Name the all-time best cooking show. “I grew up on Julia Child. She was the only thing on. There was a little thing that James Beard did when I was even younger. I saw some of that but it was super commercial. Whereas when you get into the Julia stuff, it was all about the technique and when I was a kid I was super into every kind of craft you could imagine. I wanted to make everything. So when Julia came on, I was 10 years old, I immediately wanted to start doing the kinds of things she did.”
What cookbook is your go-to resource for inspiration? “There are a couple of ones that I go back to. They are partly ones I came of age with. I tried to get away from food. I didn’t want to inherit my parents’ restaurant. It wouldn’t have been right for me. So I took another tack and I got away from it but food was just in my blood. I started to go back to food on my own terms. The first thing I started was teaching cooking classes. I had all the Julia books. I had read every page of and cooked almost everything out of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One. She came out with a book called From Julia Child’s Kitchen. It was a little bit more far-reaching it wasn’t all French food. I literally cooked everything out of that. I was asked to teach a lot of French stuff and I had some background in that. So, I got that little Richard Olney book, called the French Menu Cookbook. It was the real deal. That was one of my go-tos.”
How about sources for Mexican cooking? “I had done my undergraduate degree in Spanish language and literature and Latin American Studies and I had lived in Mexico some. But I didn’t know that much about Mexican food. I had been there when I was an undergrad. I was just kind of new to it all. I read every word that Diana Kennedy wrote and she gave me this huge jumpstart into what I do today. Without her work, I’m not sure how I would have found out a lot of information. She compiled it all over many years. That was a really major influence on my life.”
You started your career as a pastry chef. What made you switch to specializing in Mexican food? “For almost three years I made my entire living by teaching cooking classes and doing what I called in-home catering. I decided that I needed to really further my own education. And I had been invited to teach a whole bunch of Mexican cooking classes. And I was doing all my research for that and it parlayed into this TV show that we did on a public station in Bowling Green, Ohio, just south of where I was living. This is in the ’70s. I didn’t get paid anything really at all for it but I said the only thing I want is a stipend to go do research in Mexico. I went there with a lot of knowledge in my head already and it just opened it up and I got super excited. I was very serious with my then girlfriend, and now wife, and she made lunch for me one day. We were doing the dishes and I said ‘I got to go do more research and I got to get more training.’ I saved this money and I could go to France and really focus on pastry. I was going to be a teaching assistant at a school over there. I had enough money for about six weeks. But I had enough money for six months in Mexico.”
And that was that? “That was that. I said to her ‘will you go with me? ’ She said ‘is that a marriage proposal? ’ And I said ‘yes.’ And we’ve been married 38 years. That changed the whole rest of my life.”
Is the taco still misunderstood in America? “In Mexico, a taco is considered to be a small thing, that is a sort of stopgap meal. You’re hungry but you stop really quickly and you have this thing. They’re a lot about the tortilla and not so much about the filling. The fillings tend to be very simple. The condiments that you can put on them—there’s much less variety and quantity than what you find the U.S. It’s really about this perfect balance between a little bit of filling and this beautiful tortilla and this spicy thing that you add to it. To me it’s almost this ethereal balance. And in the states, it’s all about how much filling can we get in it and how much stuff can we put on it.”
What’s the one taco you have to have to Mexico? “Everybody talks about tacos al pastor and they’re absolutely wonderful except there is a whole lot of them in Mexico that are just not that good. So, I will go to certain places that have tacos al pastor. There’s one place in Mexico City that I absolutely love. I’ll go out of my way to get tacos al pastor at that place.”
You were one of the first tequila advocates in America. I remember you telling me years ago that it was a major milestone when Jose Cuervo Gold came out. “That was what we opened Frontera with as our premium tequila. It’s crazy how things have changed now.”
Has the rise of mezcal surprised you? “In Mexico, unless you’re in the tequila region none of the young people want to drink tequila. They say that’s what my grandmother drinks. They only want mezcal. And it’s the same kind of thing here. Our new place, Leña Brava, was set up to be a temple to mezcal. My daughter is in charge of that program, so I can’t tell you the exact number but the last I heard was 165 expressions of mezcal.”
How would you describe the difference between tequila and mezcal? “If tequila is like Bordeaux, then mezcal is like Burgundy with all these tiny little producers of it, and you have to work really hard to get to know it because it’s all going to be really different. I’m a total mezcal geek.”
Rick Bayless is a James Beard-award winning chef who has written nine acclaimed cookbooks and stars in his own PBS show, Mexico–One Plate at a Time. He also operates a number of restaurants, including Frontera Grill and Toplobampo in Chicago. He won the first season of Top Chef Masters.
We got caught up with Rick Bayless at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival.
Interview has been condensed and edited.