In today's Media Mix, flour made from bugs wins award, plus Bourdain admits he was wrong
The Chicago chef is stepping outside of the Windy City.
Check out these headlines you may have missed.
Bourdain Admits He Got It Wrong: The famed food adventurer angered plenty of locals when he noted that New Mexico's local dish Frito Pie at Five & Dime General Store was made with "Canned Hormel chili." The chili? It's made from scratch. [AP]
Art History with Food: A Jeff Koons sculpture made out of Twinkies, a Rothko ice cream cake, Jackson Pollock Rice Krispies. Check out these masterpieces in dessert form. [PSFK]
Flour Made of Bugs: McGill University students have won the 2013 Hult Prize in order to create insect-based flour, packed with protein to feed malnourished populations. [ABC News]
Rick Bayless to Philly: Word on the street: Chicago chef Rick Bayless is expanding beyond the Windy City to Philadelphia, bringing a "new café" with tortas and a guacamole bar. [The DP]
Tag: Rick Bayless
Welcome to the latest Around the Table! Today we have a chat about the recipes-related collections at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., especially the National Museum of American History (NMAH)! I am delighted to speak with Ashley Rose Young, Historian in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry, and Paula Johnson, Curator in the NMAH Division of Work and Industry.
The Smithsonian has many items of interest to our readership, particularly in the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Within the collections at all three museums are impressive holdings of items related to recipes research. Could you provide a brief overview of the Smithsonian’s collections related to recipes?
Paula Johnson: Researching recipes at the Smithsonian Institution is a complex endeavor, but one that has the potential for great rewards. With nineteen museums and research bureaus, plus pan-institutional libraries and archives, a veritable trove of material covering an astonishing array of culinary-related subjects awaits the intrepid researcher. While each museum has its own physical branch library, the consolidated digital catalog contains records for all Smithsonian holdings. A useful overview of the institution’s libraries and archives can be found here.
My long experience with Smithsonian collections is based almost entirely on the holdings of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which houses significant collections of artifacts, documents, books, ephemera, and digital material reflecting many broad areas of culinary history. Among the diverse food-related collections are many that contain recipes, although that may not be apparent at a glance. Due to different cataloging protocols for objects, archives, and libraries over the institution’s 175-year-history, researchers need to think broadly about search terms and pack some patience when accessing the collections. While catalogs and finding aids are key to a researcher’s success, there’s always the possibility of serendipity, as in this item we located in the Smithsonian Archives, a “Receipt Book” for medicinal and dietary uses, kept by James Smithson, the British scientist whose bequest established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The handwritten receipts are mostly for simple candies and spirits, including “Pate de Jujubes,” “Usquebaugh,” and various cordials.Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7000, James Smithson Collection. Research photo*
In the NMAH collections, recipes can be found in historic cookbooks that are held by the main research library as well as the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. A significant number of books and pamphlets was donated to the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) by the Culinary Historians of Washington, DC, and that collection continues to grow, courtesy of CHOW. The library also holds a large collection of trade literature and product cookbooks that contain recipes and can be accessed here.
The NMAH Archives Center houses many food history-related collections, including some that contain recipes. Although the word “recipe” may not appear in the record title or even the description, it is possible to access recipes (and marvelous related material) via creative searching. Some highlights include the Pillsbury Bake-off Collection and the Nordic Ware Papers, which include recipe pamphlets from the “Maid of Scandinavia” line of cookware, the forerunner to the Nordic Ware brand, most famous for its Bundt cake pans.
As a curator, I collect objects and archival documents for the museum, and over the years I have brought several collections into the museum that include recipes. A recent example is the Mollie Katzen collecting documenting the development of her Moosewood Cookbook. In addition to the original artwork and early, spiral-bound edition of the book (1974), the collection includes Katzen’s detailed estimates of the cost of each ingredient in each recipe and other papers containing recipe notes. My favorite part of the collection are the letters written to Katzen by fans, some of whom were enthusiastic converts to vegetarian cooking. These documents provide both context and texture to the recipes.
The Archives Center also houses documents collected from the recipients of the Julia Child Award, presented annually since 2015 by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. Among them is a journal of field notes kept by Chef Rick Bayless, as he and his wife Deann traveled through Mexico in the early 1980s to research regional ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques. These field notes became the foundation for Bayless’ first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (1987).
Another wonderful and perhaps unexpected document is contained in the Paul Ma Papers, collected from Paul and Linda Ma, a Chinese American couple who operated successful restaurants in the West Chester area of New York, beginning in the 1980s. A well-used, handwritten booklet features recipes for the basic dishes and sauces the Mas remembered from home after migrating to the United States around 1964. With recipes and notes written in both Chinese and English, and with sauce stains identifying the most favored recipes, the booklet also provides insight into the context of Ma’s restaurant menu and cooking.Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Paul Ma Paper. Research photo.
Occasionally there are recipes filed as “reference material” associated with accessioned objects and these can sometimes be difficult to find without curatorial staff assistance. An example are the thirty-three recipe cards donated by La Deva Davis, an African American teacher whose 1976 television show, “What’s Cooking?” aired on PBS through station WHYY in Wilmington, DE. Donated along with three aprons La Deva Davis wore on the show, the cards provide a record of the dishes she demonstrated (“low cost, high nutrition cooking”), including “Oriental Beef Stew,” “Liptauer Cheese,” and “Think Thin Salad.”
