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Is Rick Bayless the Most Interesting Man in the World?

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Chef Rick Bayless has won a lot of accolades — including Mexico's official Order of the Aztec Eagle — for his contributions to Mexican cuisine through his Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, and Tortas Frontera. But many of his interests lie far beyond the kitchen.

Rick Bayless isn't just a chef with a TV show; he also stars in a dinner theater stage production. Rick Bayless doesn't just do yoga; he practices full splits every day. Rick Bayless doesn't just have a garden; he cultivates $30,000 worth of produce in his backyard. And Rick Bayless doesn't just host parties; his parties are goddamn legendary. So is Rick Bayless the Most Interesting Man in the World? Here's a look at the evidence:

Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless Is an Actor of Stage and Screen

Rick Bayless comes from a restaurant family — his parents owned and operated Oklahoma City's Hickory House Barbecue — and a performing family. His mother once had a local TV show. His brother, Skip, is a sports television personality on ESPN2. And Rick was always in school plays when he was growing up. He even considered pursuing an acting career at the University of Oklahoma.

But even when he switched career tracks to cooking, Bayless never really stopped performing. Early in his career, Bayless gravitated toward teaching cooking classes because "they were performances." He also hosted a television cooking show in the 1980s called Cooking Mexican, and his PBS show Mexico: One Plate at a Time is now in its ninth season. In 2009, he won the first season of Top Chef Masters.

What is Most Interesting Man in the World territory? Rick Bayless recently starred in a stage production of Cascabel

But a few high school plays and an appearance on Top Chef Masters is hardly Most Interesting Man in the World territory. What is? Oh, just the little fact that Rick Bayless recently starred in a stage production of Cascabel, the story of a mysterious chef who woos the owner of his Mexican boardinghouse with his cooking and, seemingly, his dancing skills.

Bayless got back into the field a few years ago after attending a Lookingglass Theatre production of Hephaestus: A Greek Mythology Circus Tale about a Greek god with superhuman powers, featuring a cast of circus performers. Bayless was inspired. The play's magical realism captivated him, and he began talking with its creators about collaborating on a play about the transformative powers of food. And thus Cascabel was born.

Rick Bayless

When Cascabel premiered in 2012, it earned a 3 ½-star review from the Chicago Tribune's theater critic Chris Jones. New York Times critic Charles Isherwood reviewed the Chicago dinner theater production as well, with high praise for the dinner component, but wrote that it was "distinctly light on the palate as a work of theater." Isherwood noted that Bayless was mostly in the background with a few lines of dialogue delivered well enough here and there, but his "reasonably nimble footwork at least suggests he'd be a tough competitor on Dancing with the Stars."

It seems that 2012 experiment in dinner theater was overall a success, though. Bayless returned to the stage for a revival production that ran this August, and earned a similarly positive review from Jones. Striking in the age of the celebrity chef, Jones writes, "Bayless seems genuinely happy, and thus also genuinely credible, in the role of an anonymous cook, focusing on slicing and dicing vegetables, intent on the perfect mole, blinking behind his glasses in the rude glare of the stage lights."

Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless Is an Award-Winning Dancer

Every now and then, someone compares the fluid movements of a well-trained line of cooks to a ballet. But smooth and efficient movements don't necessarily make a cook a dancer. Taking ballroom dance classes once a week like Bayless does, though.

Bayless is into rumba, cha-cha, salsa, and a slow, dramatic style of Latin dance called bolero. He got hooked on all this in 2006, when he was asked to participate in the first annual Dancing with Chicago Celebrities charity event. Bayless won first place. "I'm like a perfectionist," Bayless says. "I'm the guy that would just rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and rehearse. I don't like failure." He's kept it up ever since, running to the Arthur Murray Dance Center across the street from Frontera Grill for an hour every now and then to clear his head through dance.

Rick Bayless Can Do the Splits

It took Bayless a decade of yoga to learn how to do the splits. Now he hits a full split every day. Bayless got into yoga about twenty years ago when a close friend of his became a yoga teacher and he was looking for some stress relief. Now, he practices daily in pursuit of balance, strength, and flexibility. "I realized just how that was the physical manifestation of what I was trying to bring to my whole life, not just my physical life," Bayless says.

