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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  Fair
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Chef Rick Bayless: Changing the world, one meal at a time
For the winner of Top Chef Masters, preparing food isn't just a vocation. It's a way of life
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We live in the days of the celebrity chef.

There are so many cooking competitions on television, it's hard to keep them straight. It's possible for an avid television viewer to have a "favorite chef" whose restaurant he's never visited, whose food he's never tasted.

Cooking competitions have become mass entertainment - on a recent airline trip, my in-flight "movie" consisted of episodes of Top Chef Masters, including one in which Wylie Dufresne, chef/owner of WD-50 restaurant in New York, gets super-frazzled trying to make an amuse bouche from ingredients found in a vending machine.

That's not the sort of kitchen debacle you would expect to see coming from Rick Bayless. As the winner of the first season of Top Chef Masters, he showed himself to be affable and unflappable, more concerned about the food than the fray. No surprise, then, that no-drama Bayless is often mentioned as the favorite chef of the no-drama Obamas.

Bayless is coming to Madison this month, as the featured speaker at Isthmus' third annual Green Day event on Saturday, April 17, at the Monona Terrace convention center. (He will be speaking, with a food demo, Q & A and book signing, at 2 p.m.)

As chef and owner of Chicago's Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco restaurants, Bayless is credited with advancing the cause of Mexican food in the United States far beyond the taco, proving it a complex and subtle cuisine. He is the master of mole.

Bayless comes off as human and approachable, more like somebody's dad than the stereotype of the aloof, temperamental chef. In fact, he's co-written a cookbook with his daughter (Rick and Lanie's Excellent Kitchen Adventures: Recipes and Stories).

Now in its seventh season, Bayless' television series on PBS, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, has introduced many viewers to the country beyond the beachfront hotels and enforced mediocrity of the buffet line at all-inclusive resorts.

But Bayless is also known as a pioneer in the restaurant business through environmental initiatives ranging from biodegradable to-go packaging to recycling food waste to buying locally produced foods from Midwestern farmers. He has a large backyard garden at his Chicago home that provides some of the produce served at his restaurants.

And since local agriculture fuels Bayless' cooking, helping family farms stay afloat is his cause. He started the Frontera Farmer Foundation to protect Midwestern farmland from development and keep small farmers in business in the face of competition from factory farms. His $100,000 prize for winning Top Chef Masters went to the foundation.

Each element of Bayless' career seems to have grown naturally from the last. He comes from a family that owned a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City. He studied Spanish in college, and on the way to a doctorate in anthropological linguistics fell in love with the food and the culture of Mexico. He observed traditional Mexican cooks at work with the thoroughness of an anthropologist. Then came his first cookbook, then his first restaurant.

Cooking, television, philanthropy, public appearances - Rick Bayless is a busy guy, but he still finds time to produce a healthy Twitter feed about cooking and his travels, and yes, it's really Bayless doing the tweeting.

Why bother? To him it is another avenue to reach people about food, something like a family dinner, something like a farmers' market. They are all communities.

Isthmus: How do the grants to the Frontera Farmer Foundation from the $100,000 you won on Top Chef Masters help specific farmers?

Bayless: We give capital improvement grants only. We're looking for people who need a certain kind of equipment or infrastructure to become more profitable. Most of our grants are in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $12,000. Most of the farmers say that saving that amount of money would take about five years. So if they know that they could become more profitable just by having a hoop house, or a certain kind of watering system, or they need to heat a greenhouse by some sort of sustainable means, we can jump them ahead five years.

Over the last six years, we've given away about $650,000 of these small grants to Midwestern family farms. We put a high priority on sustainability in those farms. They don't have to be certified organic, but they do have to show either how they are working toward organic farming certification or they are working with sustainable means.

So the non-profit foundation gives money to for-profit enterprises to make them more profitable?

It's a funny thing. We are one of the very few not-for-profits in the country that can give money to for-profit enterprises. At first the IRS didn't even want to talk to us because that's not what not-for-profits do.

But we argued that farms create community, and that they create that community in two different places, both in the place where the farm is, and in the places where they sell: in farmers' markets, in cities, and within the restaurant community. We stressed how important family farms are to the maintenance of strong communities.

They finally gave us the 501(c)3 status because they understood that we were telling the truth.

Why is community that important?

So much farmland in the U.S. has been taken over by large agribusiness, meaning that the guts of the community have been taken out. If these small family farms stay in their communities, and don't get gobbled up by bigger concerns, they continue to create community there.

