Interview: Rick Bayless, A Taste of Mexico

Rick Bayless has turned a niche market into an empire with his Mexican cuisine. Being chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago has led him into writing cookbooks as well as hosting One Plate at a Time on PBS. Recently he even tackled the world of theater with Lookingglass Theatre Company’s Rick Bayless in Cascabel.

Bayless is bringing many of his Top Chef friends to join him this week for Chicago Academy for the Arts’ A Taste for the Arts with a 30th Anniversary extravaganza.

Gozamos talked to Rick to see what’s frying in his pan these days.

Gozamos: Hola, Rick. I heard you are from Oklahoma City.
Rick Bayless: I grew up there.

I was born in Oklahoma also.
RB: Is that right?

There are tons of restaurants there. That must have been a big influence on you growing up.
RB: That is for sure.

What was your draw into Mexican cuisine?
RB: I went to Mexico when I was fourteen for the first time and just fell in love with the culture first. I come from a family of restaurant people. I went back there every year after high school and studied Spanish and Latin America Culture in college. I was really fascinated with the culture then just decided to focus on the culinary side of it.

Your specialty is upscale Mexican food.
RB: In Mexico people eat the kind of food that we serve in our restaurants all the time. It is only upscale to the people in the United States. They are used to the Americanized fast food versions of things. Everything has melted cheese on it. That is created for the American audience.

What do you think about eating crickets like in the southern Mexican state Oaxaca?
RB: Eating insects is part of cultures all over the world. In Mexico since time immemorial there have been dishes that focused on certain kinds of insects. It is mostly in the United States that people “ew” and “ah” and think that people that do it are less than human. I don’t talk about it because it is an American obsession with people making themselves seem better than other people. Once you see what role it plays in a culture, it is just another thing you eat. As they say, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison!”

Is there any part of Mexico that you have not been to?
RB: I have been to every state in the Republic.

Your Spanish must be amazing.
RB: I speak it fluently and all the time here too. It is the language of our kitchen.

How did you become involved with the Taste for the Arts Gala?
RB: It is for the CAA, and my daughter went to the school. Her high schooling was at the Academy. I knew about the Academy before that, but when she was ready for high school she auditioned and got in there. It is an intense, passionate learning experience. While it is not for everybody, for the kids that go there, it is everything. It is a conservatory high school, so you audition and get into one department, and that is the department that you stay in for four years. It is almost like going to college and high school at the same time.

My daughter mostly had ten-hour school days, five hours of academics, then five hours in theatre. It was really an amazing experience for her.

She studied theater?
RB: Yes, she did her degree in musical theater at the Academy then moved to NYU.

This must be very rewarding to get to support her past school.
RB: I dreamed this whole thing up. I was the first one to do it and we have been doing this for about five years now. I think the world of the school. They really prepare kids incredibly well.

You have lots of Top Chef contestants from the past involved.
RB: That is one of the things I can contribute since I know a lot of chefs in town. It will be a really amazing experience in the sense that I have never before had all of these people that participated in Top Chef all in the same place.

It was great seeing my friend Sarah Grueneberg compete this last season, and Dale Levitski is opening a new restaurant in Chicago now.
RB: Yes, he is and they will both be at the event.

Tell me about the Lookingglass show.
RB: That was amazing. It just closed on Sunday night, from top to bottom. What an amazing experience. I collaborated with people that are at the top of their game. It not only was a rewarding experience, but it was fun.

I met you briefly at the Food for Chocolate event at the Merchandise Mart and everyone wanted a picture with you. You seemed very gracious with it, but doesn’t it get old?
RB: Those are the people that make it happen. Sometimes I have tons of work to do, but I still do it. Without those people supporting me, I am nothing. I try to make time for people.

There is another new Bravo food show called Around the World in 80 Plates that debuts this month.
RB: I think that will be a great one to watch.

There is a gay contestant that I spoke to this week, Gary Walker from that show. Chefs have now come out of the kitchen and the closet at the same time!
RB: In all of the arts the doors have been opened and people accept people for who they are.

Would you do any more reality television?
RB: I am not interested. My show is in its eighth season on public television and about to go into production for the ninth season. It does really well.

Congrats on that.
RB: I am super happy about that. I also have a new cookbook coming out in the fall. It just keeps moving…

Will the book be about Mexican cuisine similar to past books you have written?
RB: Yes, that is really my focus. The book blends in modern turning towards mixology. It is all about margaritas, different kinds of guacamole and snacks.

People can purchase that on your website?
RB: with tons of recipes on there and stuff like that.

I look forward to seeing you at the event.
RB: It is going to be really wonderful and this year especially nice. Since we are celebrating our 30th year of the Academy, we were able to pull off this event at the Harris Theater and open it up to the public. When you see the students and the alumni perform, you will just be blown away by the talent that is in this school. It is a small school, but the talent is just incredible that comes out of there. We are going to have a big performance for the general public. Then we will have our own quick-fire challenge between Takashi Yagihashi and Tony Mantuano, two Top Chef Masters. Afterwards, all the Top Chefs will be cooking it up for everybody!

Don’t miss this recipe for fun on May 10 at 6:30 pm at the Harris Theater with a performance by rocker Justin Tranter from Semi Precious Weapons along with the alumni. Free tickets can be found at Tickets are not available at the door.

Then head over to a gala at Millennium Park Terrace at 7:45 pm for Top Chef madness where tickets begin at $350, with table reservations for $5,000 supporting the school. Visit the same website or call 312-421-0202 for more information.