Finally, a note about beer. Our colleague Theresa McCulla, curator of the museum’s American Brewing History Initiative, has collected beer recipes from the individuals who shaped the modern home brewing and craft beer industries. A couple of examples are included in the museum’s exhibition, FOOD: Transforming the American Table Theresa’s work has also inspired a great deal of interest in some of the older brewing history collections at the museum and for one beer historian, the Archives Center yielded recipe gold. As he was researching the Walter H. Voigt Brewing Industry Collection, the researcher found a 1930 recipe for Bock beer that called for corn, rice, and sugar scribbled on a piece of paper. In 2019, brewers at Denizens Brewing Co. in Silver Spring, Maryland, created an American bock from the recipe found in the NMAH Archives Center.
You have been creating a lot of programming around food culture in recent years at the Smithsonian-could you talk about that and how you have adapted during the COVID-19 closures this year?
Ashley Rose Young: The American Food History Project at NMAH hosts a variety of public programs including Cooking Up History, Deep-Dish Dialogues, Roundtables, Conversation Circles, Brewing History After Hours, Ask a Farmer, and more. Additionally, during our annual Food History Weekend, we invite community leaders, food practitioners, activists, academics, policy makers, and the public to come together to discuss a central theme in American history and in our current moment.
Recently, while planning for the all-virtual 2020 Food History Weekend, “Food Futures: Striving for Justice,” we took inspiration from what we saw in our research and collecting around COVID-19: that people are looking ahead with energy and hope for creating better systems and more innovative and humane solutions that will address long-term needs when we emerge from these unprecedented conditions. That weekend, our Cooking Up History programs featured chefs who each shared and prepared a recipe and spoke about its traditional and contemporary significance to food justice. Chef Nico Albert of the Cherokee Nation, for example, prepared Sumac-Crusted Trout with Sauteed Mushrooms and Greens, and guided audiences through foraging for sumac and greens, while also speaking about the culinary heritage of the Cherokee people. She emphasized that retaining and celebrating traditional foodways was a means of securing food sovereignty for indigenous communities across the U.S.
As with Chef Nico’s demonstration, all of our Cooking Up History programs are centered around recipes, the history and traditions behind their ingredients, culinary techniques, and enjoyment. The recipes and descriptions of each event can be found on our website under “Past Demos and Recipes.”Guest Chefs Aisha Alfadhalah and Iman Alshehab of the Mera Kitchen Collective with Ashley Rose Young during a 2019 “Cooking Up History” program. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
For 2021, we are currently developing new models to bring Cooking Up History and other food history programs to digital audiences throughout the year. Please visit our website this spring for updates.
What tips can you offer to help users find collection items? Is it possible to search all of the Smithsonian’s holdings at once, or do researchers need to look at the individual museums?
Ashley Rose Young: I had a chance to reach out to Alison Oswald, an archivist at the Archives Center at NMAH, for tips on how to navigate the vast collections of the Smithsonian, which, admittedly, can be somewhat daunting given the volume of material available. Alison noted that the data related to our collections are exported into the Collections Search Center (CSC), and the CSC is a good place for researchers to start when they want to search across the Smithsonian including all museums, archives, libraries, and research units.
Researchers can also search finding aids in Smithsonian archives by visiting the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA). Some finding aids include digitized content linked at collection, series, and folder level.
Alison also provided a few tips on how to make the best of your searches on CSC and SOVA:
- It can help to use quotes (“ ”) around the key word/search term and to make use of the facets,which allow you to limit a search. For example, “recipes” in SOVA yields 214 collection level records, but if you wanted to know what kind of recipes the National Museum of Air and Space has, you can limit it by selecting archival repository and you get 4 collections.
- Researchers should also try a variety of terms when searching. Recipes is a pretty specific term so starting broader with cookbooks, cookery, cooking, baking, etc. can be useful. Most catalogs do something called “stemming” which is when the catalog searches for the “root” of a word and displays all words with that stem. For example, the word “searching” or “search” or “searches” all stem to “search”.
Last but not least, Alison noted that catalogs are works in progress that are constantly evolving, and that the Smithsonian welcomes feedback from researchers to make our catalogs better.
For researchers who have projects and interests spanning multiple museums within the Smithsonian, how do you recommend they go about searching for pertinent materials?
Paula Johnson: This is such an important issue and one we have explored recently through a special collaboration with colleagues in the UK and the US, with support from the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council. While this initiative has been the subject of previous posts, I’ll simply share that we worked with graduate student researchers from the Boston University Program in Gastronomy to test the ease and challenges of conducting food-related subject searches across the Smithsonian’s consolidated digital collections catalogs. The resulting white paper, “Looking for Food in the New Smithsonian Institution Catalog,” is under review and will help inform how we can improve cataloging to make materials more accessible across subject areas.
How much of the Smithsonian’s holdings are digitized? What other digital resources and events are available?
