Rick Bayless Mexican Food

Rick Bayless’ ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time’ serves up 10th season on PBS

By Judy Hevrdejs
Chicago Tribune
Chef Rick Bayless serves up 10th season of ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time’

Can chef Rick Bayless learn anything new from Mexico City’s young chefs? You bet
He has three renowned Mexican restaurants in Chicago, five Tortas Frontera outposts (including three at O’Hare International Airport) plus several Frontera Fresco eateries. He’s written eight cookbooks, and his Frontera Foods company makes sauces, marinades and tortilla chips for supermarkets.

And, yes, he also has a television show, “Mexico: One Plate at a Time,” which kicks off its 10th season Friday on PBS.

So you’d think Chef Rick Bayless would know pretty much all there is to know about Mexican food. Think again.

“I always learn something,” Bayless said of his travels throughout Mexico for the show.

Mexico: One Plate at a Time with Rick Bayless, Episode 811
Rick Bayless’ ‘Mexico: One Plate at a Time’ serves up its 10th season on PBS.
This time, though, he won’t be learning from grandmothers in Oaxaca or Veracruz. Instead, his teachers are a dozen-plus young chefs in Mexico City, some just toddlers when Bayless opened Frontera Grill, his first restaurant, 28 years ago this March. Chefs like Gabriela Camara (Contramar), Jorge Vallejo (Quintonil), Edgar Nunez (Sud 777), Paloma Ortiz (Yuban) and Eduardo “Lalo” Garcia (Maximo Bistrot) among them.

“The most interesting part is to see some of these young chefs bring new eyes to old ingredients or old techniques,” Bayless says. “They all have amazing equipment in their kitchens, and some of it is quite high-tech. To see it applied to Mexican ingredients sometimes just blows me away.”

There’s the time he found a comal, a traditional earthenware cooking platter, in an ultramodern restaurant kitchen. Why wasn’t the chef using cast iron, steel or stainless steel? Bayless asked the chef. The answer: “Because the clay absorbs moisture in a different way than those other pieces could do and I can get a certain kind of char. The clay is really gentle even when you’re charring stuff. If you do that on steel, it will just burn it.”

And the time a chef used a programmable blending/grinding/cooking appliance called a Thermomix to make mole. “It took all the pain out of it,” Bayless says, “but it tasted super traditional.”

Not all the learning takes place in restaurant kitchens, of course. Bayless and the chefs head to the streets, neighborhoods, bakeries, cooking schools and markets of Mexico City — as well as a high-rise terrace in Polanco that’s been turned into a vineyard that produces tempranillo, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and albarino.

Bayless asks each chef to take him to a place that inspires them, and not one chooses a fancy restaurant. “One chef took me to his aunt’s house, and she made the dish that inspired a dish on his menu,” Bayless says. And chef Jorge Vallejo — “My favorite chef right now in Mexico” — took him to the famous Taqueria Los Cocuyos.

Inspiration
Chef Jorge Vallejo, center, of Quintonil restaurant in Mexico City, took Rick Bayless, right, to a restaurant that inspires him, Taqueria Los Cocuyos. (Scott Dummler)
“It’s just a little window on a street,” Bayless recalls. “And I said, ‘I love your food. It’s super refined. You make, to me, the most deeply rooted modern food that’s very precise. Why did you take me to this place?’ And he said, ‘Taste it. Taste it.’ And I took a bite of it and it just makes you melt.

“I said, ‘I get it. … You brought me here because it’s all about a flavor that is so commanding that it takes your breath away.'”

“If we don’t have that,” Vallejo told him, “we don’t have anything.”

“Every chef in Mexico City will tell you that in five years there has been an explosion of amazing food in Mexico City,” Bayless says during an interview in his offices above Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and the first Xoco (a second one opened last year in Wicker Park). As a result, this season’s shows don’t bear any resemblance to the previous shows he did in the Mexican capital.

cComments
We visited Chicago last fall and gave info to Rick Bayless’ secretary inviting him to visit Valladolid and possibly doing a show from our Casa de los Venados, the #1 attraction of Mexican folk art and contemporary art, for world-wide visitors and locals according to Trip Advisor.

Several factors are at play. Many of the young chefs have been trained in Europe, often Spain, and they’re inspired by chefs who are reinventing cuisines, Bayless says. They’re boiling and grinding their own corn, sometimes heirloom varieties, to make masa for tortillas. They’re trying to save ancient varieties of cacao and rethinking how their grandmothers prepared huazontles (also spelled huauzontles), a spiky green with clusters on top that look like tiny broccoli florets.

And they’ve headed back to the floating gardens of Xochimilco, where their pre-Columbian ancestors grew vegetables and flowers on rafts woven with reeds and tree branches to form small islands (chinampas) that float among the canals. Today they’re guided by an agricultural expert who helps them grow wild greens (quelites).


Rick Bayless, left, visits with chef Edgar Nunez in the dining room of Nunez’s restaurant Sud 777. Nunez is among the young Mexico City chefs featured in “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” (Scott Dummler)
“Every single one of them says the same thing, ‘When I got away from Mexico, I realized how incredibly rich the ingredients are and the traditions are. I just want to come back and work in that,'” Bayless says. “This is the first generation of chefs that’s ever done that, and I think that is so super.”

You’ll find young talent all over the city, but especially in two colonias — what Mexico City calls its neighborhoods — Polanco and Condesa.

“So there are really two — depending on your budget. The really high-end restaurants that are doing really incredible stuff with great service in very beautiful setting, that’s all in Polanco,” Bayless says, with Condesa “the real hipster neighborhood. All small restaurants. Nothing you would send all the out-of-towners to because it wasn’t that polished. But you see people doing a juice bar, a really cool coffee shop, somebody that just focuses on baked goods. That sort of stuff. And it’s not all collected in one place.”
Because Pujol chef Enrique Olvera (“now Mexico’s most famous contemporary chef,” says Bayless) has been featured twice in past seasons, an interview with him is included in a show with an Olvera protege. “He’s the grandfather of the movement. It’s all these younger chefs who are looking to him for inspiration.”

While each episode ends with Bayless cooking a recipe or two (green adobo grilled fish, homemade chorizo, etc.), this season is slightly different: Instead of Bayless taking the viewer around and teaching, this time he stands in for the audience and the chefs teach him.

Still having a good time? “The truth is, if I stop doing it, it’s going to take a whole lot of what feeds me. A whole lot of the projects that I am involved in is me feeding other people literally and figuratively. And so sometimes I get used up. And I just need to rejuvenate myself, and I rejuvenate myself by doing the shows,” says Bayless, who’s busy prepping another season and a new cookbook. “I really love it because it keeps me very deeply involved in different communities in Mexico that I wouldn’t really know that well in another way.”

jhevrdejs@tribpub.com

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