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Rick Bayless on His Massive Mexican Culinary Research Library

Welcome to The Cookbook Shelf, in which Eater talks to all manner of food professionals about their book collections. Up today: Chicago chef Rick Bayless, who maintains what he says is one of the world's largest collections of Mexican cookbooks above his restaurants Topolobampo and Frontera Grill.

Below, he discusses which Mexican cookbooks he wishes were available in English, the importance of continuing education for chefs, and why he buys cookbooks you can't cook from.

Why don't you tell me a little bit about the room we're sitting in?
We have a really huge collection of Mexican cookbooks in Spanish, one of the largest collections in the world here. I've spent thirty years making this collection, because you can't go someplace and buy these books. Because the way they print in Mexico is they do a run of two thousand books, and that's all they do. You have to buy them through dealers, or find them [somehow]. I have to constantly be scouring, looking for the books. I have a huge collection of those, and that's all this stuff that you see over here.

Then we have another collection that is all chef books, professional books. Chef books that chefs have written, not necessarily for a professional audience but [about] what their craft is and what they're doing. We have a huge collection of that as well. A bunch of baking books.

Then we have a whole lot of food history books, and the reference books. The kinds of things that you would turn to when you're trying to look up the background of something. Or technical information on an ingredient. That sort of stuff. We have a pretty extensive reference section as well. I'm really big into education.

This stuff all used to be at my house, and so I have this much again at home. I moved this part of it, which is all just the food part of it, down here so that everybody could have access to it.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

The rare Mexican books you were talking about, do you go seeking out specific books? Or, do you just go to a dealer and serendipitously find what you find?
Both, both. I look every place that I go. Every bookshop I walk by in Mexico, I go in and look at their cooking section. Because sometimes I'll find something new that I haven't seen.

I think our earliest book is 1830s. I have the second edition of the first cookbook ever printed in Mexico.

Or a particular dealer [will get] hold of something that I know is out of print, but he happened to get it. So I will work on those. I have a dealer in San Diego that deals in Mexican books. Mostly art books, but she also has a passion for cookbooks. Sometimes she will find really old cookbooks. I have another section up at my desk upstairs that's books that date back to ... I think our earliest one is 1830s. I have the second edition of the first cookbook ever printed in Mexico.

Wow. What is that book?
It's just called Cocinero Mexicano, The Mexican Cook. I have a lot of those old, old books right at my desk. We have a whole lot of stuff here that's divided by state. Because wherever I travel in Mexico, you can almost always find a book that's written about the local cuisine. I like to pick all of those up. Sometimes their recipes aren't very useful or trustworthy. Because they're not written by people who really know how to write recipes. Sometimes they have the kind of books that [say] season to taste and cook until done. They don't really tell you what the taste is supposed to be, or what "done" is supposed to be. But they just assume that you know that. That you would know what it was all about.

Cooks now know way less about cooking. They know more about ingredients, but they know less about cooking.

The earliest cookbooks are really hard to follow because of that very fact. Because they assumed that the readership had so much knowledge. It's kind of interesting that cookbooks now have to be so much more explanatory. Cooks now know way less about cooking. They know more about ingredients, but they know less about cooking.

I think food television has certainly helped people to become aware of what the ingredients are, and how to put something in a plate in a pretty way. But the techniques for actually cooking the stuff ... you can't say to somebody, oh you make it like a mayonnaise. Well, they wouldn't have a clue what that meant. Or you just make a white sauce, and instead of using flour you use masa harina. They wouldn't know what that means. I have to be very explicit but I can work with all kinds of really interesting ingredients.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

You mentioned that you're very interested in education. How does the collection get used for education?
We use it in two different ways. There's a class taught in this restaurant every day. And they're short classes, like fifteen minutes. We divide the year up in an educational curriculum. Different groups take different chunks of the year. If it's cooks that are teaching, we have a curriculum of what we want them to cover during the year. They may do something like ... one class just this last week was on beans.

There's a class taught in this restaurant every day.

This is your staff, or this is outside cooks coming in?
No, this is our staff. So they will come and do this thing where they'll cook all these different heirloom beans for the staff to taste. Then they'll come up here, and they'll go deep into the history of it. How did this develop in this place, and that develop in that place. It was a really fascinating thing because all the things that we think of as beans, they're all new world things.

But then the Spaniards brought in other kinds of beans, which were lentils and chickpeas and fava beans. Then, from Asia came adzuki beans, and soybeans, and they're all used in Mexico. All that stuff is used in Mexico but we try to train our staff, and say this is a native bean, and this is the way it's used in Mexico. Then this other stuff came in it's used in these different ways. So that our staff is just generally educated about everything. All of that can be found in this library.

Does the staff have access to this? To just come up here and look at stuff whenever?
Yes. This is the library, and lots of time they spend between lunch and dinner service [here]. This place has usually got two or three cooks up here doing research on projects. They could be researching new menu items. Going through all these regional cookbooks. Maybe they've decided they wanted to focus on Veracruz style cooking. So they'll come and they'll take all the Veracruz books out. They'll lay them out, and start going through all of those Veracruz books. You have to be fluent enough in Spanish to be able to read Spanish.

But that's still an amazing resource. Not every restaurant has that.
I know, I know. Like I said, I'm really into education. That's why I like to have all this stuff up here. Because I've always been a book collector, and it's really nice to be able to share it with a big group of people.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

I know you also use this as a resource for Topolobampo's new historic menus. Do you want to talk about how you use the library for those menus?
Like I said, we have a whole lot of food history. Okay, we're right now developing all the stuff for our next menu. Right now we're running 1491. The next one we're going to do is 1671, and this is after the Spanish Conquest. The people that wrote about the food were mostly people that were in the ruling class. So, you get a chance to see how that Spanish cuisine that was brought into Mexico, started to morph and become affected by the products that were here.

