Perfect weather was just one of the winning ingredients for Rick Bayless' "fiesta." The event, which featured more than 300 guests, was held underneath a large tent at the parking lot of Westfield Old Orchard Mall on Aug. 28 and was just west of his restaurant, Frontera Fresco, inside Macy's.
Bayless, who lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter, was promoting his new book, Fiesta at Rick's, which advises readers how to prepare everything from cocktails such as sizzling mojitos to meals such as brava steak with lazy salsa.
Skokie Patch got a chance to catch up with Bayless and ask him about his new book, his restaurants and the perception of Mexican fine dinning.
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Skokie Patch: Can you tell our readers what brings you to Skokie today?
Rick Bayless: I'm doing a demo here in the parking lot at Old Orchard. I've got a new book out and so I'm sharing some recipes from there.
SP: Can you tell us about your new book, Fiesta at Rick's? How did you come up with that idea?
Bayless: You know the food that I do is totally inspired by the cooking of the regional cooks of Mexico, and I love that — passionately. I love to share it with people, but when I share it with people in my home, it almost takes on a sort of different form. I'm not trying to do a museum quality recreation of somebody's dish from Mexico, but instead I'm trying to create something that I can share with the people that are around my table to sort of spark the whole feeling of a party.
That's something I learned in Mexico -- from the very first time I was there, when I was 14 -- was that this is the most hospitable culture. They love to put food out in front of people and that food then becomes the launching pad for a great time with the people you care about.
[In] this book, Fiesta at Rick's, all the photos are shot at my house, the big parties are at my house; so that you get a real sense of how I put the food out, what kinds of flavors I think really are those springboard flavors to launch a party. It's the kind food that I cook, but it's all got the spirit and soul of Mexico.
SP: What's one of your favorite recipes from the book and why?
Bayless: I'm not a person that likes to pick favorites because I put together a book of my favorite recipes. So to single one thing out would be a disservice to the recipes and the book. But everyone loves to start a party with guacamole. And a lot of people expect it no matter what kind of party it is; that there's going to be some guacamole to munch on while you're getting in the mood for that party.
So, there's a whole section in this book of different guacamole recipes. And I know a lot of people think guacamole is kind of one recipe but actually all avocados love to be paired with different kind of flavors. So I show you how to use everything from sun-dried tomatoes or pumpkin seeds to different kinds of fruit.
SP: I saw that you have a restaurant right here inside Macy's, Frontera Fresco, and that you'll be opening up two more restaurants at O'Hare airport. Why did you choose those locations as oppose to traditional places like a strip mall or even a food court? Those are unique locations that you're opening up at.
Bayless: We paired with Macy's a long time ago to bring some of the simpler flavors that we do to the setting of a department store. Basically, what we wanted to do was to show that even though most people expect [some] kind of fast food in places like that, where everything is processed and preformed and frozen, that we could actually do fresh food, but just do it simply.
So, we started off downtown [in Chicago] at the Macy's store, on the seventh floor where they have sort of a really nice food court there. And you know, it was just an instant success because people responded to the freshness. So, we opened one up here in Old Orchard and one in Union Square in San Francisco, and now we've decided to take that kind of thing into the airports because I think we can all safely say that O'Hare is kind of behind the times in really good food in an airport, and so we're going to try and remedy that problem.
SP: Do you think the perception of Mexican food or cuisine is different in other parts of the country? For example, when most people think of Mexican food, they think of cheap and fast; where as you have three successful fine dinning restaurants. You think the perception here is different as oppose to other parts of the country?
Bayless: Chicago is really unique because if you're thinking about Mexican food in terms of the Southwest, which most Americans do, they think, 'Oh, if you want to get really good Mexican food you have to go to the Southwest.' That is a very specific style of food, it's Mexican-American and, yes, it's cheap – most of it is covered with cheese and it's kind of all-one-color-all-one-flavor, and that's the border cuisine that never really developed much in our country. People love it and it's great stuff and it has its place, but that's not the way people eat in Mexico.
Chicago has the second largest concentration of Mexicans of anywhere in the country. But it's all fairly recent immigration. So, what we had the opportunity to do, when my wife and I opened Frontera Grill 23 years ago, was to launch off the neighborhood places, the ma-and-pa places, the grandma cooking her famous mole from [Mexico] or somebody from Wahaca doing the street food style.
All of that gave Chicago a very different perspective of what Mexican food really is. We had no American-Mexican food to speak of in this town. So, we were able to launch right away into really great regional Mexican food and Chicago said, 'Bring it on.' And then we were able to take it the next level up and do fine-dinning Mexican food and people said, 'That's great. We're ready to go there with you.' Whereas in the Southwest, people kind of think they already know what the gamut of Mexican food is, and it's not fine dinning.