Ashley Rose Young: I also had the opportunity to touch base with Sherri Berger, the head of NMAH’s Digital Programs Office, about the Smithsonian’s digital offerings. Sherri noted that as of 2019, the Smithsonian holds 155.4 million museum objects and specimens, about 19 million of which have been digitized 1.2 million library volumes, about 760,000 of which have been either fully or partially digitized and 163,000 cubic feet of archival material, with 5.6 million digitized items. For ways to learn about and access these materials, please see our answer to question 3.
In addition to these materials, the Smithsonian hosts numerous virtual events. You can learn about NMAH’s food history offering by signing up to our newsletter and selecting “food history” as a topic of interest.
We also have recordings of past events available online. You can watch our 2020 Food History Weekend programming and other food-related events on our YouTube “food history” playlist.
Does the Smithsonian offer any fellowships or grants for researchers?
Ashley Rose Young: The Smithsonian offers research fellowships to graduate students, predoctoral students, and postdoctoral and senior investigators to conduct independent research and to utilize the resources of the Institution with members of the Smithsonian professional research staff serving as advisors and hosts. These fellowships are offered through the Smithsonian’s Office of Fellowships and Internships, and are administered under the charter of the Institution, 20 U.S. Code section 41 et seq. You can learn more about our fellowship program here.
*Several photos in this post were taken by research staff and are not official scans provided by the Smithsonian museums and archives. Because the Smithsonian research facilities have been closed due to the pandemic, we are not able to provide proper scans.
Thanks, Ashley and Paula, for chatting about recipes resources at the Smithsonian Institution! You can find Ashley on Twitter @ashleyroseyoung and Instagram @ashleyroseyoung. Theresa McCulla, brewing history coordinator, is on Twitter @theresamccu. You can also find NMAH on Twitter @amhistorymuseum, Instagram @amhistorymuseum, and Facebook @National Museum of American History. They tag their posts/tweets with #SmithsonianFood. If you’d like to feature a project, scholar, or institution on Around the Table, please email Sarah Kernan.
Rick Bayless: Tex-Mex Versus Mexican Cuisine
This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Top Chef Masters fame and the famed PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Below, Bayless delves into Tex-Mex versus Mexican cuisine, recreating historical menus, and his great love for Mexico City.
Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?
Rick Bayless: I can’t speak to Austin specifically, but I think smaller cities all over the country are becoming great food towns. And the reason for that is simply accessibility, information through the Internet, inspiration from food magazines and television shows, [great] ingredients, funding from websites like Kickstarter, and more. It’s an open playing field these days.
LL: Traditional Mexican cuisine has vastly transformed over the years. What’s an interpretation you’re noticing a lot of chefs embracing recently?
RB: A lot of us are looking to history. I know we’re doing that at Topolo. We’re doing a series of menus that look at what ingredients were common in 1491, 1671, etc. Then, we take that information and make completely contemporary plates out of it. It’s a way to approach food with reverence and sometimes the constraints make you more creative.
LL: What’s coming up for your PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time?
RB: The past few seasons have been thematic, and right now we’re exploring the possibility of doing a season dedicated to Mexico City. Nothing is set in stone yet, and I’m about to embark on a research trip, but filling an entire season of television with shows about Mexico City would not be hard. I could do 100 shows about Mexico City. And by the time Mexico: One Plate at a Time is done, I probably will have shot 100 shows there.
LL: Down in Texas diners sometimes confuse Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine. How best would you describe the differences to a puzzled diner?
RB: Honestly, I see the connection between the two to be pretty tenuous. I have nothing against Tex-Mex at all. I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else, but when I think of Mexican food I think of fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces, and a cuisine that is largely built around chiles. As far as I know, Tex-Mex isn’t built on chiles, except maybe for the jalapeño, and relies far more on melted cheese than on sauces.
LL: Will you be checking out any restaurants while you’re in town?
RB: I have a list of places, but who knows if I’ll actually get to them. One place I’m interested in checking out is La Condesa. I saw the chef there do a vegetarian demo at a Culinary Institute of America conference recently and was really intrigued.
LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival.
RB: I’m doing two demos with Jill Gubesch, the wine director of our restaurants. Jill and I have worked for years on developing a curriculum for pairing wine with Mexican food, and I love doing demos with her because she’s a great teacher and people walk away with a lot of knowledge. I’m cooking enchiladas and a ceviche at one demo and a porcini and crab guacamole and red peanut mole at the other. At both demos, Jill will talk about what wines pair with these dishes, and, more importantly, why they go well together.
LL: You became a household name after your stint on Top Chef Masters. Why do you think audiences have become so captivated by that show over the years?
RB: Top Chef is nail-biting experience for both the chefs and the viewers. It’s not quite indicative of what it’s like to cook in a restaurant kitchen, of course – though that can be pretty nail-biting too – but the passion, stress, determination, skill, and love you see in these chefs is very real. You need all of that to make a restaurant work. And all that emotion and drama makes for great television.
LL: What’s over the horizon for you?
