Some people know Rick Bayless from winning Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, beating out French and Italian dishes with his authentic Mexican cuisine. Others have watched his highly rated public TV series, Mexico – One Plate at a Time, now in its ninth season. The luckiest among us have visited his award-winning restaurants in Chicago: The casual Frontera Grill received the James Beard Foundation’s highest award in 2007, the 4-star Toplobampo served its first meals in 1991, and the wildly popular fast-casual Xoco has been around since 2009. The Mexican government bestowed on Rick the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle – the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people. In between it all, Rick has written eight cookbooks, including Mexican Kitchen, which won the Julia Child IACP cookbook of the year award in 1996.
Q&A Rick Bayless
Describe the Midwest: Unexpectedly innovative.
What is your favouriteingredient to cook with? With me, it's less about "what" than it is about "when." My favourite ingredient is the one that is perfectly ripe and in season.
What is your favourite regional dish? Do cider doughnuts from local apple orchards count?
What tasty bite should travellers to the Midwest not miss? I love the goat I get from the young guys at Kilgus Farmstead in Illinois [and serve at my restaurant]. And if you don't do goat, their dairy products are great, too.
What inspires you about your region? All of the small farms. The farmers I know are incredible. They're doing back-breaking work to bring beautiful products, like Michigan figs and heirloom cornmeals, to chefs and foodies like me.
What inspires you about your work? The way a place – be it a state or a tiny plot of farmland – can be expressed by a plate of food.
What’s your favourite place to visit in the US? I've always had a soft spot for New York, but now even more so because my daughter moved to Brooklyn.
Where is your favourite city to eat in the US? Honestly, it's Chicago. And because I'm always at my own restaurants, I don't get to eat out here nearly as much as I would like to.
Who/What inspired you to become a chef? I grew up in a restaurant family, so the seed was planted early. But it was really my first trip to Mexico – the ingredients, the meals, the people – that solidified my fate.
How are you inspired by your environment and the seasonal foods in the US? Everything I cook is inspired by the Midwest and the foods that grow here. It's one of the things that distinguishes Frontera's food from the food you find in Mexico – it's Mexican food with Midwestern ingredients. So sometimes you'll find stuff like asparagus. It's a Midwestern ingredient but we treat it with Mexican flavours and techniques.
What international influences have inspired your cooking? I think it's fair to say I've been slightly influenced by Mexico.