Renowned chef Rick Bayless has traveled all around Mexico learning about that country’s rich food culture. And he’s been dishing out some of that food at his Frontera Grill restaurant, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Bayless joins Morning Shift host Tony Sarabia to talk about Frontera’s original menu, the importance of local farmers markets, and more.
Tony Sarabia: Let’s go way back. Where did your love of Mexican food come from?
Rick Bayless: I grew up in my parents’ Oklahoma City barbeque restaurant and I was really attracted to it. I was the kid who went to work with my father on Saturdays, and I cooked a lot at home. My family would always call them my experiments. But I loved playing around with food from an early age, and at the age of 14, I got a chance to go to Mexico.
When I got off the plane and made my way into downtown Mexico City… I thought to myself, ‘I’ve come home.’
Sarabia: Which Mexican chefs did you gravitate to?
Bayless: If you’re thinking about a chef in the American sense — in which they have their own restaurant and perspective in food and artform — none of that existed in Mexico. But if you go to Mexico City today — and it’s one of the greatest cities of the world — it’s fascinating and exciting.
But back in the days when I was there, I was learning from street and market vendors and family restaurants making regional food. And I was asking a bunch of questions. Sometimes they’d invite me into the kitchen. But when you go to a Mexican marketplace, there are all these prepared food stalls there, and you sit down at stools at a counter and people are cooking right in front of you.
That was my school. And it’s the best school you could ever have because they’re really cooking in a traditional style and capturing the local flavor. And that’s what I did for five years.
Tony Sarabia chats with chef Rick Bayless. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)
Sarabia: Would you open up a restaurant in another city?
Bayless: The restaurant scene in Chicago is on fire right now. There are so many new restaurants opening up all the time, and there’s amazing creativity in young chefs that I want to stick around.
Sarabia: How do you know when a dish isn’t working anymore?
Bayless: On the exact day of Frontera’s 30th anniversary, we sat down in our dining room and we ate the seven dishes on the menu that have been on the menu for 30 full years. I wanted to see if they really stand up. I’m ruthless — I’ll take a dish off the menu. I was so proud because I worked so hard on those opening dishes.
Sarabia: What’s your most popular dish?
Bayless: Other than guacamole — we won’t even talk about that — the one that’s probably most popular is our ceviche in the style of Veracruz with olives in it. I love that ceviche. It tastes as fresh and beautiful as the first day we made it.
Sarabia: How are you celebrating the 30th anniversary of Frontera?
Bayless: In Mexico, I learned that the best food comes from local agriculture. And when we started Frontera 30 years ago, there weren’t farmers markets in Chicago. It was kind of a wasteland for good seasonal, local produce. Over the last 30 years, we’ve been working on developing local agriculture; even to the point of establishing a nonprofit organization, FamilyFarmed.
So what we really want is a big celebration of good food. We’ll be at the Art Institute on April 30 and FamilyFarmed will be there. We work in lockstep with the ideas behind family farms. We’re going to share really good food along with 15 other chefs focusing on what’s locally available.
“The restaurant scene in Chicago is on fire right now. There are so many new restaurants opening up all the time, and there’s amazing creativity in young chefs that I want to stick around,” Rick Bayless told ‘Morning Shift’ host Tony Sarabia. His acclaimed restaurant, Frontera, turns 30 years old this year. (Andrew Gill/WBEZ)
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.