RB: A lot! We’ve got a new season of Mexico: One Plate at a Time. I’m finishing up writing my next book and I can’t stop thinking about the book after that: a big, weighty tome unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’m appearing in a musical in Chicago called Cascabel this summer, and we’re going to throw the second annual Mod Mex conference. I fly in chefs from all over to talk about what the future of Mexican food is for the conference. I also have a few more restaurants opening, too. A second XOCO will open this summer, and there are other projects after that. So, I’m definitely keeping busy.
The line-inducing Jerk Taco Man plans to reopen its original Garfield Park location at 4001 W. Jackson Boulevard on January 20, Block Club reports. The restaurant, popular for jerk tacos, sandwiches, burritos, and more, was open from 2014 until 2018. Owner Julius Thomas also opened a South Side location in 2017, plans to soon open a suburban location, and hopes to expand to many more through franchising.
And finally, Boka favorite GT Fish & Oyster will collaborate with Indian hotspot Wazwan Supper Club for a one-night dinner. Expect “four waves of multiple dishes crafted by chefs Giuseppe Tentori, Zubair Mohajir, and Andrew Pingul” on January 12 for $90 a seat, according to an announcement, and reservations are available here. In more Boka pop-up news, Momotaro Italia is now open through March inside the Dutch & Doc’s space in Wrigleyville.
Where is the location of the Vroman’s book signing in April? Is this in Pasadena, California? Which street? Time determined yet?/>Casey Cora says:
The appearance will take place at Vroman’s Book Store location at 695 E. Colorado Blvd. in Pasadena. Please stay tuned for more details.
Is the April 27th tour date at the institute of culinary education in New York still on? In calling the Institute, they did not have any information on Rick’s visit. Can you confirm his visit date and time? Also, will his visit be open to the public? For our daughter’s 28th birthday, we would like to have Megan attend Rick’s book signing. Megan has used our copy of Mexican Everyday several times and it would be great if she could meet him. My wife and I met Rick back in March 2006 at the El Vez restaurant in Philadelphia. Megan and I had dinner at Rick’s Frontera Grill a couple of years ago while on vacation in Chicago. Eagerly awaiting your reply. Thank you…..
It is still on! We will have more details as we approach. Check http://www.rickbayless.com/about-rick-bayless/upcoming-appearances/ for more details
Any plans for Rick to come to Minneapolis? Any upcoming cooking classes featuring Rick in Chicago? There was one at a hotel some time ago but dates didn’t work for us. Thanks!
No future plans for Minneapolis at the moment, but Rick has a new book coming out and is going on tour! Check it out!
Bayless was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma into a family of restaurateurs and grocers specializing in the local barbecue. He is the younger brother of sports journalist and television personality Skip Bayless. Having begun his culinary training as a youth, Bayless broadened his interests to include regional Mexican cooking as an undergraduate student of Spanish and Latin American culture. After finishing his undergraduate education at the University of Oklahoma, he obtained his master's degree in linguistics at the University of Michigan.  He nearly completed a PhD in anthropological linguistics at Michigan when he decided to leave his studies to concentrate on his nascent cooking career.  While at Michigan, he met his future wife and frequent culinary collaborator Deann. They married in 1979. 
TV Host and author Edit
After hosting the 26-part PBS television series Cooking Mexican in 1978–1979, Bayless dedicated over six years to culinary research in Mexico, culminating in 1987 with the publication of his Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico,  which Craig Claiborne described as "the greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable." [ citation needed ]
Following Authentic Mexican, Bayless has written a number of highly regarded cookbooks (see §Awards and accolades), often co-authoring with Deann  and his daughter, Lanie.  Perhaps his best-known cookbook is his 2001 James Beard Foundation award-winning Mexico: One Plate at a Time,  a companion to the first season of Bayless' PBS television show of the same name.  At least one other of his cookbooks, Mexican Everyday (2005), provides recipes that directly tie into the show. 
In 2003, PBS began broadcasting Bayless' television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Bayless and the show have been nominated for several Daytime Emmy Awards over the years. Bayless was personally nominated twice for a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host for his work on the show in 2012  and again in 2017.  One Plate at a Time's director, Scott Dummler, was nominated for Outstanding Directing in a Lifestyle/Culinary Program in 2012, and the show was nominated overall for Outstanding Culinary Program in 2016. 
Seasons of Mexico: One Plate at a Time sometimes focus on the cuisine of a specific region: for example, season 8 was centered around cuisine from Tijuana and the Baja Peninsula, season 9 focused on Oaxaca, and season 11 was produced entirely on the Yucatán Peninsula. 
Chef and restaurateur Edit
Before opening his own restaurant, Bayless began his career as a professional chef in 1980 as the executive chef at Lopez y Gonzalez in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. In 1987, Bayless and his wife Deann opened Frontera Grill in Chicago, specializing in contemporary regional Mexican cuisine, with special emphasis on the varied cuisines of the Oaxaca region. In 1989, Rick and Deann opened Topolobampo, one of Chicago's first fine-dining Mexican restaurants.  As of 2019, Topolobampo has 1 Michelin star. 
In 1995, Rick and partners started the Frontera Foods line of prepared food products. They sold Frontera Foods to ConAgra Foods in 2016. Bayless remains involved as a product-development advisor to the brand. The Frontera restaurants were not included in the deal. 
