Every year, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center brings in a nationally known culinary heavy hitter to speak at its mega fundraiser Premier Chefs Dinner. Which is how Chicago chef Rick Bayless ended up spending a jam-packed 24 hours in Seattle this weekend.
Bayless was one of the early evangelists of regional Mexican food at a time when plenty of Americans equated it with refried beans and white-flour tortillas. He’s a font of cookbooks, a familiar face on PBS thanks to his series Mexico: One Plate at a Time, and a victor on Top Chef Masters. The Obamas are fans of his restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo (and while I haven’t asked them personally, it’s a safe bet they would enjoy Bayless’s newest, Xoco).
At the Fred Hutch dinner-slash-fundraiser last night, Bayless was so enthused and supportive that he practically offered to wash cars and fold laundry if it got diners to pull out their wallets. And no surprise for a man who originally wanted to be a food writer and TV chef—he gives quite an articulate interview.
Welcome to Seattle! Tell me why you’re here.
To help raise money for a pretty amazing cancer research institute. Over the last five years I’ve lost three friends to cancer that came super fast. One of them survived for two years, but the other two survived just months after their diagnosis. Then my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer this last year, and she and I are very close. She’s now stable, nothing’s growing, there’s no sign of it, but it was stage-four cancer. I’ve gone through it so intimately with her, then to come here and see people developing therapies that could actually cure cancer is pretty exciting stuff. It’s going to affect all of our lives in the near future.
Have you spent much time here?
I’ve been to Seattle a few times, but almost always for work, which means a day. It’s kind of sad because Seattle and Portland are iconic in the world of food these days. Now I’m driving by it again because I have to be back in Chicago tomorrow. I literally came in this morning, toured Fred Hutch, and grabbed a bite at one of the Tom Douglas restaurants because it’s close. I keep telling my wife we need to come back.
Can you talk about your work advocating for local farms in the Chicago area? Around here it’s almost assumed that a restaurant of a certain caliber will serve locally grown produce and proteins.
When we opened our restaurant 26 years ago, there was not one farmers market in Chicago. Now we have 48 in the city. We never had anything like Pike Place Market. Everything has changed dramatically, but we have pushed so hard on farm to table. In Mexico the good regional cuisine only comes from the places that have the best agriculture. If you don’t have good agriculture, you can’t have great cuisine. We had great chefs, but great cuisine is deeper than great chefs.
Do you feel like the state of regional Mexican cuisine has made similar advances in the last handful of years?
Huge. And the way I can track it is, what do I write about in my books? My first book came out the day our restaurant opened in ’87; we couldn’t even get fresh tomatillos in the grocery store unless you went to a Mexican market. I had to write the recipes calling for either canned tomatillos or fresh tomatillos—and canned tomatillos are a little bit like calling for canned asparagus. They’re not that great. We called cilantro fresh coriander, and we had a thing in the back of the book saying it’s also known as Chinese parsley. Who calls cilantro Chinese parsley these days? Now dried chiles are in every well-stocked grocery store; when I started, that was stuff you had to mail order unless you lived in a Mexican neighborhood.
How do you balance being the restaurateur—the guy with all the books and the traveling—versus being a chef in the kitchen?
I spent a day with Tom [Douglas] a month ago and he said straight out, ‘what gets me out of bed in the morning is working on a new concept.’ That is the most exciting and satisfying thing that he can do. There are a lot of chefs that aren’t that way, they like to dig deep in one project. We’re all kind of different. What gets me out of bed in the morning is being able to balance a variety of different things. I love writing books. I love doing television, turning that research into something that can reach a bigger group of people. But I’m a restaurateur in my very core. I thought, ‘why don’t I turn this book into a restaurant?’ And that’s what we did with Frontera. If I’m away from the restaurant for very long, I just ache for it.
If someone from Seattle visiting Chicago, where should they eat?
Wow. There’s a lot. I think the Paul Kahan group of restaurants [Avec, Blackbird, Publican, Publican Quality Meats, Big Star] is really rock solid. So are the Sodikoff restaurants [Gilt Bar, Maude’s Liquor Bar, Bavette’s, Au Cheval, Doughnut Vault]. Stephanie Izard opened a place across from Girl and the Goat called Little Goat that’s a little more of an upscale diner kind of a thing that’s super good. There’s a little place called Fat Rice up in Logan Square. It’s Indonesian-inspired and a very casual, neighborhood kind of place. I love eating at Yusho up in that neighborhood. You should to go Yusho.
Then of course the cocktail bars are just amazing. The two biggies are of course Violet Hour and Aviary, but there are just so many great mixologists in town. My wife and I just did a book on margaritas and guacamoles and snacks. We have a great mixologist on our staff and did a whole thing on tequila and mezcal cocktails.
We love mezcal around here.
It’s really amazing how that has just blossomed. We’ve had mezcal on our list since we opened [in 1987], though we couldn’t get very many. Back then, people would go, oh that stuff’s awful. In the last five years it has exploded, so much now we have something like 35 mezcales on our list right now.