Chef Rick Bayless Talks New Chicago Restaurants and Old Houston Favorites

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Award-winning chef, author and TV show host Rick Bayless was in The Woodlands on Saturday for a cooking demonstration, part of the long-running Macy's Culinary Council series. “I’ve been doing these for a number of years,” said Bayless, “and it’s always fun for me because they invite me to visit places that sometimes I don’t get to go to.”

At Macy’s, he demonstrated recipes from his latest book, More Mexican Everyday. It was published in 2015, a decade after Mexican Everyday, and became both needed and feasible thanks to the fact that so many more ingredients are now available in the United States.

Bayless does think, though, that not everyone knows what to do with those ingredients, especially vegetables. “There’s so much incredible availability of vegetable ingredients these days. I get really tired of going to farmers' markets and hearing people ask, ‘What do you do with this?’ and all you hear is, ‘You can grill it or you can put it in pasta.’ There are so many other things to do, and I’m really trying to promote that as much as possible. Cooking vegetables with the wonderful flavors of Mexico is what this book is about.”

In the early part of his career, from 1980 to 1986, Bayless and his wife, Deann, lived in Mexico. It was there that he wrote his first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.

“We were wondering, ‘What next?’ and I thought, ‘Well, no one is making this regional Mexican food in the United States. We’re talking 30-something years ago now. It was unknown, and I had this book that explored the regions of Mexico. So, I said, ‘Why don’t we open a mid-scale restaurant that does that?’”

They moved to Chicago, where Deann’s family lived, and opened their first restaurant, Frontera Grill. “I knew I wanted to be in a major metropolitan area and I wanted some family support because I didn’t know anyone,” he reflected. “Chicago has been amazing for me. I couldn’t ask for anything better.” 

Frontera Grill was groundbreaking. Later, he opened Topolobampo as well as Xoco, and wrote many more cookbooks. He’s also been the star of Mexico: One Plate At A Time on PBS for years. Filming for season 11 just wrapped.

Soon, he’ll have even more restaurants in Chicago to attend to. His long-awaited brewery, tasting room and taqueria, Cruz Blanca, opens in May. Just announced too, though, is his next-door Baja restaurant, Leña Brava. Bayless said the name means “firewood that is ferocious.” He kept Leña Brava secret until only a few days ago. Unlike his other restaurants, those will be located in the West Loop area rather than downtown Chicago. 

Bayless grew up as part of a barbecue restaurant family in Oklahoma and he's long merged his love for wood-fired food with his passion for authentic Mexican cuisine. “It’s in my veins, I guess. I’ve always cooked with live fire!” he said. 

The food at Leña Brava will reflect that and be entirely wood-fired. “There’s not even a gas hookup,” said Bayless. “No fryer, nothing. Just a huge hearth and a wood-burning oven. There’s no convection oven, so all the pastries have to be cooked in the wood-burning oven.”

Beyond the ubiquitous fish tacos, few in the United States are familiar with all that Baja cuisine encompasses. "I don’t think that there’s been much Baja cuisine,” said Bayless. “It takes generations for a cuisine to develop. There were so many people settling [in northern Baja] over the years — the Russians and Italians about a century ago, the Chinese and Japanese, and of course there was a massive emigration from central Mexico there about 25 years ago. That's when Tijuana went from a sleepy, tiny town to the third-largest city in Mexico. You get all of that mixed together, and a very interesting cuisine develops.”

Bayless also pointed out that there are now more than 100 boutique wineries in the Valle de Guadalupe. Mexico isn't known for its wine, but that is on the way to changing. “The only place in Mexico that has a climate like the Mediterranean is that chunk of Northern Baja. It’s wet in the winter and dry in the summer. That is good for growing grapes, and that is why that region is there. There were many Italians [who settled] there, and they planted olive trees and, of course, the vines for the grapes.”

A new culinary descriptor, "Baja Med," has been going around, but Bayless doesn’t think it tells the whole story. “One of the chefs there coined that phrase,” explained Bayless. “It combines Mexican cuisine — that’s the Baja part — with Mediterranean cuisine, and lots of people have adopted it. I think it’s too limiting because there’s also a huge amount of Asian influence. There were big settlements of Japanese and Chinese there. I like to just call it Baja cuisine.”

Bayless has a great deal of regard for Houston’s culinary scene but hasn’t had time to explore it as much as he’d like. In the past, he’s visited Hugo’s and Underbelly, and said he enjoyed both places very much. On this trip, he was planning to drop by mezcal and tequila bar The Pastry War before having to head back to the airport. Hopefully, he made it there in time.

Curious about the dishes Bayless made at the cooking demonstration? Check out the recipes below from More Mexican Everyday. We can vouch that all are tasty, even the spring green licuado, a type of green juice. 

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