Rick Bayless: Master in the Kitchen

PHOTO "I hung around at the restaurant all the time growing up and I just have to say its in my blood- Its who I am."Thomas Krakowiak/ABC News
"I hung around at the restaurant all the time growing up and I just have to say it's in my blood- It's who I am."

Any way you slice it, it's clear that Chef Rick Bayless knows a thing or two about la cocina, especially when it comes to Mexican cuisine, so much so that he literally wrote the book on it. Several of them, in fact.

In addition to winning the coveted title of Bravo's Top Chef Master in 2009 and hosting his own PBS series, "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," since 2003 Bayless has authored six award-winning cookbooks. Among them "Rick and Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures," one he co-wrote with his now 17-year-old daughter, Lanie, was nominated for a James Beard Award as well as his sixth cookbook, "Mexican Everyday."

With his wife, Deann, Bayless runs Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago. While there he has received much recognition, including the James Beard awards for Midwest Chef of the Year and National Chef of the Year.

Bayless also has become a prominent figure for the small Midwestern farms surrounding the Chicago area. In 2003, he founded the Frontera Farmer Foundation to attract support to small family farms, and donating money for their capital improvements. The organization is also active in Share Our Strength, the nation's largest hunger advocacy organization. His philanthropic involvement with the farms earned him the 2007 Humanitarian of the Year award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

Bayless recently opened his third restaurant in Chicago, XOCO, featuring Mexico's most beloved street food and snacks, including house-ground chocolate and wood-grilled tortas. Rick's latest book, "Fiesta at Rick's" also comes out in July 2010.

Rick Bayless grew up with food and restaurants being a big part of his life. Not only did his family own a barbeque restaurant and catering business while he was growing up in Oklahoma City, but "[my] Grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents everybody had restaurants - everybody had entrepreneurial spirit," he said.

"I hung around at the restaurant all the time growing up," he said, adding that the fact that he lived in clothing that smelled like hickory smoke just may have had something to do with his passion for food. "I just have to say it's in my blood," he said. "It's who I am. "

He first became interested in Mexican culture during junior high Spanish class, and he convinced his family to take a vacation to Mexico. Bayless, 14 at the time, booked the flights and developed the entire family vacation, believing it was as far from home as he'd ever go.

"It turned out to be a life-changing experience for me because when I got to Mexico I felt that I'd kind of came home in a way," he said. "It was such a warm and generous culture. It didn't seem strange or foreign to me as much as it just seemed really deliciously perfect." He would continue to return to Mexico as often as he could through college, eventually majoring in Spanish, Literature and Latin American studies.

Spent More Time on Food Than Studies

Bayless went on to attend graduate school, studying anthropology and linguistics. While there, he and a group of friends would regularly get together to create elaborate meals.

"I got to the point where I was spending a lot of time thinking about what I was going to be cooking for my friends than I was what I was doing in my graduate studies," he said, and he decided to take a year off to really focus on food. "I had still been cooking professionally to make a living during graduate studies, but I decided I wanted to start teaching cooking and explore being a food writer," he said. "The truth is I never went back. I found that that was my real passion. "

"I wanted to put my love for Mexico together with my love for food and really study food - sort of through my anthropological side and look at Mexico in terms of how the culture is expressed through food, sharing food, collecting food from the wild, cultivating food, all of those aspects," he said. Bayless spent a full year in Mexico, after which, "I realized I was in really deep," he said.

He continued to return to Mexico over the next five years and because of those experiences he published his first book, "Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico" in 1987. "It was really a snap shot of people and places, and what they're cooking and how they were sharing their food," he said.

Bayless met his wife, Deann, during graduate school when he was invited to a dinner party she hosted. She later helped him with his catering business and traveled with him to Mexico while he researched his book. "It turned out that we really had a complimentary way of working together," he said. "She's been my editor and producer in all the books that we've done." The pair decided to settle in Chicago where he opened his own restaurant, Fronterra Grill, specializing in contemporary regional Mexican cuisine.

"There's one misconception a lot of people have about Chicago, and that is that it's a real meat and potatoes culture, certainly about pizza, the Italian beef sandwiches, that sort of stuff," he said, adding that, although not entirely false, the tourist industry adds to that misconception. "Chicagoans tend to be fairly sophisticated, their food desires, what they really go for," he said.

Not Your Mom and Pop Mexican Place

"It was kind of for tourists that I did it, because it meant we had a good solid base to pull from, but we learned right away that Chicago embraced us with both arms," he said, "It was successful at Frontera from day one." Within six months, they'd surpassed their hopes of success.

"Even though we were doing really authentic Mexican food, food from central and southern Mexico, not from the Northern part of Mexico that's more like American Mexican food, we were doing the real thing and Chicago loved it," he said. "We just put it on the plate in a slightly different way - sort of dressed it up, if you will, to make it sort of right on par with all of the other sort of upscale casual restaurants of the time." They opened Topolobampo in 1989, one of America's first fine-dining Mexican restaurants.

Although food culture has changed since then, ("When we opened, there was not a high expectation for quality of ingredients on the plate, now all of our guests want to know 'where was that fish caught?' or 'is that grass-fed beef?'") Bayless has managed to roll with the changing times.

"Because of the chefs and because of the sophistication of the diners, we're just in a completely different plain [now]," he said. "The other thing about the restaurant business is that over the last couple of decades, the diners have grown to understand a quality experience at the table…I think that is super cool because you can always tell when a culture really respects its food because everything around it will be highly prized; the plates that it's put on, the way that it's served to you, the ambience that it's served in."

It's providing that quality experience that Bayless says he lives for. "Occasionally when I'm not at the restaurant, say, on a Saturday night, and I look around at all those people that are out having a good time, and so forth. I think 'Wow, that would seem so odd to have every Saturday night off!' because I love this business and I like preparing food, I like all the aspects of the creation that goes into it, but I also just love seeing people at the table just having a great time," he said.

"I've never really thought that my role was to be the great chef and that everybody would come and worship me. I always think of myself as the person that offers people the opportunity just to have a wonderful experience. And the experience may be because the people at the table, they hadn't seen in a while and they just couldn't wait to catch up. Perhaps there was magic that happened in the relationships at the table at a given instance. I hope that the food is sort of a spark for all that, a kind of catalyst for having a good time, and I think the better I am as a chef the more those magical moments really happen for people."

Power of Bringing People Together

Bayless credits his family of entrepreneurs for cultivating his business sense, but he credits one family member in particular for teaching him the greater power of food. "When I was a kid, my grandmother taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, and that was no matter what happened that you could solve everything by bringing everyone to the table together. Give them some good food. It didn't even have to be the best food. It just had to be good food, enough abundance and served with a jovial spirit. And I grew up in a family, like most families, had its rocky times, but boy, on Sunday afternoon my grandmother would pull everybody together, make us all sit down at the table together, and before long, things started working themselves out and I think the table was the catalyst for that."