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Featured Chef: Rick Bayless

Featured Chef: Rick Bayless
When you mention Mexican food, most Americans think of burritos, nachos and taco salads. That's just the kind of thinking Rick Bayless hopes to dispel.

One of America's foremost authorities on authentic Mexican cuisine, Bayless says we're still at the "spaghetti-and-meatballs" stage with Mexican food, which is how he describes our country's knowledge of Italian cuisine just 25 years ago.

He seeks to awaken American palates to true Mexican food, an amazingly diverse cuisine distinguished by bold, vibrant flavors. Complexly spiced moles, shrimp bathed in slow-cooked garlic, and tender pork wrapped in banana leaves are a far cry from the one-dimensional Mexican-American dishes commonly served in the United States.

A man of seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, Bayless has studied, cooked and written about traditional Mexican food for the past 25 years. He and his wife, Deann, own two award-winning restaurants in Chicago, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, that feature classic and contemporary Mexican fare. The author of four cookbooks, Bayless founded Frontera Foods, which produces zesty sauces and salsas inspired by regional recipes. In 1995, he received the James Beard Foundation's National Chef of the Year award, considered the Oscars of the food world.

His latest venture: hosting a PBS cooking show, "Mexico: One Plate at a Time." The series is shot in part on location in Mexico, where Bayless explores bustling markets, tiny bakeries and taco stands. Then, back in his home kitchen in Chicago, the chef prepares classic dishes, such as cheesy enchiladas suizas and vanilla-scented flan.

Why Mexican food? It might seem an unlikely route for Bayless, who was born and raised in Oklahoma City and is the fourth generation of a family of restaurateurs specializing in the local barbecue.

A family trip to Mexico when Bayless was 14 launched his lifelong passion. "I went there at a very formative age and fell in love with the culture, which is full of vitality, color and flavor," he recalled. Mexico is a fiesta culture, and food is integral to every celebration, be it a birthday, wedding or religious holiday, explained Bayless.

The affinity he feels for the culture is no surprise. "In Mexico, everyone is into their local cuisine," said Bayless. Similarly, his family's restaurant showcased the regional barbecue. "We were thought of as the keepers of a great tradition in our area. I have deep respect for people who take pride in preparing food in a way that contributes to the ongoing spirit of the community."

Although Bayless studied anthropological linguistics at the University of Michigan, his early travels in Mexico were never far from his mind. Eventually he abandoned his dissertation in lieu of writing a cookbook. He approached the research with a scholar's zeal. With his wife, he spent six years touring every state in Mexico. They visited the towns and countryside, sampling regional specialties prepared by family-owned restaurants, market vendors and street-stall cooks. This research culminated in the acclaimed Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico, published in 1987.

After studying, cooking and eating Mexican food for a quarter of a century, you'd think Bayless would have learned just about everything there is to know about his adopted cuisine. But he's always discovering something new.

While filming his PBS television series in Mexico, he visited a farm that grows Fuerte avocados. Bayless had shied away from Fuertes in favor of Haas avocados, which have a higher oil content and richer flavor. But after tasting a perfectly ripe Fuerte avocado, picked by the farmer at just the right moment, he was hooked. "I suddenly understood the flavor of the Fuerte," he said. "It has a fruitiness you don't get in a Haas avocado."

Bayless is bringing a broader message to the table than simply an appreciation for authentic Mexican fare. "I want people to enjoy everything good food can add to their lives," he said. "It's about sharing food with people at a table. When you have really good food that vibrates with freshness and a handcrafted quality, it's a catalyst for a wonderful experience with family and friends."

Photograph of Rick Bayless by Douglas Adesko, from Williams-Sonoma TASTE Magazine (Summer 2001).