We have a big table that goes in here, a big harvest table. We just all got around that big table, and we had all these books. All the chefs had taken out one book, and delved into that book. It was a historical book, they were all historical books. They're not recipes or anything but they talk about kinds of things that were eaten at a certain period of that colonial part. We all just sat around there and threw out ideas, and I started writing down things, and say, "Oh we can focus on this kind of a dish for here." Somebody else would throw out something, "Maybe we could do this, and this could come first and this could come second."

Our goal is to tell a story through the menu. So that you've tasted it, and you're going to go away feeling, wow there are distinctive flavors in there. Because a lot of it's medieval flavors where they put lots of spices in things, and then sprinkle sugar over the top of it. That was super medieval. We're trying to figure out, okay, how can we get that into a dish? The impression of that into the dish, without sprinkling sugar over the top. Because that's not going to go on the menu, just to sprinkle sugar on top of something. We have to do our interpretation of these dishes without losing the guts of them.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

Of these volumes that you have on Mexican cuisine that are in Spanish, what are some that you wish would be translated to English? That people could have access to?
Well, okay, there's all these books by a woman named Josefina Velazquez De Leon. She wrote back in the 40s, 50s and 60s. She was the first person ... in fact most people actually credit her with creating a national cuisine. In many countries, France included, there was no sense of a national cuisine. It was just regional cuisines that didn't relate to each other very much. Until something happened, and for France it was Escoffier. Who wrote, "This is the cuisine, and all the chefs will learn this stuff." Then everyone will teach it. There's still regional stuff but all the chefs in restaurants could make the same French food.

It was the moment when Mexican cuisine could come out of the back room, and really stand up and be proud.

Well this woman, though she wasn't professional, she's coming after the Revolution of 1910. Which is basically to throw off the yoke of all the oppression that was coming from other places, and say, "We are an independent country with our own independent character." It was the moment when Mexican cuisine could come out of the back room, and really stand up and be proud. What she did was to collect regional dishes, mush them all together, and make this one big beautiful Mexican cuisine. She didn't downplay regional variations, she just played up, we're all Mexican, we can all cook this same thing.

She took enchiladas out to the Yucatan. They didn't even know what they were in the Yucatan. She went out there, and said, "This is all part of our national cuisine." She taught them how to make mole, and all that. What she wrote ... this is before, if you can believe this, this is before the days of James Beard, and him being on TV, and all that sort of stuff, she had her own TV show. This is something like the third year there was television in Mexico. She had her own TV show, cooking. She published all these little paperback books on all different kinds of things. Many of them for new brides to learn to cook, and stuff like that. She had an academy in Mexico City. She published over a hundred paperback books, and had her own magazine and everything back in the 40s and 50s.

She was so influential, and people don't know who she is now which is really sad. Her great-nephew, I'm in contact with [him], he's a writer in New York. I keep saying, "We need to do this book, we need to do this book about her," because she was a major influence. We have about fifty of her books here, and I wish that somebody — I guess I need more time in the day — could just take the recipes, write the history. Take the best ones, and make it into a book with those recipes. I just think it would be so great. So that's the one that I really really want to see in English.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

Then there's a really, really knowledgeable young chef in Mexico. No, he's not that young, he's probably in his late forties now. [He's] named Ricardo Munoz, and his books are great. We have those all here in Spanish. I have a friend that's working on a translation of his encyclopedia. His encyclopedia of Mexican food is just great. I really want to see that one come out in English. As soon as somebody finishes translating, which is the big hurdle, we will see that in English.

There's just a bunch. There's this woman named Martha Chapa that's written these gorgeous books. They're all in Spanish, and I wish those were in English. Those are sort of regional books. But beautifully photographed.

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[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

What do you like in a cookbook, in general?
Not one thing. Well, I'm really big on ... I really, really like basic books that give you structural recipes, that you can then change. A lot of the professional books do that kind of thing. We're really big here on the Cooks Illustrated stuff, because I think that they do an amazing job of giving you [structure]. I can't say that I like their flavors very much. But they give you the most well tested basic recipes, and then you can just take them and run with them, and do whatever you want.

I like that, I like the chef books because they just give us so many ideas of [techniques]. I mean, just amazing creativity. Often times, they're not very well written. We're kind of on our own when we do it. I've just been plowing through the DOM [by Sao Paolo chef Alex Atala].

That book's beautiful.
It's gorgeous. But I think it's super hard to cook from. There's almost no description of what you're supposed to do. It's almost cook till done.

You can't get half that stuff here, the ingredients, anyway.
You can't get 90% of that stuff here. But it did teach me something, and I ran across somebody who has a hearts of palm farm in Hawaii, and she's using the same kind of hearts of palm he is. I knew all the stuff because I had read it in his book. So it really made me more educated to be able to ask the right questions about what they have. Now we're going to start using their hearts of palm.

I like reading those books because they just open your eyes to so many things. I don't think I use those. We all read them here. Everybody reads them, and I buy them all for the library because everybody wants to read them. They're super expensive, it's better for us to have them here in the library. I tell you that most of them, you just can't cook very much from. But I do like having all those books here because they're gorgeous.

[Photo: Paula Forbes / Eater.com]

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