He was one of the founding members of Chefs Collaborative in support of environmentally sound agricultural practices and is active in Share Our Strength, the nation's largest hunger advocacy organization. Often his TV shows emphasize responsible use of foodstuffs with focus on sustainable farming and cooking.
Rick Bayless is a restaurant consultant and teaches authentic Mexican cooking throughout the United States. He is a visiting staff member at the Culinary Institute of America and leads cooking and cultural tours to Mexico. Fluent in Spanish, Bayless favors coastal (seafood) fare, and dishes that feature very traditional Mexican and pre-Columbian Incan, Mayan and Aztecan ingredients native to Mexico like chocolate, peppers, and vanilla bean.
Bayless and his staff also began the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003.  This foundation was set up to support Chicago-area local farmers by offering capital improvement grants. As of 2007 [update] , more than $400,000 has been given to local family farms.
In December 2007, Bayless opened Frontera Fresco restaurant inside Macy's Union Square store in San Francisco.  He later opened Frontera Fresco restaurants inside Macy's State Street store in Chicago, Macy's in nearby Skokie on the campus of Northwestern University and in Walt Disney World.  The San Francisco restaurant closed in April 2014.  The Northwestern outlet closed in June 2018 at the end of the school year. 
In 2008, Bayless was widely considered to be a serious contender for the position of White House Executive Chef under the administration of Barack Obama. 
In 2010, after having spent significant time at local Mexican dining spots, Bayless made his Los Angeles debut running the kitchen at the Red O. 
Bayless was guest chef for the May 19, 2010 White House state dinner honoring Mexican President Felipe Calderón and his wife Margarita Zavala.   
Other media appearances Edit
In 2005, Bayless competed on Iron Chef America and lost by one point to Iron Chef Bobby Flay on what was the first broadcast episode of season 1, with American bison meat as the secret ingredient.
Bayless appeared as a guest judge in episode 3 of Season 4's Top Chef, judging both the quickfire and elimination challenges. He later went on to become a contestant in episode 3 of the first season of Top Chef Masters, winning that episode and advancing to the Champion's round. In the championship round he won the title of Top Chef Master on August 19, 2009.
In 2012, Bayless ventured into the world of theatre, partnering with Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago to put on the play Rick Bayless in Cascabel, which Bayless created along with Tony Hernandez and Heidi Stillman. The show opened on March 21, 2012 to favorable reviews and ran through April 29.  
Rick Bayless' name was again brought up on air during the First Take segment where his brother, Skip Bayless, spoke of him as a self-made man who never worked for another boss.
A Q&A With Rick Bayless
Rick Bayless knows Mexican food. Yes, he’s a gringo. But don’t hold that against him. The award-winning chef has dedicated his life to studying and creating authentic Mexican cuisine. His popular restaurants, best-selling cookbooks, highly-rated cooking show, and product line prove he’s doing something right. Here, find out more about this Mexophile and the cuisine he loves so much.
texasmonthly.com: How did your passion for Mexican food and culture develop?
Rick Bayless: It’s just one of those things that happens. It’s hard to describe how or why you fall in love with somebody. When I first went to Mexico, I just fell in love. It felt like going home.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve traveled to all of the Mexican states in order to study the different flavors. How much does the cuisine differ from region to region?
RB: It varies much more than it does in the United States. It’s like the difference between the cooking of Germany and Italy. The food in the Yucatán is totally unrelated to the food in Central Mexico or down in Oaxaca.
texasmonthly.com: Which region most influences your cooking?
RB: I try to do something from all of them, but I would say the greatest influence in our cooking comes from the triangle that is Mexico City, Veracruz, and Oaxaca.
texasmonthly.com: What is the difference between authentic Mexican food and Tex-Mex?
RB: Tex-Mex doesn’t have much variety in it, whereas real Mexican food has a huge repertoire of soups, salads, snacks, and main courses. A traditional Mexican meal starts with a soup then a rice course then the main dish, which is usually a stew with a full-flavored chile sauce and finally dessert. When you explain this to Americans, they look bewildered and ask, “Well, where do the enchiladas fit in?” No one would think of eating enchiladas as a main dish in Mexico. Tex-Mex food developed in the frontier when Texas was part of Mexico. Texas was considered the outback, and in those kinds of places, elaborate cuisine doesn’t develop. That is why Tex-Mex is usually simple and basic.
texasmonthly.com: You host a cooking show, write cookbooks, run two restaurants, and have your own line of food products. Of these, what are you most passionate about?
RB: I love doing all of it. I am a teacher at heart, so I wouldn’t give up my television stuff or my writing. I am fourth generation in a family of restaurant people. Running a restaurant is my great craft, and I love that I get to do that everyday. Finally, the food products give me the opportunity to introduce people across the United States to that wonderful regional flavor of Mexico. It’s all satisfying.
texasmonthly.com: Your endeavors have been quite successful. Your show is highly-rated. Your books are best-sellers, and getting a table at one of your restaurants is no small task. Why do you think people are responding so well?