Rick Bayless hits a full split every day.

And Bayless isn't wasting his time in your mom's hatha yoga class. He says he's more the type of yogi that does "all the crazy foot behind your head, arm balances, and crazy stuff like that." Bayless once described his Anusura style of yoga to Food Republic as "long hold yoga, until-you-want-to-scream yoga." He's working now on a move that requires absurd abdominal strength: the prep-less handstand, in which practitioners simply raise their legs over their bodies rather than kicking them up into place.

For further insight into this man of mystery and energy, check his Instagram account. Tucked amid the tiled images of pit-roasted pigs and selfies with Mexico City chef Enrique Olvera is a photograph of Bayless striking a pretty sweet wheel pose. (In non-yoga English, that's a backbend.)

Interlude: Random Rick Bayless Nerd Facts

  • He has a totally insane cookbook library.
  • Sometimes he uses those cookbooks to create menus that time-travel through Mexican culinary history.
  • He and Chicago-based food writer Steve Dolinsky produce their own podcast, the Feed. They record two shows a month, featuring interviews with chefs, food writers, bartenders, and more.

Rick Bayless Doesn't Mess Around with His Garden

Plenty of restaurants have gardens these days, a by-product of the expansion (and fetishization) of the farm-to-table movement. But Bayless's garden is next level. The man grows $30,000 worth of produce per year in the backyard of his Wicker Park home, plus tomatoes, herbs, and chiles on the rooftop of Frontera Grill for his chefs to use for salsa.

Bayless and his wife, Deann, moved into their home more than eighteen years ago. After their very first week in residence, they ripped up all the sod from the backyard and dug the beds for a production garden to grow all the salad greens for the restaurant. "I live [on] a small farm, and it's right [in] downtown Chicago," Bayless says.

That said, Bayless doesn't run the garden himself anymore. Master Gardener Bill Shores now tends the salad greens and the greenhouse full of Mexican herbs such as hoja santa, as well as lemon verbena. Shores also occasionally leads tours of the Bayless garden, which have been written up in the likes of Chicago Magazine and earned Yelp reviews like that of Erica G., who writes, "Is this tour worth the $20? Absolutely, if you want to go visit heaven for a while."

Rick Bayless

Bayless' garden in the middle of Chicago.

Rick Bayless's Parties Are Legendary

Rick Bayless knows that some people think their house parties are legendary. But he argues that his parties actually are legendary. Throwing a party is like performance art for Bayless and Deann. Sometimes literally. Sometimes involving rock star drummers. "It's amazing to me how many people just don't understand that aspect of giving a party," Bayless says. "They think you put some food out and put some music on, [and] people are just hanging out."

"We always talk about the moment in the party when everything just clicks and time stands still."—Bayless

That's not the case at a Bayless party, where Rick and Deann orchestrate how it's all going to flow well ahead of time. They set a certain mood upon arrival for their guests, and they plan how to ramp the energy levels up until the Moment arrives. "We always talk about the moment in the party when everything just clicks and time stands still and everybody is having the most amazing time and they're never going to forget this moment," Bayless says. "That's what our goal is for every party."

Rick Bayless

Rick and Deann Bayless at one of their parties

A Bayless party will also typically feature some kind of crazy food-related happening (naturally). Say, a carnitas party, or a pig roast in the Bayless's garage, or a paella cooked in a three-foot pan over a wood fire. But don't call it a theme party. Rick Bayless does not do theme parties or costume parties. "I'm really awkward when I try to do that," he says.

But Rick Bayless does do parties that are actually artistic collaborations with other famous people. In August, Bayless hosted Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche and about forty guests at his home for a dinner party that sought to explore the relationship between art and food. As Bayless explained before the dinner:

Glenn is just a master of sound and percussion. He is doing sounds that are inspired by and sometimes include the real sounds of the kitchen, and we are doing five incredibly aromatic courses.

