PODCAST: To hear more from Nagrant’s conversation with Rick Bayless click the Podcast above. (01.04:12)
MN: Regional Mexican was unheard of in Chicago when you opened Frontera. Was there pressure?
RB: I had invested my mother-in-law’s and my mother’s retirement fund-so talk about pressure. The first customer that came in looked at the menu, came over to me, and said, “This is not Mexican food. You are going to fail.”
MN: When did things start to turn around?
RB: Within a few days we started getting some positive feedback, and within six weeks we had hit our financial goal. Within a year, we were beyond anything that I had set up in my projections.
MN: Why have you focused on Mexico?
RB: When I took that first trip I was enthralled with the vitality of the culture. There’s this sense of generosity, and it’s not like the uptight northern European cultures. There’s a spontaneity that has always enthralled me.
MN: Do Americans still look at Mexico as one homogenous culture?
RB: More people are wandering off the path from the beach communities and getting to know more of Mexico. Most of the beach communities that Americans go to don’t represent Mexico; in fact, they’re pandering to the American appetite.
MN: What are your thoughts on “Nuevo Latino” cuisine?
RB: The whole idea is a disservice to the cultures. It’s like saying that you can skim the top of all Latino cultures, and then make a mishmash out of it. I don’t think all those diverse cultures can be subsumed under one umbrella.
MN: Do you have an advantage, not being from Mexico?
RB: I don’t have a Mexican grandma, so I don’t have to be given to her way of doing it. Some people complain that I’m doing all this stuff and yet I’m not Mexican-but there’s nobody coming out of Mexico and doing it.
Photograph: Brendan Lekan