchanting, and luxurious. Diners then can choose in and among the categories to create their own three-, five-, and seven-course meals starting at $55.
Also, over the last year, Bayless has embarked on what Chicago Magazine describes as a "stealth renovation" of the restaurant, using holidays and other days off to change design elements such as Topolobampo's china and art collection, as well as add a wine service station.
"A restaurant is really a dialogue between the chef and the guests."—Bayless
Bayless says that over the years at Topolobampo — which turns 25 soon — he has often asked himself what the restaurant would look like if he were just opening it. That desire for reinvention and creative challenges is what provoked this latest round of revamps. "A restaurant is really a dialogue between the chef and owner and the guests," Bayless says. "You've had the same dialogue for a long time and at some point you have to say, you know, is this dialogue serving both of us or are we just doing it this way because it's comfortable? So I challenge myself really regularly to think outside the box."