Local chef Rick Bayless struck it big when he opened Frontera Grill in 1987. The fresh, authentic Mexican cuisine spawned a food line, a TV show, half a dozen books, and even another restaurant next door, Topolobampo. The fourth season of Bayless’ show, Mexico: One Plate At A Time, started on PBS this fall, and his new cookbook, Mexican Everyday, comes out November 7. Even with his undeniable success, Bayless says he’s still just a Chicago cook in love with Mexico—albeit one with his own salsa selling in grocery stores across America. Just before his show began its new season, Bayless spoke to The A.V. Club about cumin’s overuse, why Chicago is the best city for Mexican food, and taking on the Iron Chef.
The A.V. Club: How did the shooting for season four go?
Rick Bayless: Really well. We went places that we haven’t shot before, which made it a lot of fun. We did a lot of things around Guadalajara, out in the tequila-growing and distilling world. We’ve never been able to show our viewers what that part of Mexico looks like before. We went to a fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta called Guayabitos. It was so great to have one of those moments that we could record on videotape: The fishermen landed on the beach and brought out the fish and filleted it right there. We did a scene where we cooked it right on the beach.
AVC: Were there any surprises, any places really hard to reach?
RB: There are always loads of surprises. Even with that beach scene, they told us that we would be able to do it—and yet when we got there, nothing was there, so we had to make do. We actually made do really well, and a couple people in our group built this fabulous palm-frond lean-to for me to cook under, and dug a pit in the sand, and we cooked right there. I think it came out better than what we’d anticipated.
AVC: What made you decide to bring your love of Mexican food to Chicago?
RB: When [my wife and I] decided to settle here over 20 years ago, this was the best place to do Mexican food in the whole country, and I say that for two reasons. One, the availability of ingredients for the kind of food that we wanted to do was greater here than in Los Angeles, where we were living. That’s much more of a Chicano population; they all have Hispanic last names, but they’re less related to the culture of Mexico than all the recent immigrants that we found here. We also found an audience here that was much more open to Mexican food the way it is in Mexico, because there’s no history of Tex-Mex food or Cal-Mex food in Chicago. We could really start and create a world of Mexican food that was much more like what you find in Mexico. You try and talk to a Los Angelino about Mexican food, and they’ll tell you they already know what it is, and you can’t break out of that box very easily. Same thing in Texas.
AVC: What ingredient is most overused in Mexican cooking?
RB: Cumin. That’s real Tex-Mexy. In Mexico, they hardly use any cumin, and people are really surprised by that. They go to Mexico, and they don’t taste that familiar twang that they get in Texas. Sometimes people will complain that our food doesn’t taste like the Mexican food that they know; usually, that’s what they’re talking about. It’s funny, because the Mexican food in California is really bland, and the Texas-style Mexican food is really heavy, with lots of melted cheese over everything and red chili sauce with lots of cumin in it. It’s really a blow to your system when you eat it. I like to eat it because it’s fun food to eat, but you almost need two or four margaritas to wash it all down.
AVC: Would you call the recipes in your book “authentic” Mexican?
RB: Totally… But the funny thing about it is that people often think that there is something called an “authentic recipe” that lives out there or that was somehow handed down from God. That’s not true in any way. Everybody makes all those dishes differently. You can find the greatest common denominator and make that into the authentic version, but each person’s little touch is what makes the dish come alive. Plus, every generation reinterprets everything.
AVC: You competed against chef Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. What was that like?
RB: It was fun. It was really, really, really hard work. When I was in the middle of it, I didn’t think it was fun. We had to train for a long time; we probably put in 100 hours getting ready for that one-hour competition.
AVC: Does the show give you a hint what the ingredient will be beforehand?
RB: They give you a hint. You know it’s going to be one of two ingredients. But before you even arrive, you present them with the basic recipes for all of the dishes you could possibly do, and then you can’t bring anything. They get everything, and that’s to make the competition a bit more even. The only uneven thing about the competition is, as the contender, you’ve never worked in the kitchen before, and they only give you 10 minutes in the kitchen before the actual competition. So you don’t have a home-court advantage, and the Iron Chef does have a home-court advantage, and he knows exactly how to play to the cameras and work with the ingredients and the equipment.
AVC: So you can honestly say that the show was real?
RB: The competition itself is totally real. When they unveil the ingredient, a timer starts, and you really have one hour, and there is no fudging on anything during that hour. The other thing that you don’t know as a viewer is that there’s even a more difficult aspect: You make five portions of one dish, but you only finish one during the hour. The other four portions you have to have in the wings ready to plate for the judges, but you can’t cook anything. So if you’re doing a piece of fish, you can’t cook it after the competition. You can re-warm it, but you can’t cook it. That’s a really hard thing for the chef. That’s one of the reasons they tell you that you have to plan your menus ahead.
AVC: Would you do it again?
RB: Oh yeah. I didn’t sleep for a week before… The only thing that I think I could say wasn’t totally realistic about the whole thing was the judging. The judging is not as realistic as it seems on TV. I think the director has a pretty strong hand in that. Sometimes he wants certain things to come out a certain way so that he can engage his audience in a different way. He loves to have the judges make calls that are wrong to the viewer so they get really riled up and watch again next week. It’s not the Olympics.