An award-winning chef and restaurateur, Rick Bayless has devoted his career to the cuisine of the country he fell in love with as a boy – Mexico – and has truly earned himself the unofficial title of “King of Mexican cuisine in America.”
On the first season of Top Chef Masters, Bayless dazzled the judges with his culinary prowess and ultimately was the season winner. But even more than his cooking, it was the Top Chef Master‘s warm, easy-going demeanor and obvious love and respect for all things food that won the hearts of viewers everywhere.
Underneath the awards and accolades, Bayless is a loving father who views food as a family affair. I recently sat down with him to get his tips on handling picky eaters, how to throw a rockin’ party, and his two big loves – Mexican food and his daughter, Lanie. – Lauren De Luca
What was it that originally drew you toward Mexican cooking?
I went there when I was 14 and fell in love. I was more comfortable with that cuisine than anything I had ever tasted before. I grew up in the restaurant business in a family that did barbecue, and it’s all about really bold flavors, using of a lot of tangy notes and spicy notes, so I understood what the palette of Mexico was. As I began to explore it even more, I began to discover how much more complex it was than the barbecue stuff, so I just kept going.
What do you think is one of the biggest misconceptions about Mexican food?
Every area of Mexico is so different. That’s what most people in the United States have no idea about. They think, “Oh, Mexico, that’s the stuff they serve at the Mexican fast food kind of places” but they don’t eat any of that kind of food in Mexico. It’s an incredibly varied and complex cuisine that is very little known in the United States. It’s also healthy and beautiful, and once you get into the flow of how to do it, it’s simple enough to put meals on the table and have them made with really fresh ingredients.
But doesn’t Mexican food use a lot of tough-to-find ingredients?
The fabulous thing right now is that they’re all in grocery stores. You can go into small towns in the United States and find fresh tomatillos, chiles and fresh cilantro, and right there, you’ve got the start of a great meal. What do you do with them? Maybe you have to understand a couple of things, but it’s certainly not rocket science, just very basic techniques that you can learn. If you learn how to make a tomatillo salsa, you can do so many different things with it and it makes you look like a hero – and it only takes five minutes.
How do you like to throw a party?
Often, people think about having a party in the United States and they think, “We’re going to get this booze and we’re going to go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of stuff for people to just munch on” and oftentimes, the party just kind of falls flat. I say, just concentrate on making one great thing and tell everybody, “I’m going to make x,” and that creates the real party. People come over and then it’s the food that ignites the party and the party just happens. The food gets the party started.
What kind of food makes a great get-together?
When the first tomatoes hit the farmers market, you can have a tomato party – literally, a tomato party – because they’re so delicious. You can make gazpacho and invite everybody over. You can make a huge tomato salad with a simple vinaigrette and some fresh herbs and people will just go crazy. Then, maybe just grill some fish or some chicken and you’ve got the most amazing party. And was it even hard? Not at all. It’s just being in tune with what’s going to spark the party.
A lot of kids have sensitive palettes, and Mexican food has a reputation for being spicy. What do you think is the best way to introduce kids to spicy food?
Offer them options. I think a lot of people say, “Oh, they’re kids, they’re not going to like spicy.” Well, you’ve already made the decision for them, and it’s not necessarily true. As my daughter was growing up, I always would make dishes that I could add more spices to and I would get her involved. Parents often think, “The kitchen’s a dangerous place, so I’m going to have to watch my kid and they can only do this and they can’t do that.”I’m not sure that’s really the right message. I grew up in a professional kitchen from the time I could walk, and there were knives every place and stoves and everything, but I was taught to have great respect for it.
Did you let your own daughter in the kitchen when she was young?
I was also taught a love for being part of the creation of the food, and so when my daughter was really little, I would choose something that she could do, more or less start to finish, and that would be her dish for the dinner (when she was really little it amounted to cheese and crackers). Then when we sat down at the dinner table, she presented her dish.
What’s the secret to cooking for children?
When I cook for kids, I always think, “What’s going to be the most dramatic dish?” That is the thing that is going to just draw their attention right in.
On Top Chef Masters you had to convince people at Universal Studios to eat tongue tacos. How did you manage to convince them to do that?
I actually felt like I got the easiest challenge of all. It was way easier than pigs’ ears, heart or tripe, which were the other three choices. Often times people think, “This particular ingredient – I don’t like it, it’s too strong,” but that just gives you the opportunity then to add a counter-balancing flavor to make it taste delicious. Radicchio is so bitter that it’s almost unpleasant to eat, but if you put balsamic vinegar on it, or if you grill it, then you [balance the flavor].
Any tips for handling picky eaters?
I don’t ever try to push anything on anyone. I think that usually backfires. But I don’t kowtow to it. If I want to make a certain dish for my wife and me, I’ll prepare it. If my daughter chooses not to eat it, then that’s her own choice. I never box her in. I think that’s a mistake a lot of parents make: “Oh, my child doesn’t like so-and-so.” Well, are you sure today they don’t?
Hungry yet? Get three recipes from Rick’s new book here.
You’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico, and traveled to other places. Have you come across any interesting family food traditions?
[America] is pretty much the only culture I’ve seen that has separate foods for kids and adults, and I think that’s a real disservice to kids. I think we need to understand that we can make one meal for everybody, and that kids’ tastes are not that different. If we have it firmly in our minds that kids won’t eat something, then it’ll happen. In other cultures, eating real spicy dishes is a right of passage, and boys have a tendency to love showing that they’re becoming men by eating spicy dishes.
Your daughter was gluten-free at a young age. Do you have any tips for parents on going gluten-free?
You find out what cuisine embraces that. Asian cooking uses no dairy or wheat. The human being can survive on many different diets.
Were there any lessons learned in the kitchen that helped you when you became a parent?
In a commercial kitchen, “the show must go on.” No matter what happens in that kitchen, it can’t leak out into the dining room. Things are constantly having to be readdressed. It teaches you to be calm and how to get through things, and I think that’s a really important lesson for parenting.
What was the biggest challenge when you became a parent?
A restaurant takes a lot of time, and for us, it was like, how do we manage? We worked nights, and when my daughter was little, she’d work on our schedule. But when she started school, that was a huge challenge. Just finding time to sleep was the biggest challenge.
What was it like cooking for the Obamas?
They were super-nice people, and they really appreciate food. I think [Barack Obama] is the first President to really appreciate food in a long time.
You’re a big advocate of slow food, but what is your go-to quick meal?
If I have very little time, I usually do an Asian stir-fry, because I can put some rice on, and by the time the rice is done in 20 minutes I can have the rest of the food prepped. If I’m doing Mexican stuff real quick, I’ll make scrambled egg tacos.
What is the one biggest life lesson you hope to pass on to your daughter?
There’s a great lesson you can learn in cooking. If you know how to make a few dishes really well, then you never have to worry about having friends. Everybody wants to go where there’s good food.