Rick Bayless—chef, restaurateur, cooking show host—needs no introduction. For the last thirty years he has been introducing American audiences to authentic Mexican cuisine. What many may not know is that his expertise on the subject is rooted in his profound interest and rigorous study of Latin American culture. Bayless completed an undergraduate degree in Latin American studies and did doctoral work in the field of anthropological linguistics. Sufficed to say, his bona fides are above reproach. To hear him tell it, cooking and the need to share it with others are in his blood.
He is also, however, a performer; which is obvious to anyone familiar with his PBS show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Bayless has both written for and performed in theater around the country; but it is on his show that his talents for story telling and engaging in cross-cultural inquiry really shine through. His is a labor of love, and one cannot help but notice how perfectly at home he is fusing a scholar’s sense of curiosity and a foodie’s sheer delight in discovering new ingredients and recipes.
Of all the different cuisines of the world… Why Mexican?
It comes from two things: One is that I grew up eating Mexican food and it was my favorite, and I just decided to follow that. In the United States there is no cuisine except for the cuisine of immigrants and so I ate the
cuisine of immigrants like everybody else and so I followed my path.
How often do you go to Mexico?
Oh, 5 or 6 times a year. But I lived there for years
and years, and so that’s what I do because I love it. It’s the cuisine that speaks most to me.
Other than the cuisine are you attracted to anything else about Mexico like, art music?
When I went to Mexico for the first time I was only interested in the culture. My undergraduate degree is in Latin American culture. I come from a restaurant family, but I moved away from the food side of things for a while and really focused a lot on the culture and language and then decided to weave into it the things that I grew up with which was food so then I started to concentrate on culture and food instead of culture and language.
Do you have any fashion obsessions (i.e.: glasses, shoes, watches, t-shirts)?
I’m not really obsessed with fashion; but I like shirts. So that’s the thing that I like the most.
Any particular color or cut?
I like blue, and I like a European cut because everything that’s cut in the United States is cut for people that are overweight, and I’m not. So, my favorite designer is Ted Baker. It’s interesting stuff. It doesn’t scream out that I’m a fashion conscious person, because I want the focus to be on the food and not the fashion. I want the fashion to play a supportive role, and Ted Baker does that for me. And they’re all cut slim. Everything is cut slim.
When you’re not cooking and you want to take a vacation and do something
that’s fun and relaxing, what do you do?
Almost all of my vacations revolve around food, but I have two other obsessions: yoga and theater.
What kind of theater?
Actually, I perform as well. I came up through theater when I was younger and then
I was away from it for a while and then I got
back into it. That’s actually what led me back to doing television work and now I do a lot of television work.
A few years ago I wrote a play with another couple of people. It’s this really amazing multi-sensory experience.
It’s the story of a meal. The entire audience eats the meal that the actors
are eating at the same time that the actors are eating.
It’s the story of how people can be changed by a meal. So you get a chance as the audience
to reflect on how you are changed by that meal as well.
It’s told by actors, dancers, singers, and circus performers. It’s just like this big
multi-sensory experience. We’re just getting ready to
mount it again. The first time it took place in Chicago, because I did it with
one of our local theater companies in Chicago and we ran for two months.
So you like writing and acting?
Both. Yes I did both things for this.
Is there any particular music that you like?
You know, it’s very interesting. I am not a rock and roll person, at all. I mean, I can be around it, but it doesn’t speak to me at all. What speaks to me most is really groovy Latin stuff. And I like a lot of Brazilian music.
Are you a good dancer?
Oh yeah. I dance ballroom—as in Latin ballroom—
so merengue, cha cha cha, salsa, that sort of stuff. But it’s got to be groovy music.
We do two big parties every year. We have 3 restaurants together on one street, and we have this big Christmas party and the chefs make all this food and people come with their families. There are like 350 people that come to this party and we give away presents and stuff, but nobody can wait until we get to the dancing. And then the dancing goes on for four hours.
To which city, other than Chicago, do you feel most connected?
Mexico City. I love Mexico City. I lived there for a long time. Mexico City is like Beijing in a way. It’s about the same size.
It’s just got so much life and vitality
Is Europe a place that interests you?
It is. The one thing that every chef has to be focused on is the culinary traditions in France because all of our profession is based on the language of the kitchen that was developed by the French. When you go to France you find something that’s very important. It is an entire culture that respects the craft of the kitchen and they really respect chefs. Becoming a chef or to opening your own restaurant is one of the most important professions that you can have in France.
Owning a bakery is considered a really great profession.
In the states, when we opened our first restaurant, twenty-eight years ago, it was considered—everybody said, “Why would you want to do that?!” Now I came from a restaurant family, so I could just say, Oh I’m carrying on the family business.
What kind of restaurant did your family have?
A barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City, but my whole family was in the restaurant business. So I grew up in the profession.
It wasn’t until about 10 years ago, really, that being a chef in the United States became a very cool thing to do. I had done it because it’s the only thing that I could do. I just had to do it.
Like any artist will tell you, it’s not about wanting to do it. I couldn’t not do it. I just had to do this thing.
Breakfast, lunch, or dinner?
All of them. I have to have my three meals a day.
Are there particular snacks that you crave?
The thing is that my life is completely filled with food, from morning to night. In my regular day at my restaurant, I probably taste about 150 different things. So, you don’t snack when you are constantly tasting things. On my days off, I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner; but I rarely snack then either because that’s my time to be away from eating so much.
Do you like when other people cook for you?
Yes I do, very much, because it’s not so much about the food itself as it is about the time together with people.
People say, ‘I could never have you over.’ And I’m like, ‘Please have me over!
You can make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I’ll love it.’
It doesn’t happen very often. Usually I get invited over to someone’s house only twice a year.
I love cooking, however, so I have people over to my house almost every week.
What would your ideal competition show, like Top Chef, look like?
That’s a great question. If I were to do something like a Top Chef show, I would be interested in showcasing more of the cooking. I would be really interested in seeing how creative people could get in any given situation.
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