Chef Interview: Rick Bayless
The famous American chef, restaurateur, author and television host was in town to celebrate Fourth of July weekend with an event at the Thompson Hotel
American chef, restaurateur, author, and television host Rick Bayless was in town to participate in the Thompson Hotel´s Fourth of July Weekend event showcasing the best of Mexican cuisine. The event included a taco party at their rooftop restaurant Cinco. Here Rick collaborated with other chefs including Paul Bentley, Australian chef and Guadalajara resident, Chef Alfredo Villanueva from Monterrey, and the Thompson’s own Chef Pedro Abascal. I had the opportunity to sit down with Rick to discuss his love of Mexican food, culture, and the best street food around.
What inspired you to pursue a career focused on Mexican gastronomy?
You know, I started when I was very young. I came to Mexico for the first time at 14 years old, and it felt like I came home. I think that when you talk about what attracts you to something, I don’t think it’s ever about…if it’s going to be long lasting…it’s not something in your head. It´s something in your heart. And I just fell in love with Mexico. I originally fell in love with the culture of Mexico. I was raised in a restaurant family. But I decided I really wanted to study culture, and I went down that path. I majored in Spanish language literature and Latin American studies when I was in college. I went on to graduate school and studied linguistics, and it really gave me the opportunity to delve deeply into Mexican culture. But then I really decided my first love was how a culture expresses itself through its food. And the culture, other than the U.S., I knew the best was Mexican and I decided to just hone my interest in that.
Why do you think Mexico still has such a strong food culture, more so than the U.S.?
In the United States, we’ve lost all sorts of regionality except small bits and pieces here and there, but basically the whole country eats pretty much the same thing and even if you are in the American southwest or Maine or New Orleans. Even though there may be a local cuisine probably for breakfast everyone is still eating Cheerios and you know they all still love their mac and cheese, meatloaf or whatever. We’ve kind of lost our regionality. Mexico has not lost a lot of its regionality and about the time where people were starting to lose it here, there was this huge new swell of interest in regional cooking and the most important thing – chefs who can cook it. Because Mexico has never had chefs that could really cook the cuisine of Mexico in restaurants until the last 15 or 20 years. So it’s really changed a lot. I spent some time here doing a lot of research and television work about a decade ago, and we had trouble finding any Mexican chef in a hotel or restaurant that was cooking Mexican food. Now it’s just like completely exploded, and everywhere you go there are places like that.
Do you have a region in Mexico that you would go back to over and over?
I am a southern Mexican guy. I love the complexity of the food. I love the integrity of the culture. So, I spend most of my time in Mexico City and south. I love the triangle that is Mexico City, Veracruz, Oaxaca, and I tend to go to those places a lot, mostly Oaxaca because Oaxaca has such a vibrant chef community in restaurants there and I really love that. I spend a lot of time in Oaxaca. Right now, Mexico City is hard to get away from because it’s like every two weeks there is a great restaurant opening. It´s on fire right now. I have a little apartment in Mexico City that I´ve developed as a training ground for our chefs in our restaurants to go with me. We’ve always had trouble finding a place to cook in, a professional kitchen. Now I put in a training facility, and it´s in the community where all the restaurants are, the Condesa-Roma area, and it’s just so amazing how incredible the food is there. But it’s not just the food it´s the galleries, it´s the shops, it´s the talleres. It´s all these really cool places that when you go there, you feel like this is the coolest place on earth.
Do you think that Mexico is the midst of a cultural food revolution? Do you see a shift happening?
For the first time, we have culinary schools that are specializing in Mexican food. When I was living in Mexico City 35 years ago, there was nothing. Nowhere I could go. There was hardly anyone giving cooking classes. Now, it’s everywhere. And the knowledge that the chefs have of their cuisine is just great. There are investigation centers where they are cataloging all the foods that are eaten all over the country and how they’re prepared. That stuff is amazing! I used to have to do all that work myself, but now there are all these other people doing it, so there is an amazing pride. When I used to live in Mexico City, it was the fact that people made Mexican food at home, and you never went out for Mexican food. We’re talking about homes that had maids in them and cooks. It was people saying, ¨My cook can make mole verde better than your cook,¨ and maybe you could go to somebody else’s house and taste it. You didn’t have chefs bringing their perspective. But now you have people who are doing incredible things that are like the essence of mole verde on a plate, and you taste that one bite of it, and it just explodes with flavor in your head.
Do you still eat street food?
Oh yeah, I eat street food all the time.
What’s your go-to for street food?
I just want to see what some place is famous for, and I´ll eat anything. If you ask me where I would go, I would tell you right away that I would go to La Lagunilla market in Mexico City on Sunday morning, and there is this lady there who makes these blue corn tlacoyos with fava beans on the inside and she has like a guisado of nopales on the side and she puts that on the middle of it. Then, she puts this bright, spicy, arbol salsa over that and then queso anejo on top of that and hands it to you and, to me, it is the most divine thing on the face of the earth! And I would go to that market on Sunday morning.
Is there an ingredient you consider crucial to Mexican cuisine?
Tomatillos. Mexico is the only place that uses tomatillos in the world with any quantity. And when I have to go to a country and try to teach Mexican food without tomatillos it doesn’t taste like Mexican food. Yucatecan food has never really had a base of tomatillos but central Mexico and all the rest of Mexico, other than the Yucatan, has so much based in tomatillos.