Interview with Chef Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill – Chicago, IL
Patricia Greaney: Last year you were voted Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation which was a first for an ethnic chef, particularly for Mexican cuisine. What do you think that means. Is it because we are becoming more open to ethnic food? Or that a lot of chefs are making fusion food and bringing Latino ingredients into mainstream restaurants?
Rick Bayless: It's a combination of factors. First of all we are a country that is ready to throw off the shackles of the European domination of cooking. We don't feel we need to learn only European ways of cooking. America is opening up to learn that there is more out there than French cooking. We have thrown off those shackles.
But you also have to understand who is doing the voting for this award. It is people well versed in the culinary field which includes past recipients. People in the forefront of American food & drink. People that are setting the example of what it means to be a chef.
Also, we work very hard to make very good food, no matter what ethnicity. We didn't set out thinking.....oh, Mexican is popular right now.....let's open a Mexican food restaurant. It's not concept food. I'm not trying to create new cuisine. I do food that comes from my soul. I'm not going to open an Italian restaurant. It's not something I picked out overnight.
PG: How did you become interested in Mexican cooking, I understand you were a linguist before.
RB: Well, I grew up in Oklahoma City and took my first trip to Mexico when I was 14. I did my undergraduate work in Spanish and Latin American culture and received my doctorate at the University of Michigan in linguistics. Then (my wife) Deann & I lived in Mexico for four years.
PG: Are there areas of Mexico whose foods are your favorites?
RB: Probably Oaxacan. The food is most complex. It's a land of different kinds of mojoles. The spicing is very generous, and that doesn't necessarily mean chiles. Mexicans use them to add flavor, not heat. Chiles can range from completely mild to incendiary. There are only a few that don't have a lot of flavor but just heat. Mexicans talk about flavors. That's where you find mostly dried chiles.
PG: Fresh vs dried chiles?
RB: They are used in different ways......like grapes vs raisins.
PG: That's very interesting. Why do we know Mexican cuisine as fast food more than anything else?
RB: That is something that would take long hours of discussion. Basically you cannot divorce history from cuisine. It's always a socio-economic thing. The area where the Mexican culture was incredibly developed is central Mexico. However, it's hard for us to know that because in the years 1521 - 1570, 80% of the country was devastated from smallpox. Now, in the USA, our understanding of Mexican food is from a part of Mexico that was the frontier. It's from areas that had Indian groups that were nomadic tribes. Historically that's where our understanding has come from.
PG: Do you think it's possible to change the general American perception of Mexican food as Taco Bell to an understanding of what a rich and complex cuisine it is?
RB: Already in a huge way it is changing. Think of what Italian food was like 20 years ago. Then it was only thought of as spaghetti and meatballs.
PG: That's true. What I find interesting is that in much of the country Americans have expressed a strong preference for the flour tortilla over the corn tortilla. Why do you think that is?
RB: Because they can't get good corn tortillas. Americans eat flour tortillas, not Mexicans. You need to go to a specialty food restaurant in Mexico to be served four tortillas. Spaniards brought wheat flour to Mexico and turned it into an unleavened flatbread.
Corn tortillas must be baked and eaten right away. Nobody in America wants to hear about this. They want something they can put in their refrigerator for a couple of days so.......Americans usually haven't had the chance to try them prepared in the proper way. It would be just like you were going to get a couple of day old french bread in France. There is nothing you can do with it. It's a shame because corn tortillas are so infinitely superior to flour. There is no added fat or salt. Almost 100% grain. Flour tortillas are high in fat, salty usually refined flour.
PG: Do you make them in your restaurant?
RB: We make them by hand and never allow them to cool down from the fire, so the heat is the inherent heat from the cooking.
PG: Sounds delicious. Now here's another phenomenon we wonder about....why do you think Americans have fallen in love with chilies?
RB: About 10-15 years ago our palates woke up. Most of our food was European......and English, which is the most bland on the planet. We are definitely a melting pot of culture. We are passionate about exploring food of other countries.
PG: Yes, even sales of tequilas have increased tremendously, can you tell us what a premium tequila is? Does it mean it's 100% blue or are smaller percentages premium as well?
RB: Five years ago there was no category of premium tequila. This whole category was developed in the US. By Mexican law, tequila has to be made with 51% agave. If it is labeled premium tequila it can only be made with blue agave, which can only be grown in 1 of 5 states. (gov't controlled). The other 49% can be just distilled sugars. Super premium tequilas are made with no sugars and the distillate is 100% agave.
PG: Should these tequilas be drunk straight? Are they lost in a margarita?
RB: Personally if they are mixed with anything close to sweet & sour mixes you lose the nuances. The original margarita recipe called for lime juice, tequila and Cointreau in equal parts. But this is very tangy for most people. I think a premium or super premium should be drunk straight. Otherwise, it would be as if you took Courvosier and mixed it with something.
PG: Do you have a favorite tequila?
RB: El Tesoro Silver because it has the most agave flavor.
PG: You are a founding member of Chefs Collaborative 2000 what are your goals for this group?
RB: Our goals are to keep it a grass roots organization. Not prescribe what chefs should do but to develop 3 key areas. First sustainability, encourage members to insure that the food they provide in their restaurant is produced in a sustainable way. Second, educating people especially children about the garden and the kitchen to share our passion of not only the kitchen but about food. Thirdly, doing what we can to guard against the destruction of traditional diets.
PG: Have you seen a change yet?
RB: It's too soon to tell. The seed was just planted in 1993. We're trying to amass a good list of people. In many cases it is awareness building. Our goal is to bring them together so they understand. There is power in numbers. The organization needs to grow slowly so it remains a grassroots organization. Each area needs to find their own needs. Boston is a very active in promoting farmers selling directly to restaurants. Santa Fe is interested in teaching school children about the integrity of traditional diets. Madison, Wisconsin is promoting local products and developing a cuisine around that. There is something in every part of the country.
PG: What do you think is the most important thing for home cooks who are trying to learn how to cook Mexican food understand about the cuisine?
RB: Get my new book.....(laugh)......It is exactly the topic of my new book.....Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen (Scribner)......to help home cooks understand the building blocks. This building block basically shows you how to produce a salsa, a cooked sauce or a seasoning. There are 15 of what I call these essential recipes. Each one can be used in traditional or improvisational cooking. If you flip through the rest of the book....when you come across a building block it is very clearly highlighted, so you can see how the flavors combine. I am trying to get people to learn how to utilize traditional Mexican flavors either in their original tradition or their own improvisational cooking.