RB: I think it’s a combination of love and talent. I really love what I do. I have so much passion for it. And it helps to be a good cook.
texasmonthly.com: You have several Mexican cookbooks out. What is the focus of your new release Mexico: One Plate at a Time?
RB: I have done a lot of work on the regional cooking of Mexico. My book Rick Bayless’ Mexican Kitchen is like a master class for people who want to delve deeply into the traditional cooking of Mexico. But one day I realized that in all my work, I had failed to identify the real classic dishes of Mexico and give direct and simple recipes for cooking them. So my new book gives you those dishes that make every Mexican’s mouth water from one end of the country to the other. It’s not a huge book in terms of number of recipes, but each one is so thoroughly presented that you really get an understanding of who eats it, when they eat it, how they eat it, and what the variations are from region to region. The recipes are really good. We put a lot of time into it.
texasmonthly.com: What ingredients should a person have in their kitchen at all times?
RB: I don’t know because everyone likes different flavors. But in my kitchen, I always have dried ancho chiles, several cans of chipotle chile, green chiles, Mexican oregano, limes, and black beans. I grow the herb epazote because you can’t always find it in the grocery stores, and I think its flavor is phenomenal. Those are my basics.
texasmonthly.com: After a long day of working with food, what do you crave when you get home?
RB: Only bed. I work nights, and when I get home I go straight to bed. I eat two meals a day at my restaurant. I guess that shows how much I love the food.
texasmonthly.com: What projects are you currently working on?
RB: My eleven-year-old daughter and I are working on a book of our experiences cooking with families all over the world. We’ve had the wonderful opportunity to cook with families in a number of different cultures—not just Mexico, but Thailand, Morocco, and France. We got some really great home-style recipes that reflect those families’ cultures. It will be finished next year.
Rick Bayless: the Obamas' favourite chef
W ithin days of Barack Obama being elected president of the United States in November 2008, a rumour started circulating around his home town of Chicago. The president would surely need a new chef for the White House, and who better for the job than the man who ran his favourite Chicago restaurant, Rick Bayless, chef of Frontera Grill. There was only one problem, as Bayless acknowledged just days later in an effort to quash the rumour. He cooks food from one country, and it most certainly isn't France. "We cook this really wonderful Mexican food," he told one journalist. "I don't think that's what they want at every state dinner."
Indeed. In the end the Obamas decided to stick with the incumbent White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, who had been appointed by George Bush (though they did employ their one-time personal chef, a Chicagoan called Sam Kass to look after them in Washington). Still, the fact that Bayless was considered a reasonable candidate for a post at the heart of the establishment spoke volumes for what he had done for the reputation of Mexican cooking, long regarded as the poor relation to the French, Italian or even Japanese traditions in America's high-end kitchens.
His position was secured in August last year when he won Top Chef Masters, a US TV reality cookery show, in which 24 chefs competed over 10 weeks both for charity and bragging rights. I was one of the three judges who chose him in the final over big names from French and Italian restaurants. After his barbecued quail and his suckling pig, and most importantly, his Oaxacan black mole – pronounced mole-ay – a dish of staggering depth and subtlety that contains 27 ingredients and had taken him 20 years to perfect, there really was no doubt as to who had come out on top. Not bad for a white boy who grew up in Oklahoma City, in the heart of the Corn Belt.
Obama's favourite chef opened his first restaurant, the Frontera Grill, on North Clark Street in Chicago in 1987. Today it is part of a mini-empire. Sharing its front door is its upmarket sibling, Topolobampo, and right next door there is Xoco – pronounced Shoco – a casual joint specialising in cheaper grilled sandwiches and soups and in, the mornings, shamelessly moreish churros, deep-fried pastries dredged in sugar and cinnamon. Bayless, aged 56, has had myriad shows on TV, has written books and fronts a line of branded products in supermarkets, but the heart of it is still the Frontera, a bustling urban brasserie painted in bright shades of yellow and ochre, the walls hung with bursts of Mexican art. On a midweek night it is packed to the gunwales. It has always done well, his staff say, but since he won the show it's been off the scale.
Still, they have found space for me, and soon Bayless himself is standing tableside: slender, wiry, but boyish for all his grey-bristled goatee and steel-rimmed glasses, presenting his own dishes. For all his intensity, he has a warm, informal midwestern homeliness. He likes to describe things as "superdelicious" or "supertasty". He's not wrong. We are served a trio of ceviche, the finely diced raw fish – tuna, a little Hawaiian sunfish, shrimp with coriander – "cooked" in citrus juice and seasoned with punches of fresh chilli. We have green-chilli marinated shrimp, and long-braised then roasted goat in a dense sauce flavoured with peanuts and the smoky, earthy tones of roasted chillies.
Best of all there are chicken enchiladas, in the inky blackness that is that mole, a dense, deep thick sauce with dark caramel tones and chilli heat but most of all a robust ripe savouriness. Later Bayless will tell me that, in Mexican food, the challenge is to create new flavours, "not to produce dishes that taste of their ingredients. If you do it right you should just say it tastes of mole". And it does. It seriously tastes of mole. This Mexican food is so layered and complex, so finessed, it kicks 10 tons of crap out of the ersatz version most of us in Britain have experienced. It does the same to most of the gluey, plastic, molten-cheese-smeared, iceberg-lettuce-bedded monstrosities that pass for Tex Mex in the US as well. It feels like a culinary artefact.
