With six awards from the James Beard Foundation, including National Chef of the Year, Best American Chef: Midwest and Humanitarian of the Year, Rick Bayless – with over 30 years of culinary experience – remains a culinary force to be reckoned with. The Chicago chef has been rightfully celebrated for his innovative, fresh Mexican cuisine with dozens of awards and nominations for his restaurants and cookbooks. Bayless continues to push himself and his kitchens into ground-breaking territory: a culinary commission from the State Department, more-than-regular menu updates inspired by his travels and even an Emmy nomination for his PBS series “Mexico – One Plate at a Time.”
The chef shared a taste of his vast experience and enriching travels with an Andrew Harper staff member at the Austin FOOD & WINE Festival. An enticing, knowledge-hungry point of view informs Bayless’ travel style and will certainly sway the way you look at future meals and cooking classes abroad.
RICK BAYLESS: I went to Mexico when I was 14 and I just fell in love with it and kept going back. I grew up in a restaurant family so I put my love of food together with my love of Mexico. That’s what happened.
AHS: What is the most memorable meal that you’ve ever had in Mexico?
RB: Probably the next one that I have. (Laughs)
AHS: Things keep getting better?
It’s really important to keep in mind that each of those unique meals that you have when you travel needs to be fully appreciated for what it is, where it is.
RB: Yes, well, I’m not a person that likes to rank things. I would never say what my best meal was because there have been too many great ones. How can you say one was better than another? Like super traditional things. On Christmas day, we throw this party in this super-rustic restaurant outside of Oaxaca City. We do a whole roast lamb barbacoa-style and unearth it from the pit – I love that. There’s nothing better than that. Well, except for... (Laughs) And, you know, it just keeps going like that!
I have a lot of those kinds of meals that punctuate my life really regularly, and I just think that is the glory of food. The reason that it is hard to ever say one meal is better than another has to do with how each one is a unique reflection of its place. That’s why we travel. A lot of people will say, “Oh, I want to learn to make that recipe so I can eat it when I get home.” Well, it’s never going to be the same when you get home. The ingredients are going to be different; your mood is going to be different; you’re in a different frame of mind when you’re traveling than when you’re at home making dinner on Wednesday night or something like that. It’s really important to keep in mind that each of those unique meals that you have when you travel needs to be fully appreciated for what it is, where it is.
AHS: And when it is, too, I suppose.
RB: Absolutely. Sometimes the most memorable meal can be one that has the perfect group of people around the table. The food might not have been the most memorable part of that meal; that may have been the people around the table. The service in the restaurant, the decor, all of those things can be really important.
AHS: There’s a word in German, “ Gesamtkunstwerk,” that refers to how every element plays into a piece of art as a whole.
RB: Exactly. It’s exactly that. It’s whole thing, the whole experience.
AHS: Well, outside of Mexico and the United States, are there any cultures and cuisines that have impacted the way that you cook? Or that you have drawn from?
Now, a lot of people think that what you learn when you travel like that is a recipe. No! What you learn is how you handle food.
RB: Every one of them because I love to travel. Wherever I travel, I always cook with somebody and, of course, eat out a lot. I do a lot of culinary travel stuff. Culinary Backstreets – you know that organization? They do walking tours in Istanbul, Shanghai, Mexico City, Paris; they have about eight or ten cities that they do them in. You go on a culinary walking tour with somebody and they’re amazing. That will get you more of an insider’s point of view into the culture and the cuisine in a really distinctive and memorable way. I do those kinds of things wherever I go, wherever I can find somebody. I meet up with chefs. I go to markets with people. I always come back with learning.
Now, a lot of people think that what you learn when you travel like that is a recipe. No! What you learn is how you handle food. You learn a cooking technique. You learn about how somebody put something on a plate that’s unique and fabulous. So those things influence my cooking all the time, but rarely would I bring home a recipe from something like that. But I might bring home an ingredient.
AHS: Are there any places that you travel to with the purpose of bringing home an ingredient?
RB: Not really for the restaurants, but I do for my own personal cooking because I love to cook at home. I was just in Istanbul at the beginning of the year and I brought back an amazing ground chile that they use there. I’ve been playing around with that because it’s a very different flavor than the chile that you use in Mexico. It was a great eye-opening experience. Like the different dairy products that they have there are really remarkable. When we came back, I understood a lot more about how you make strained yogurt, what we call Greek yogurt here. I talked to somebody in Istanbul about the way that they make it there. That kind of influenced my stuff because we make a lot of fresh cheeses in our restaurants. I incorporated a little of that. There are always, always wonderful things that you can learn.
AHS: You seem to travel quite a bit. Is there anything that you would never leave home without?
RB: My coffeemaker.
AHS: What kind of coffeemaker do you have?
RB: It’s just one of those little Krups things. There’s only really one drip coffeemaker on the market. It’s just a hot pot with a cup that fits down inside of it and a drip thing that sits over the cup. I like to get up in the morning. It’s my quiet time. I always vacuum pack – and it’s not the best coffee if you’re traveling for more than a few days – a couple of packages of ground coffee for myself. I get up in the morning and I don’t have to worry about leaving the room, finding a place to get coffee. It’s got to be good coffee – where do you go? That’s my sort of touchstone to keep myself not feeling. . .You know, sometimes when you travel, everything is so foreign and you just want that one thing you want. For me, it’s my cup of coffee. I guess it’s not surprising that it’s kind of a food thing. It’s a beverage thing.
AHS: Outside of your coffeemaker, do you have a favorite travel gadget? Or a favorite travel app?
RB: Electronics are the thing that are super important to me when I’m traveling. I always want to know where my next wi-fi connection is going to be, how my phone is going to interact with stuff. I like to keep in touch, because I am in the restaurant business and you’re just constantly doing stuff. I like to be up on things. I don’t have very many gadgets, but I always think very clearly about all of my cords that are going to recharge everything that I have. I don’t travel with a lot but everything has got to be just right so that I can stay in full contact with people.
AHS: So on the topic of being away from home and traveling, where is the next place you’re looking to go? A dream vacation?
RB: Well, I will tell you where I am going next. Mexico doesn’t ever count – I go back and forth from Mexico all the time. I am part of the Culinary Diplomatic Core for the State Department and I’m going to three places in China to represent the U.S. I’ll be cooking and doing different things. I have only been to Shanghai – well, Hong Kong, but Hong Kong when it was part of the British Empire, not after it was subsumed back into China. Shanghai is a unique place on the planet with all of its buildings and skyscrapers. It feels oddly not-China. So, I am going to go to Chengdu, which is south in Sichuan. I am going to Bejing and it’ll be interesting to see how that goes. Then a small town up in the north – well, they call it a small town. It’s 3 million [people], and in China that’s a small town. It's small town in the north that’s real near the Korean border. That will all be super fascinating. It’s just two days in each place. It’s not going to be enough time, but it’s going to be interesting. I can’t wait.