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You might think the acclaimed chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author Rick Bayless chose his house for its kitchen, the one TV viewers know so well from his weekly PBS cooking show, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” But Bayless has a passion for gardening, and it was his desire to create an urban farm that led him to the Bucktown abode he has shared with his wife, Deann, and now 17-year-old daughter, Lanie, for the past 13 years.
Owner of the restaurants Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, Bayless comes from three generations of restaurateurs and grocers, but he can’t say precisely how he developed an enthusiasm for growing food. “It’s like saying, ‘Now, why did you fall in love with that person and not that person?’” he explains. “I’ve always loved gardening.”
Even apartment living didn’t deter Bayless. For 20 years, he created container gardens, including one on the 17th floor of a Lake Shore Drive high-rise, where he built troughs on the terrace for vegetables and herbs. “I’ll tell you—that is hard gardening,” he recalls. “It’s constant wind off the lake and 100 percent sun all the time. After a while, nothing really thrives.”
When Bayless was ready to move to ground level, he knew what he was looking for. “I wanted a place I could live in town and feel was beautiful,” he says. “But I also wanted enough space to do a production garden for the restaurant.” After several years of searching, the Baylesses finally found their dream home, a converted brick tavern on a triple lot. A two-story-high vine-smothered concrete wall, the remnant of an abandoned Canadian Pacific rail line, runs along the north side, enabling the Baylesses to create the feeling of a secret sunken garden, one with meandering pathways that lead to an outdoor kitchen, a large grapevine-covered deck for entertaining, and a secluded gazebo with a day bed for lounging.
“It just makes me feel settled when I come here,” Bayless says of his garden. “Anybody that works in the restaurant world, you know it’s a very physically demanding, high-paced profession. When you plant something, it’s weeks, if not months or a full season, to come to full fruition. This offers a lot of balance for me in my life.”
The section of the garden devoted to producing food for the restaurants blankets roughly 1,000 square feet directly behind the home. It’s an urban farmer’s dream, beautifully designed and pristinely maintained by Bill Shores, Bayless’s full-time gardener for the past three years. Bayless credits Shores, a low-key, soft-spoken guy with a graduate degree in plant biology and a background in intensive, small-scale organic food production, with making the garden such an integral part of what his restaurants offer.
“Before Bill, the garden was productive, but there was no vision. No forward motion to think beyond what we were doing,” Bayless says. “Bill brought the garden into the now, really raising the standard of what the garden means to us and to our restaurants.”
One of Shores’s key decisions was to make salad greens the centerpiece. “That’s what I can produce in volume,” he explains. “They’re something [Topo-lobampo] uses at every meal, and they have a long growing season, so I can produce them from late March through early November out of the garden.” Nine beds of greens that, depending on the time of year, might include lettuce, cress, beets, mustards, red choi, or garland chrysanthemum, are laid out in a lovely patchwork of shades ranging from lime to moss. Shores grows some of them as microgreens, tiny leaves that are harvested year-round at just one to three weeks old and used for all the salads at Topolobampo, as well as for things like garnish on fish dishes. “Rick’s brought in a lot of Asian greens,” Shores says. “They have really assertive flavors, which he’s looking for. I go for different colors and textures.”
A well-controlled riot of herbs, edible flowers, chile peppers, and heirloom tomatoes borders the greens beds. Each growing season, Shores meets with Bayless and his managing chef, Brian Enyart, to talk over specific ingredients for new dishes. In all, the garden produces $25,000 worth of food a year, mainly for Topolobampo, but also for Frontera Grill.
Growing vegetables may be an exercise in letting go, but Bayless’s garden has room for attachment. He points out an enormous, 20-year-old sage bush he brought from his condo, a stand of rosemary given to him 15 years ago by one of the first farmers he worked with at the restaurant, and an oxalis he gave to Lanie when she was just two. “I’m very sentimental when it comes to plants,” he admits.
He’s also green, using only organic pest controls and fertilizers, including 700 pounds of worm castings produced in composting bins tucked along the side of the house. “We want to keep this soil very much alive, because it produces really vigorous and healthy plants, and [has done so] over a long period of time,” Bayless explains.
A student of yoga and ballroom dance, Bayless says that gardening has been his most humbling experience, and he advises other chefs to grow their own foods, because it will give them more respect for their ingredients. “Most people don’t realize how hard it is to do anything agricultural,” he points out. “You are pretty much prey to anything that comes by—pests, too much rain, too little rain, too much heat, not enough. It makes you realize that you’re not the director. You’re just a player, and your goal for success is to be a good player.”
Photograph: Andreas Larsson