The Austin Food & Wine Festival officially kicks off this weekend, and one of the most recognizable faces will be Rick Bayless. In recent years, the Chicago-based "Top Chef: Masters" winner has finished his ninth season of the PBS series "Mexico - One Plate at a Time," expanded his Tortas Frontera and Xoco casual dining chains, started a podcast titled "The Feed" with food jouranist Steve Dolinsky, and even starred in a long-running dinner theater production ("Cascabel") at Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre. He has also developed a new festival for leading chefs of Mexican cuisine called Mod Mex, and is in the process of building a new restaurant and nanobrewery in the Randolph Row.
In the midst of all this, Bayless will escape to Austin this week to cook and teach at the Austin Food and Wine Festival. We called him to discuss Tex-Mex, wine pairing, and why radio might be the best medium for talking about food.
Central Texas is perhaps known more for Tex-Mex than any other type of food. Given your knowledge of Mexican cooking, this style may not be your favorite. Are there Tex-Mex dishes you enjoy without guilt?
Oh, God, yes. I grew up on that food, so it's my soul food. I love it. I always say that when I feel really sad, or slightly sick, all I want are some cheese enchiladas with chili gravy on them, because that was my favorite thing to eat while growing up.
Austin is experiencing a craft beer boom at the moment. You've done a number of beer collaborations, both with Goose Island and now with Crown. What did you learn from those experiences, and how is the Crown project going?
The Crown project really hasn't gotten off the ground yet. We are actually building a small craft brewery here that is going to make beer for our restaurants, and that's where we're going to do the development work. What I learned with Goose Island was that it's really fun to be a chef and play in the beer world, and it's really fun to work with a brewer who is open to food. It's the same thing with winemakers. If you find a winemaker that really loves food, they'll make wine to pair with food. When you work with a brewer that's really into food, and talks about beer in the way that we talk about food, we get into great conversations. I'm really interested in beer as a component of the meal, and so I'm always looking for pairings. You may not make the kind of beer in collaboration that would stand alone. There's some that you just drink just to enjoy. But I'm really interested in beer as part of the eating experience.
In a recent interview with Eater's Paula Forbes, you mentioned that your staff actually teaches in-house classes every day. How does your team find the time to develop that curriculum and to take that education in each day?
What we'll do is very clearly spelled out at the beginning of the year. The people related to those topics usually teach the class themselves, or we'll have someone on the staff that is really passionate on the topic. We have a very clearly defined curriculum – we touch on everything over the course of the year. And the classes are every other week. We have one that goes from 3:30-5:00 on Tuesdays, so that's every other week, and then every other day of the week, there's a fifteen-minute class that goes from 4:30-4:45.
Tuesdays give us the opportunity to do a longer class on something. All service staff have to go to that. The chefs come if they can find the hour and a half. A lot of them plan their day so that they can attend. Most people can figure out fifteen minutes. The service staff have to be there, and lots of the kitchen staff will come as well.
With your more casual Tortas Frontera and Xoco restaurants, how do adapt your ideas to that format? Your cookbook recipes are often complex and aren't quick in nature.
A lot of the meat is cooked or the sauces are made over a long period of time, but the service of them is fast. So we find that it actually fits beautifully into a quick service kind of environment. You just have to figure out how not to wreck [the dish.] We find it a very easy thing to fit classic flavors of Mexico into a quick service environment. It's just the final finishing of it.
You're in town for next weekend's Austin Food And Wine Festival, but you also recently threw the first version of your own Mod Mex festival in Chicago. How did that go, and will you do it again?
We are doing it again. We want to ask the question, and invite a whole bunch of people to answer the question: "Where do you think Mexican food is evolving?" We invited people from Mexico, and we have chefs in from around the US. We want lots of different perspectives. We're going to do a section this year called "Mod Mix" that's all about working with mescal and tequila products. There will be a tastings and cocktail applications. Then we're also asking how mescal and tequila fit in the modern world of mixology. It's going to be bigger and better this year.
While you are in Austin, you're teaching a demo called Classic & Modern Pairings. What should guests expect?
I'm really into pairing wine with Mexican food. A lot of people take the old school approach and say that Mexican foods only work with beer. Then there's a not so old, but still old school approach that you pair off-dry things like sparkling wine with mole because that's the only thing that goes well with spicy food. Or that high-alcohol wines never pair with Mexican food. We don't believe any of that! We believe there are amazing pairings out there, but you have to be open to thinking about it. There are some amazing high-alcohol pairings that work brilliantly. Mexican food is quite varied. There are lots of different flavor possibilities. You just have to understand them.
There's great wine coming from Baja now. Unfortunately, we don't see many of them here yet, but that's changing. But we don't just do Mexican wines with Mexican foods. A lot of people feel the wines of the country are always best for the food. They've been making wine in Baja for a long while, but the amazing explosion of boutique wineries there is a fairly recent thing. Those winemakers are still working and exploring to understand what can come out of that region! I think it will be another generation or two before we really get a sense of that. The cuisine of that region is also really different than that of Mexico City or the Yucatan. If wines were coming from those regions, I'd think they'd be done in a different way. So our goal is just to find the right wine for the right dish. We'll look anywhere in the world. We'll even go to the Middle East to find wines that go well with the Mexican cuisine that we do.
You're not just lecturing next week – you're also doing a dish in the taco competition. Given your huge collection of books and recipes, will you elect to go classic or modern with your dish?
Usually I try to get both elements in. To me, if it is something all new, it is never satisfying. What I usually do is simply a new twist on something classic.
You recently started doing a podcast. It seems tricky to do a food program without the audience's benefit of sight, smell, or taste. What inspired you to do that?
I love cooking on the radio. I think that radio is the most evocative thing in the whole world. You give so much more to yourself to listening to somebody talk about things than to watching them talk about things. There is a certain disconnect sometimes when the visual element comes in. I love to put words to things. I love to describe things. Our podcast has a cooking segment where a guest chef and I both make a dish with one specified ingredient. We have to make a dish in 15 minutes with that ingredient using only five other things. The idea isn't to be a competition as much as to show listeners that you can really cook this stuff. Don't think that cooking has to be hard! And as we're cooking you get all the sounds. You hear us tasting things and talking about the flavors. That is incredibly evocative to me. I really love the medium.
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