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Up Close With Rick Bayless

Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless will be in San Miguel de Allende to participate in Mesa Abierta, a three-day culinary festival to be held here in various restaurants and locations from March 19-21.

Before I permanently moved to SMA, I was living in Chicago and had the dream job of being the Test Kitchen Director with Rick Bayless for 8 years, testing thousands of true Mexican recipes, oh yes, and testing and testing and one more time back to the stove.

I clearly remember the moment when I spotted Rick’s first cookbook “Authentic Mexican” in 1987 at the fabulous Italian “Rizzoli” bookstore in posh South Coast Plaza in California. When I took his cookbook of the shelf and looked through it, I knew I had found a treasure trove of recipes. I immediately started cooking from the book. This chef from Oklahoma City and me, the curious and passionate cook from Germany, I realized have one thing in common: we really love Mexican food. My love for Mexican food had begun many years earlier in Mexico where I literally fell in love at first bite.

Years later as fate sometimes has it, I got to meet Rick Bayless when a mutual friend introduced us on a visit in Oaxaca. We became family friends and a few years later I moved from Los Angeles to Chicago to begin the said dream job as Test Kitchen Director.

As Rick tells it, when he was a teenager his family took a vacation trip to Mexico City where he fell in love with the vibrant culture and cuisine of what was then the largest city in the world. Over the years many more trips on his own followed and his honeymoon was spent crisscrossing Mexico and living in the country for 5 years as well, relentlessly culling recipes from market vendors, home cooks and restaurants for his first cookbook, which was published in 1987, the same year he and his wife Deann opened their restaurant “Frontera Grill” in Chicago.

Since then he has won every possible Culinary Award from the James Beard Foundation, the Oscars of the culinary world; chef of the year, best restaurant in the US, humanitarian of the year, and the list goes on. A TV show “Mexico-One Plate at a Time” on Public Television followed, now in it’s successful fourteen year.

President Barack Obama invited him to cook a Mexican dinner at the White House for visiting president Felipe Calderón. He was awarded the order of the Aztec Eagle (Orden Mexicana del Águila Azteca) in 2012, which the Mexican government bestows on foreigners promoting Mexican culture aboard.

Whenever I mentioned my work with Rick, many times the response to this was: “How lucky that he became so famous."

Let me tell you, and this I can tell from having been up-close, luck had very little to do with this.

In Hollywood they call it the 10-year overnight success when suddenly an actor appears in the limelight after many years of hard work. This truly applies to Rick and his wife Deann.

They started with driving a U-Haul from Oklahoma City loaded with used restaurant equipment, bought from his family, to Chicago. They rented a small storefront in a then-derelict area of Chicago and with Deann’s family helping them, making it as inviting and cheerful as possible. When some of the artwork Rick had collected in Mexico looked too lost and small on the walls, they painted large colorful frames on the wall around them to make them look bigger.

Rick trekked to the produce market early in the morning and then cooked on the line until late at night. It did not take long after the first diners had tasted his food for the word to get out about his delicious food and guests braved the trip into the not so great neighborhood. From the start Rick began to employ and train his staff to make sure they understood they were not serving cheese smothered combination plates but true Mexican cuisine. To deepen his staffs understanding of Mexican culture and cuisine, he began once a year, and still does to this day after 26 years, intensive 4-5 day culinary learning tours to different regions of Mexico.

In-house training sessions with the kitchen staff and front of the house are still ongoing on a weekly base. This has resulted in a highly trained, well-informed and loyal staff at his restaurants. Not only that, but also a highly engaged staff, as cooks are encouraged to contribute suggestions to the monthly changing menus. For research, they have free access to the cookbook library, which houses probably the largest private Spanish language cookbook collection in the US.

Rick also began to encourage local farmers to bring their products to the restaurant. If it was something that did not fit into the Mexican menu, he passed on the foods to his staff all the while urging the growers to try growing vegetables and fruits he could use on his menus. Today he receives an abundance of fresh products at his door, the most amazing ones probably are tomatillos, grown by Amish farmers and the highly prized huitlacoche which one his former executive chefs, with the initial instructions of a mycologist (the corn fungus used to be only occurring randomly), is now able to grow on her farm.

Two years after the opening of “Frontera Grill”, Rick and Deann added the white tablecloth “Topolpbampo”, which took Mexican cuisine to new heights. Twenty-two years later “Xoco” (the little sister) came along, serving tortas, caldos, churros and chocolate, Mexican street food at its best. All three restaurants are in the same building and as long as Rick is in the house, he never stops making sure all is as it should be.

This is the kind of “luck” it takes to become one of the most successful chefs and restaurateurs in the US, to turn a derelict neighborhood into Chicago’s Restaurant Row and to help farmers to provide many restaurants with their products, which mean they can make a living being full-time farmers.

To become successful as a chef or in any profession, it takes hard work and keeping standards high, only this way can the world be spared from mediocrity.

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