The chef Rick Bayless is fulfilling his long-delayed ambition to act onstage by starring in a limited-run production, Rick Bayless in Cascabel, at Lookingglass Theatre from March 21 to April 22. Although Bayless pursued a career in theatre through his early college years, his decision to return to the stage may surprise some of his fans. (You can read more about the play and the road to its production here.) Others, though, simply roll with the news. “What’s normal for a chef these days?” asks Ryan Poli, top toque at Tavernita. “Do people just want Rick Bayless to be at his restaurant all the time and do nothing else?”
Still, it raises the question: What else don’t we know about the founder of Chicago’s acclaimed Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco; the host of the 11-year-old PBS TV show Mexico: One Plate at a Time; the winner of Bravo’s first Top Chef Masters; and the nationwide seller of Frontera-branded salsa, chips, and rubs? Here, 12 things we learned about Bayless:
1. He grew up in a food-oriented family in Oklahoma City. His parents, John and Levita, owned Hickory House, a barbecue restaurant, for 36 years, and his great uncles owned the popular Jones Brothers grocery stores. His grandfather also owned a burger and milkshake drive-in.
2. After church on Sundays, Bayless’s grandmother, Gladys Jones Potter, always insisted on big dinners for the extended family: fried chicken or chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes, and peach cobbler. Bayless says he learned then that “good food, served well, is an emotional experience.”
3. As a kid, he saved up his money and took a bus across town by himself to experience a “fine dining” French-style restaurant. “It was a fancy place where the waiter opened your napkin for you and put it on your lap,” says Bayless.
4. When Bayless stopped his Ph.D. work on anthropological linguistics, his first chef job was as executive chef at Lopez, a premier Southwestern/Mexican restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio.
5. In 2003, he appeared in a TV commercial for Burger King’s new chicken sandwich. There was backlash against Bayless in the gourmet world, but the chef says he believed Burger King’s move towards “honest, seasonal, natural flavors” was a step in the right direction and deserved some recognition. The commercials ran for one month, and Bayless donated his $300,000 fee to charity.
6. Bayless would never take a beach or island vacation, the kind where you just sit on the sand and bask in the sun: “That idea is like nails on a blackboard,” he says. “I’d last maybe ten minutes and then I’d be on the first plane out of there.”
7. He reads only nonfiction, while his wife, Deann, is a fan of British mysteries.
8. He has taken classical piano lessons for 15 years.
9. In 2010, when Bayless was asked to oversee the White House State Dinner honoring the president of Mexico, he learned there was a strict timetable for serving. “You have four minutes to serve all 200 guests. The president and his table is served first, then everyone else,” he says. “But once the president puts his fork down, all plates are picked up, whether the guests have eaten or not. I was told that President Bush ate very fast and put his fork down, so they would have to pick up all the plates even if guests hadn’t touched their dinner. President Obama likes to eat very slowly, so that gave everyone a few extra minutes to eat.”
10. Because no one is allowed to send any food to the White House for consumption, in planning the state dinner, Bayless worked with a staff purchaser who had been there for 53 years. Many of Bayless’s Mexican-inspired ingredients were new to the purchaser, so Bayless ended up overnighting samples of the food he needed to the purchaser’s house. Check out the chef’s White House menu here.
11. Both at the White House dinner and when the Obamas visited Topolobampo in November 2010, Bayless and other chefs were told to “stand back” and let the U.S. Navy chefs plate the president’s food.
12. In an era when the prototype for chefs leans toward oversize personalities and big voices, Bayless runs against it. “Well, yes, I’m not Gordon Ramsey,” he says. “To me, the whole celebrity thing is the hardest part of what I do. I know it’s essential; I know that is what moves every other part of the business along. But it can actually interfere with the time I have to do the work. And it all comes down to doing good work for me.”
Photograph: Esther Kang