Which, in a way, is exactly what it is: the product of a restless man who is less diehard chef than cultural academic. We get to talk the next day, in his development kitchen upstairs from the restaurants. That morning he had given a cooking demonstration at a local farmers' market, of which he is a trustee. He is a serious campaigner for sustainable farming, and set up a charity that gives grants to small-scale midwest farmers who need investment. "I'm an accidental activist," says Bayless. "I just want to serve good food, and sustainability means taking care of the garden."
The way he tells it, almost everything about him is accidental. It happens that he was brought up in the catering business. His parents ran a well-known barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City but, while he credits that with putting him in touch with flavours – sweet, salty, sour – that would stand him in good stead when he came to learn about Mexico, he didn't for a moment imagine going into the business. "I loved the restaurant," he says. "I cooked there all the time. But my food back then was more of the French classics taught to America by Julia Child."
He took his love of cooking to college, where he formed dining clubs with friends. He studied Spanish language and literature before embarking on a PhD in anthropological linguistics. Underpinning everything was a love affair with Mexico that began on a family holiday when he was 14. "From the moment I stepped foot there I felt like I was home. It was the vitality, the street life." In 1980 he decided to take time off from his doctorate. He never completed it.
For six years he lived part time in Los Angeles and part time in Mexico with his wife Deanne, working on his first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico, written before he had opened a restaurant. "I would go into Mexico and detail everything that was available," he says of these years of research. "I would go into restaurants and list everything they were cooking, how they were cooking it. Because I was light-skinned, marketholders would view me with suspicion if I took notes." They would assume he was some kind of policeman. "So I had to memorise exactly what these ingredients were that they were selling. What they were used for."
With the book completed he was drawn back to Chicago. "I thought I was going to become a food writer but at the same time I knew I needed to do something else. Suddenly I was not driven to write about the food. I had to cook it." With the help of wealthy friends from Los Angeles he opened the Frontera Grill. I suggest to him that the restaurant was essentially his interest in anthropology expressed by another means. "I think that's exactly right." The title of his long-running television show for PBS and the book that has accompanied it, Mexico –One Plate at a Time, speaks to that sense of a man working to understand a country directly through its food.
"What does the world know of Mexican food?" Bayless asks rhetorically. "In the Sixties there was a group of southern Californians who decided to make it very accessible to a white audience. So it became about melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, iceberg lettuce on everything." Taco Bell and its ilk emerged from California's Orange County, he says. And that's what he's been fighting against.
Asked to define the true food of Mexico, he talks in terms of the formal meal: a brothy soup to begin, seasoned with squeezes of lime juice, a second dish of rice with vegetables. "The third course is the bold course, the place for moles in which meat has been long simmered. That is the heart of the cookery." He admits that the first time he saw a proper mole being cooked he was baffled. "Black mole requires controlled burning of the chillis, the seeds, the onions. The key is knowing when to stop. I found it astounding." He prints me out the recipe. It is four pages long. I tell him how the great Auguste Escoffier was once taken to task by a grand woman who had asked for the recipe for one of his dishes but had found at home that she was unable to achieve the desired result. "Madame," Escoffier replied, "I only gave you the recipe. I did not teach you how to cook."
Bayless laughs. It's exactly the same with mole. "It's the hardest thing in the world. I want to rewrite that recipe because I feel I finally understand it." What? After so many years? He nods. "Exactly." In the restaurant, only one person is allowed to prepare the black mole, and he's been with Bayless for almost two decades.
So can Mexican food finally hold its head up high? "It's different in Chicago because so many of the chefs who have worked here have gone on to open Mexican restaurants in this town," Bayless says. Elsewhere in the US he accepts that it is still not held in high regard. "Japanese has been legitimised but it's still mostly French and Italian that is taught in culinary schools." That was why Top Chef Masters mattered. After the cameras were turned off, French chef Hubert Keller put his arm around American Italian Michael Chiarello and said: "We were beaten by fucking mole." Bayless relishes the story.
Curiously, very little criticism greeted his win. After all the US is a country that lets its racial politics hang out. So it would be easy to imagine that a white man from Oklahoma could come in for serious abuse for apparently hijacking a culinary tradition. He has dealt with very little of that during his career, he says. "One blogger for the Chicago Tribune said the white guy was stealing Mexican food from its rightful people. Immediately a whole bunch of people piled into support me. I've never said I was inventing the stuff. I've just done my research, maybe more than anyone else."
As to the White House rumours, Bayless can see exactly how they started. "The first time Obama ate here shortly after becoming an Illinois senator we put him on a very visible table, because that's generally what politicians like. He didn't seem so comfortable so the next time we put him on a quieter table and from then on he insisted it would be his. He and Michelle really are a couple who just like to come here on a date night." They became regulars, so much so that during the campaign Michelle spent five hours there one lunchtime catching up with friends. It was therefore natural, Bayless says, that the question of the White House would arise. "But it was never going to happen. For a start I would have been forced to divest myself of all my business interests in a week and a half." That would have meant getting rid of the restaurants and for the king of America's Mexican chefs that really was unthinkable. He has too many people left to feed, he has too many dishes to explore. He has too many people left to educate.
