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."

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.

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