After 15 years, celebrity chef Rick Bayless is returning to this year’s Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta, this time on the heels of his latest—though certainly not first—James Beard Award win. The nine-time cookbook author, TV host and chef of several restaurants earned the foundation’s highest award for the four-star Topolobampo Grill, which he opened in 1991, shortly after the casual Frontera Grill, a sea-change restaurant in the history of Mexican food in the United States. Chef Bayless is set to prepare a luncheon with fellow chef and friend Martín Rios at Restaurant Martín. The four-course lunch will be paired with wines from Craft + Estate. Bayless will also present a cooking demonstration at Santa Fe School of Cooking. Although scant on menu details at the time of our conversation, Chef Bayless is sure to ladle traditional Mexican fare with organic, local ingredients.
As devoted as you are to Mexican food, you’ve also been a champion of organic ingredients from local purveyors. When did that become part of your repertoire?
Basically, it came from the fact that I lived in Mexico and learned that the best food came from the places with the best local agriculture. My wife and I decided to settle in Chicago, which has the second largest concentration of Mexican people in the nation (and my wife’s family is from there), but we were missing one great thing: local agriculture. Thirty years ago, there was not a farmers’ market, and you had to drive a long way to find farm stands. We had our work cut out for us to find local, seasonal product. It took many years to find farms willing to supply a restaurant. But it all came from how important agriculture was to great food.
The Frontera Farmer Foundation has provided $2 million in small grants. Why did you decide to focus your philanthropic efforts on supporting local, organic farmers in the Chicago area?
In Illinois, 95 percent of the farm fields are corn and soybeans, which doesn’t go into the food scene. We had to find farms interested in working with us and willing to grow things for us. We discovered fairly quickly that farms couldn’t supply us because they didn’t have the equipment. First, we provided no-interest loans for watering systems, hoop houses or a new tractor so they could be more profitable and productive. They had to pay us back in a year, in dollars or product [worth the value]. We really wanted to make it into a for-profit foundation. Most of our grants are small—$8,000 to $12,000. It would take them years to be able save that amount, so a grant from the foundation pushes them years ahead in what they are able to do.
For a time, you were a bit ahead of the mainstream organic/local curve for food. That curve has caught up. What’s your take on the trend today?
When we started, our goal was to make it so commonplace, you don’t even talk about it any more. We’re moving in that direction. It’s almost become an expectation. Any self-respecting chef in Chicago is buying from local farms.
How do you think Mexican food has evolved (or devolved) in the states since you opened Frontera Grill back in 1987?
When we opened, the concept of Mexican food outside of the American Southwest was all the same and it was a type of Mexican food popularized by chains. At best, it was Mexican American food that doesn’t relate to what people eat in Mexico. We wanted to offer something different, to shine a light on Mexican culture, specifically the kitchen. When you put food in front of people, say, “Do you like it or not like it?” It’s not an interesting question. You should ask people if they understand how those flavors came about and why they serve certain things a certain way—how the culture and heritage of a place is reflected on the plate. Once there’s understanding, people have more willingness to go into flavors they don’t know and to understand people in a different way. Our country has awakened to food in Mexico and how it’s different from the U.S. Food in Mexico is regional—food in the north, south, along the Yucatan is all distinctive. People have come on this trip with us.
Right now, there is a really strong movement in the U.S. for young chefs to do Mexican food in a new way, but it doesn’t relate very closely to traditional regional cuisines. It’s my thinking that you have to understand regional cuisines before jumping into doing something modern. Young chefs are doing amazing work, and I’m very appreciative because they’re bringing a little pizazz to Mexican food, which can be the hippest food in the world. But they don’t have the understanding for creating from a solid foundation.
New Mexico has a rich agricultural scene and its own unique cuisine. How would you describe the relationship between classic New Mexican food and classical Mexican?
New Mexican cuisine has a great tradition that reflects the geography, the history and the cultural diversity of the area. That’s overlooked a lot. Twenty years ago, people were talking a lot about the cuisine of New Mexico; it has gone a little out of the spotlight. That’s sad to me. It’s one of the few places in the U.S. that has a strong cultural and culinary foundation.
This year marks your return to the Santa Fe Wine & Chile Fiesta. Why is this an event you want to participate in?
I haven’t been to Santa Fe in 15 years. It’s been far too long. I’ve always enjoyed my time here. I have great respect for the culinary traditions in this part of the world. I want to come and reacquaint myself. The chef coming back with me to do the Wine & Chile Fiesta was born and raised in New Mexico, in southern New Mexico near Las Cruces. It will be fun to be here with him.
What was your reaction to Topolobampo Grill winning the Outstanding Restaurant Award this year?
The award is only given to a restaurant that’s been around for over a decade, not a hot, new restaurant. It’s about longevity and a restaurant who’s upheld the standards over a period of time. For a 28-year-old restaurant to nab that award is kind of an incredible honor. Restaurant years are like dog years, so we’re a really old restaurant, and we’re still on the cutting edge and contributing to our community. What made it such an honor is that we keep doing all the right things from the décor to the tequila and mescal list. What I do for a living is what I would do for an avocation. I love what I do.
Do you have any new projects (restaurants, TV, books) in the works?
We’re working on the 12th season of Mexico—One Plate at a Time. I’m working on a big book. I’ve always written for home cooks, but I’ve never done a restaurant book. I’m going to distill 30 years of knowledge that can be appreciated by the industry.
Since you launched the Frontera Scholarship in 2007, we’re curious: What do you hope the next generation of chefs is learning about food?
Respect for the craft. Because of the Food Network, a lot of people think it’s such a glamorous profession. We’re lucky that we get to create beauty and share that with people on a daily basis. But we don’t want people to worship food. There’s more than the glitz of celebrity chefs. It’s a craft. It’s that 10,000 hours thing—to be a great chef you have to put in 10,000 hours. You don’t graduate a great chef. You just graduate culinary school with some of the tools that if you really practice will lead you to becoming a great chef. They need to put their heads down and practice, practice, just like I did. It takes dedication. You have to love that part of it as much as anything else.
What do you hope your food legacy will be?
I hope that because of the work I’ve done, that more people will be appreciative of the real food of Mexico.
Story by Ashley Biggers; Portraits by Galdones Photography