Jay Rayner stayed at the Affinia Chicago, a Cityscape hotel, 166 East Superior Street, Chicago 001 312 787 6000
The 10 Dishes That Made My Career: Rick Bayless
“We have a different understanding of authenticity now than 30 years ago,” said chef Rick Bayless, who helped spread the gospel of Mexico's moles and regional specialties to a hardshell-taco-adoring America. “Back in those days, when we said ‘authentic,’ what we meant was that I could give you a museum-quality reproduction of a dish and I use the same utensils and the same pan, and I got the ingredients flown in from that country. That's not authentic anymore. Authentic is the stuff that tastes exactly right. Whatever that might mean, and it could be the Korean tacos. They taste right.”
Relying on scholarship and fieldwork, Bayless became a bannerman of authenticity, studying Mexican and pre-Columbian foods with such anthropological rigor that no one could mistake him for a casual interloper. “Earth and fire are two defining smells of real honest-to-god Yucatecan food,” Bayless told me about his first encounter with cochinita pibil. “You can make the food outside of that, but it doesn't have the full soul.” Through eight cookbooks and a PBS docu-series that inspired a generation of Mexican-Americans, Bayless earned his stripes as an ambassador. But in today's climate, where appropriation is a hash-tagged buzzword dominating conversations across pop culture, there is more urgency for Bayless to defend his legacy. That is, should a white chef reared on hickory-smoked barbecue be the figurehead of another culture’s cuisine, and profit from telling its stories?
"It’s kind of interesting because [the chefs] that have Hispanic last names are given a lot more leeway than I am,” Bayless told me. “Because I have a non-Hispanic last name, there’s always people holding my feet to the fire.”
Nine months before we chatted, the chef was caught in the crossfire of a controversial debate: Where does one draw the line between homage and appropriation? Bayless found himself in the limelight not because he had suddenly gone rogue, fiddling with fusion cuisine rather than sticking to his script. Instead, while being interviewed on the Sporkful podcast, the chef of Frontera Grill and Michelin-starred Topolobampo acknowledged he had never considered his advantages as a white person in inking book deals or opening new restaurants. For some, Bayless' befuddlement by the question revealed his bullheadedness, if not further indicating that the platform required for chefs to tell stories is steeped with privilege. For his advocates, this flare-up was a tempest in a teapot, overshadowing the work of a pioneer who put in the time to bring America to its senses.
"I did my background so that I could tell these stories. So it's not just that I was given the privilege to do that," Bayless told me. “It's really only been in the last few years that [these issues] have been raised, and it’s never raised against any American chef going to Europe. If you go to Japan, it’s cool. It is if you go to a place like Thailand, you'll hear people say, 'Oh, he's appropriating.'"
Standing up to that kind of criticism requires a certain finesse. Andy Ricker—another white guy who’s been in the hot seat for cooking Thai—has admitted to being “dismayed” by allegations of appropriation, but has resigned himself to the fact that this fight will follow him for the rest of his career. Bayless seems to have less tolerance for that stigma, going so far as to call out his critics for treating him unfairly as a white chef cooking Mexican food.
“There are a lot of young chefs who are taking Mexican cuisine to a new place,” said Bayless in praise of the Modern-Mexican innovation surfacing in America. “They are helping to wake people up to the fact that Mexican food can be super interesting, and that you don't have to follow down one path to do it." His admiration was clear, though he was careful to draw lines. "Theirs tends to have a smack of their history in the U.S. My food smacks of my history in Mexico," he said. " Mexican food has always had open arms.”
From cracking the code of Oaxacan mole ("the hardest dish in the world to make") to understanding the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine in the Big Merced market, here Bayless breaks down 10 milestone meals that shaped his career.
Using 2 Tbsp. oil, brush both sides of each tortilla. Heat a large skillet over medium-high. Working in batches, cook until lightly browned and starting to crisp, about 1 minute per side. Set aside.
Heat remaining 3 Tbsp. oil in same skillet over medium-high. Cook chorizo, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until browned and cooked through, 7–9 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to a medium bowl set aside.
Add garlic and ½ onion to same skillet, season with salt, and cook, tossing occasionally, until tender and beginning to brown, 6–8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer garlic mixture to a blender reserve pan with oil. Add beans and broth to blender and purée until smooth (it should be the consistency of yogurt) season with salt.
Set reserved pan over medium-high and heat oil. Transfer bean purée to skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low. Working one at a time and using tongs, dip tortillas in bean purée, turning to coat and leaving until softened, about 3 seconds per side (they will soften more as they sit). Transfer to a baking sheet as you go. Spoon 1 Tbsp. chorizo and 1 Tbsp. queso fresco across the center of each tortilla fold over like a taco.
Divide among plates and spoon remaining bean purée over. Top with cilantro, avocado, more onion, remaining chorizo, and remaining queso.