By now, this chef’s biography is the stuff of legend: A Los Angeleno moves to Chicago in 1987, produces a best-selling cookbook and a prizewinning regional Mexican restaurant that same year, and puts his adopted city on the international food map. But few people know that before Frontera Grill, Rick Bayless nearly gave up entirely on Chicago because of the scarcity of locally sourced organic fruits and vegetables—an issue he has spent two decades working to remedy. “Every part of Mexico that is well known for agriculture is also well known for cuisine,” he says. “Wherever there’s good agriculture, there’s also really good food.”
It’s not that there wasn’t really good produce near Chicago in the 1980s; there was plenty. But no consistent pipeline existed between area farms and city chefs. Bayless began driving twice weekly to St. Joseph, Michigan, to buy strawberries from a grower, and over time he cultivated relationships with other regional farmers. In 1998, he helped launch Green City Market (held on the southern tip of Lincoln Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays much of the year), which is now the city’s preeminent event of its kind; he has served on its board from the start.
Then, in 2002, he lent $7,000 to the Wisconsin farm Snug Haven to finance a new hoop house that doubled spinach production. So began his nonprofit, the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which by 2013 had granted more than $1.3 million to 100 organic operations. By facilitating equipment purchases for area farmers, Bayless explains, “we’re jump-starting them five years.” (Says Dave Cleverdon, who owns Kinnikinnick Farm near Rockford: “A lot of people in Chicago worry about food security. Rick worries about the farmers.”)
Despite such efforts, the chef conveys a low-key approach to sustainability at his trio of River North hot spots (Frontera, Topolobampo, and Xoco) and plans to do so at his forthcoming Xoco Dos, opening in Wicker Park this spring. “We’re never preachy,” Bayless says. Diners may not realize that all the food waste—even their leftovers—is composted in gardens, including one above Bayless’s Clark Street office. (He estimates that 96 percent of his restaurants’ waste is diverted from landfills.) And used cooking oil converts to biodiesel fuel that powers farm delivery trucks. Explains the chef: “We can’t talk about [sustainability] unless you’re totally in love with our food. But then, when you say, ‘Whoa, why is this stuff so good?’ all of our servers can tell you which farms everything came from.”