The farmers' market has become the place where people rub shoulders with folks, where they can have conversations. You actually get to look in the eyes of the person who's raised the food that nourishes your body. That connection is one that some people would just pooh-pooh, and say, 'Oh, we don't need to do that.' But I would argue that, in the same way that your body needs exercise, it needs to be in contact with the source of its nourishment.

With the advent of "Eat Local" challenges, some people are trying to restrict their diets to food grown about 100 miles from their homes. Since avocados don't grow in the Midwest, should people here be avoiding guacamole if they're concerned about reducing their carbon footprint?

I think that everybody has to make that decision for themselves. Most of the ingredients we use in our restaurants are local; in fact, in the summer, we're at 90% local ingredients.

I think we have to take a broader look. Is the base of your cuisine locally produced? I'm not going to give up using limes and avocados just because we can't grow them around here. Then we'd have to give up lots of things - chocolate, coffee, sugar. You can't have any salt.

We don't have any locally produced salt that I know of, although somebody could probably figure out a way to do it. We would have no spices at all. Herbs we could grow, but the spices we would have to give up. I guess we have to ask ourselves, is that worth it?

In the introduction to Mexico: One Plate at a Time, you encourage people to grow something edible. Do you have any tips for plants you consider real gems, something to start with?

You can go buy a bunch of basil or mint at the grocery store and stick it in a jar of water and it will sprout. That's all you have to do and you are far down the path. Once you get nice roots on it, then you put it in some potting soil and you'll have a plant that will either flourish or flourish for a while.

Certainly it will flourish for long enough to pick leaves off it and enjoy them, knowing that you have nurtured it along. I recommend to people that they do that every once in a while just for fun, to show themselves that they can do it.

What are some of your favorite Midwestern garden ingredients?

As far as greens in the garden, I always recommend rainbow chard. It's beautiful; you enjoy looking at it. You pull the leaves off the outside of it and use those as they get large, and new ones will sprout up from the middle. You can put it out early and it will go all the way until late [in the fall], and it doesn't mind the heat of the summer. So it's a great plant to start with.

I think tomatoes are really hard. A lot of times, people want them desperately because they think that they're the epitome of growing stuff in your backyard. But they are hard to grow; they need lots of sun and they need to be taken care of....

A Sweet 100, one of the small sweet cherry tomatoes, is very prolific, and it is a little hardier than some tomatoes. You can eat them like candy; you don't have to wait until you create a dish around them.

I've read that you grow microgreens in your basement at home. Is that hard?

No. It's not hard at all. It's like growing sprouts, except you grow them in dirt. After they come up, they have the seed leaf, and when the first true leaf appears, usually at about two weeks, then you can clip them.

We grow microgreens of different kinds of herbs, red mustard, and bull's-blood beet, because they have beautiful flavor and color. We do them under fluorescent lights in the winter, indoors. We're getting ready to move them outside pretty soon. They're outdoors for six months, indoors for six months. And with that, we supply all the microgreens that we use in the restaurant.

Those are really lovely for making little salads; I love doing that during the middle of the winter. On Monday nights, when the restaurant is closed and I'm cooking at home, I'll go down and snip off a few of the microgreens and use them as a fresh garnish on a plate.

What are some of the hopeful developments you see in terms of our food consciousness in the United States?

There is no good food, there is no bad food; there is a balance of things that we can eat and should eat - and it's all the stuff that is delicious, fresh, local and seasonal. To me, it's very important that food be incredibly pleasurable. I think we are learning that no processed food is satisfying. Whole foods are healthy foods. People are waking up to the fact that they are just not satisfied with all that crap they're getting from the grocery store. Where they are feeling drawn is to the farmers' markets.

If we can have a winter market, the Green City Market in Chicago, on a Saturday, and get 5,000 to 6,000 people to come through this tiny little space, that shows people are hungry for something. And I would contend that what they are hungry for is real food. And rubbing shoulders with other people who are excited about food.

There's intense interest in food, and a lot of energy about food, on the Internet. How can it be harnessed to be about something more than just searching for novelty?

Get people excited about food and they will make the right choices. Once it becomes a cause, you've lost most of the people. You have to seduce them with great food that's made from natural ingredients.

That's what I put out [on Twitter] all the time. I'll walk into our kitchen and there's this gorgeous stuff from a local farm and I'll just take a picture of it.

Hopefully that makes people think about that food, think 'I can go to the farmers' market and have that same food,' and feel the same enthusiasm that I feel about this really cool stuff.

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