Rick Bayless From River North, the 56-year-old Oklahoma native has launched his own regional Mexican revolution, kick-started the careers of countless chefs (including Priscila Satkoff and Paul Kahan), won every award a restaurateur could hope for, become a TV star, and written seven hugely influential cookbooks. Without him, Lord only knows where Mexican cuisine would be in the United States. Probably at the bottom of a plate of nachos.
How does Chicago’s Mexican food landscape today differ from when you opened Frontera in 1987?
One thing that attracted me to Chicago was that instead of chain Mexican restaurants like Chi-Chi’s, it had ma-and-pa places with regional differences and Grandma in the back making what she grew up on. What Chicagoans knew about Mexican food was what they knew from those places. And that was closer to what you got in Mexico. Now there’s a big movement. We’ve got a whole generation of chefs giving those traditional dishes a modern twist with really great ingredients.
Do you feel partially responsible for that movement?
What we have done is give young chefs courage to do the kind of food they know exists in Mexico. Many are Mexican American kids who have grown up in the U.S. and haven’t had the opportunity to travel. I traveled all over Mexico and ate in the homeland. They look to us.
Who from your kitchens is destined for stardom?
Chuy Valencia was the youngest person [age 20] we ever promoted to sous-chef. He kind of crashed and burned here, and then all of a sudden he came up again [Chilam Balam]. He’s now showing what he really has. The food that Brian Enyart is doing at Topolobampo is also off the charts.
What’s the future of Mexican food in Chicago?
We are going to see more young Mexican chefs come up through the ranks. Not necessarily at my restaurants. Go over to Kendall or any cooking school and look at the demographics. Those kids are proud of their heritage, and they will carry that tradition. Chicago expects it. Chicago has developed a tradition for real Mexican food.
Any area of Mexico you’re finding particularly interesting at the moment?
Oaxaca is still a great place, but right now I’m paying a lot of attention to Baja California. So many things going on there in both food and wine.
What’s the most versatile ingredient in Mexican cooking?
That’s like asking an artist what his favorite color is. But there is always one ingredient that I have on my pantry shelf at home: canned chipotles. They can spice things up. Use them in a marinade. A salad dressing.
What’s the biggest misconception about your career?
Probably that I knew what I was doing. I was just fumbling through and trying to make the right decision [about expanding]. I wasn’t constantly meeting with contractors. I was spending most of my time in the kitchen.
Photograph: Anna Knott