I'm anticipating that the people who are coming to this dinner will go on this adventure with us. It will be a very quiet dinner because people will be off in their heads experiencing whatever they're experiencing almost [in a] hallucinogenic way, because if the sounds are taking you someplace and that aroma is taking you someplace, then it's really hard to stay in the moment. Both of those things evoke such strong memory that you could get lost in them.

Although it's unclear whether any of the diners actually experienced a hallucinogenic moment, Eater photographer Barry Brecheisen reports that giant horn speakers were set up around the dining area and the grounds. These speakers piped in Kotche's percussion as well as texture sounds from a microphone in the kitchen as Bayless and his team prepared the meal. Those sounds played throughout the five-course dinner, tickets for which were open to the public at a cost of $750 as a fund-raiser for the Frontera Scholarship Fund.

Rick Bayless
Rick Bayless

Glenn Kotche and Rick Bayless

This dinner was inspired by Heston Blumenthal's famed Sound of the Sea, Bayless says. During a dinner at the Fat Duck several years ago, the dish completely floored Bayless and three tablemates. They fell silent as they put on their headphones and listened to the sound of the sea while eating seafood presented on a glass-topped box filled with sand. They remained silent for some time, even after removing their headphones. "I thought at that point: There are two things that are incredibly evocative in life," Bayless says. Both sound and smell "will take you to another place really fast."

"There are two things that are incredibly evocative in life: sound and smell."—Bayless

But this exploration of the senses was also part of a greater project Bayless has been working on all year. Intrigued by the debate between those who think of food simply as nutrients ("they're the same people who think that sex is only for procreation") and those who think of it as a craft ("just like, I don't know, building a cabinet or laying bricks on the outside of your home"), Bayless set out to explain why he falls more in the camp of those who think food can transcend both necessity and craft to become high art. That's what he's doing with Cascabel. It was also the point of a recent menu at Topolobampo for which he challenged his chefs to come up with a dish that evoked the same feeling for them as any of the restaurant's artworks.

Though Bayless's exploration is still ongoing, he says he has arrived as some preliminary conclusions about the relationship of food and art in America. "We are under the tyranny of nutritionism so strongly that people think about food as good and bad," Bayless says. "Unfortunately that clouds most people's ability to really go to thinking of food as art. I think we have a long way to go."

Xoco Wicker Park taken by Marc Much

Interlude: Rick Bayless's Ongoing Projects

  1. Xoxo Wicker Park: Last month, Bayless opened a second location of his Mexican street food restaurant Xoco in Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood. This one is quite a bit more decked out than the original, with more space, and offering twenty taps of local craft beer. As he told Eater Chicago, "We made the [Xoco] downtown purposely uncomfortable [so customers would be in and out]. This one is a very happy room."
  2. A Mysterious Unnamed Project will be "a completely new concept that you've never seen before." He still can't talk about it, sorry.
  3. Sushi taco pop-up: When Bayless isn't eating in his own restaurants, he gravitates toward Japanese food because of its wildly different flavors. This fall, Bayless is teaming up with sushi chef Fred Despres from Arami—whose wife Lisa is a sous chef at Frontera—on a sushi taco pop-up. "You know, it just came to me one day when I was at this taco place in Mexico City that there is so much similarity between the way you make tacos and the way you make sushi," Bayless says he told Despres. "Is there anything that we could say to each other here?"
  4. Topolobampo turns twenty-five: Bayless's Michelin-starred restaurant Topolobampo celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary this year with a revamp of both the menu and the restaurant itself, plus an invitation-only celebration at the James Beard House in New York City in November.

Rick Bayless Cooks for Presidents Sometimes

Plenty of restaurants across the country can claim President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama among their customers, but Rick Bayless can trump that. In May 2010, Bayless was called to Washington to prepare the state dinner in honor of Mexico's then President Felipe Calderón. According to Obama Foodorama, dishes included Oregon Wagyu beef in Oaxacan black mole and produce from the White House garden. (There was a bit of a silly controversy at the time of the state dinner about whether or not Bayless tweeted from the White House kitchen. He did not.) Then, a few months later, President Obama had dinner at Topolobampo on a swing through Chicago.

In other random Rick Bayless–White House trivia, the New York Daily News floated a rumor back in 2008 that Bayless was in the running for the White House chef job. That was never a real thing. "Somebody just made that up because the Obamas used to come here a lot when they lived here," Bayless says. "I am so not the type of person. I don't even have a background to be a White House chef. That's very much about protocol and so forth."

Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless cooking on the set of Cascabel.

Rick Bayless Saves the World

These days, everyone is a world-saving chef. But Bayless is not the chef you're going to see out marching on Washington, testifying at Senate subcommittee hearings, or dressing up like a tomato in support of healthy school lunches. "When it gets into all that political stuff, I can't even concentrate on it," he says. "It's so boring to me." But that's okay because Bayless has about a zillion other world-saving projects ongoing.

1. In 2003, Bayless started the Frontera Farmer Foundation, an organization whose stated mission is "to support small Midwestern farms" through grants. Bayless says that he realized years ago that his restaurants required access to local agriculture to be successful and that there wasn't enough local agriculture to support them. "The only way that local agriculture would ever come up to meet the demand is if we help to invest in it," he says. According to Bayless' team, the foundation has awarded 128 grants that total more than $1.3 million to date.

Bayless' Frontera Farmer Foundation has awarded 128 grants that total more than $1.3 million to date.

2. Every other year, Bayless also offered a full scholarship to public school students of Mexican American heritage to culinary school at Kendall College. In July, Bayless announced that two students had won this year's scholarship and that, from now on, it will be a yearly award.

3. Last year, Bayless launched ModMex, an annual conference through which Bayless aims to explore "the relevance of Mexican food in the modern kitchen." While there are those who believe that Mexican cuisine only encompasses traditional dishes, others argue that Mexican food has to be reconsidered and updated if it's going to continue to exist. Bayless is on the latter side of the argument, and ModMex is his attempt to forge a dialogue between both American and Mexican chefs who are working in Mexican food and modern food. At this year's conference, chefs of different culinary backgrounds—including Curtis Duffy of Chicago's contemporary American restaurant Grace and Mexican chef Pablo Salas, who reinterprets traditional Mexican cuisine at his restaurant Amaranta—each got a basket of Mexican ingredients to see what they could do with it.

4. Bayless is also a member of the American Chef Corps, a group of chefs that the State Department enlisted a couple of years ago to help use food as a diplomatic gap-bridging tool. This past June, Bayless spent the last ten days of the month traveling China, visiting Chengdu, Shenyang, and Beijing. He spent that time cooking with local chefs, teaching classes to culinary students, visiting markets with the American-born personal chef to the American ambassador, and celebrating the Fourth of July at the consulate in Chengdu.

Rick Bayless

So Is Rick Bayless the Most Interesting Man in the World?

Possibly! Like a lot of celebrity chefs these days, Rick Bayless is up to an absolute shit-ton of activities. Pick a random day, and he could be doing charitable work, travel engagements, fund-raising dinners, opening new restaurants, gardening, doing the rumba, practicing handstands, or making television appearances. It's enough that he had to promise his staff — which includes two hundred people overall, twenty-five of whom are in management roles — that he'd stop taking on new projects for the rest of 2014.

But Bayless isn't running around from city to city all the time. "I love to get up in my own bed, make my coffee. I have my own routine for the morning," he says. "One of the things that keeps me grounded in all of this is that I get the opportunity to have a consistent pattern with my life. It’s in that pattern that I get to explore all this creativity."

And so it is that Bayless can star in a dinner theater show six nights a week for an entire month, while running a restaurant empire, hosting a mind-bending collaborative dinner party with a rock star, keeping up his dance lessons, and practicing the splits every day. That combination of a performance-based lifestyle and devotion to the arts that makes Bayless a compelling case for Most Interesting Man in the World.

Photos by Barry Brecheisen


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