El Restaurante Mexicano Winter 2012 : Page 4

The bar at Frontera Grill Topolobampo’s elegant dining room UP CLOSE WITH... Chef Rick Bayless Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO and Tortas Frontera T wenty-fi ve years ago, at a time when Mexi-can food was not high on Americans’ lists of favorite fare, a relatively unknown chef named Rick Bayless introduced Chicagoans to contemporary, regional Mexican cooking with the debut of Frontera Grill. In an even more daring move, he opened the high-end Topolob-ampo, adjacent to Frontera Grill, in 1989. But as they say, “That was then, this is now.” Today, almost anyone who follows Mexican cuisine knows about the award-winning chef-restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality who now counts XOCO quick-service café next to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, Tortas Frontera at O’Hare Airport, and the Frontera Foods line of salsas, chips, and other specialty food products among his ac-complishments. In honor of Frontera Grill’s 25th birthday, editor Kathleen Furore asked Bayless to share his memories of those early restaurant days, his take on today’s Mexican food scene, and his plans for the next year and beyond. ERM: When you debuted Topolobampo, Americans’ idea of Mexican food was still pretty much limited to chips and ground beef tacos. How big a challenge was that to overcome in the fi rst year or two, especially since you were introducing diners to a high-end Mexican dining experience? BAYLESS: Frontera had been open for a few years, so I had that fan base to hopefully rely on. High-end 4-star Mexican cuisine was not happening in the states, but I was learning from what was going on in places like Mexico City— a very cosmopolitan city where fi ne dining Mexican is what it’s all about. I knew I wanted to push what we were doing in Chicago by offering a fi ne dining experience—wine pairings with Mexican food, educating our staff so that the guest was not intimidated or confused by the idea. We are constantly evolving at Topolo. We offer three tasting menus, an a la carte menu, and wine pairings with all of the tastings. ERM: What was the fi rst sign that your concept was going to succeed? Do you remember a moment when you realized, “Ah, this is starting to catch on?” BAYLESS: I noticed how hot Mexico was becoming in the states—from high-profi le actresses to the music scene—and I could tell that Mexico and its culture was taking a front row seat in a lot of venues. Frontera still has a line when we open, and Topolo is booked for reservations. I am grateful. ERM: What made you decide to add Topolo-bampo and then XOCO to your restaurant portfolio–was it always your goal to expand? BAYLESS: Frontera Grill was fi rst--loud, fun, family-style food that represents all regions of Mexico. Topolo came second—white tablecloths, food that represents Mexico City. XOCO—street food fl avors all the way. Quick-serve...fun. We now can offer our fl avors at 4 el restaurante mexicano

Interview

Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO and Tortas Frontera<br /> <br /> Twenty-five years ago, at a time when Mexican food was not high on Americans’ lists of favorite fare, a relatively unknown chef named Rick Bayless introduced Chicagoans to contemporary, regional Mexican cooking with the debut of Frontera Grill. In an even more daring move, he opened the high-end Topolobampo, adjacent to Frontera Grill, in 1989.<br /> <br /> But as they say, “That was then, this is now.” Today, almost anyone who follows Mexican cuisine knows about the award-winning chefrestaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality who now counts XOCO quickservice café next to Topolobampo and Frontera Grill, Tortas Frontera at O’Hare Airport, and the Frontera Foods line of salsas, chips, and other specialty food products among his accomplishments.<br /> <br /> In honor of Frontera Grill’s 25th birthday, editor Kathleen Furore asked Bayless to share his memories of those early restaurant days, his take on today’s Mexican food scene, and his plans for the next year and beyond.<br /> <br /> ERM: When you debuted Topolobampo, Americans’ idea of Mexican food was still pretty much limited to chips and ground beef tacos. How big a challenge was that to overcome in the first year or two, especially since you were introducing diners to a high-end Mexican dining experience?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: Frontera had been open for a few years, so I had that fan base to hopefully rely on. High-end 4-star Mexican cuisine was not happening in the states, but I was learning from what was going on in places like Mexico City— a very cosmopolitan city where fine dining Mexican is what it’s all about. I knew I wanted to push what we were doing in Chicago by offering a fine dining experience—wine pairings with Mexican food, educating our staff so that the guest was not intimidated or confused by the idea. We are constantly evolving at Topolo.We offer three tasting menus, an a la carte menu, and wine pairings with all of the tastings.<br /> <br /> ERM: What was the first sign that your concept was going to succeed? Do you remember a moment when you realized, “Ah, this is starting to catch on?” <br /> <br /> BAYLESS: I noticed how hot Mexico was becoming in the states—from high-profile actresses to the music scene—and I could tell that Mexico and its culture was taking a front row seat in a lot of venues. Frontera still has a line when we open, and Topolo is booked for reservations. I am grateful.<br /> <br /> ERM: What made you decide to add Topolobampo and then XOCO to your restaurant portfolio–was it always your goal to expand?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: Frontera Grill was first--loud, fun, family-style food that represents all regions of Mexico. Topolo came second—white tablecloths, food that represents Mexico City.XOCO—street food flavors all the way. Quickserve... fun. We now can offer our flavors at different price points and atmospheres.<br /> <br /> ERM: How did you make the decision to go into retail? And do you have any advice for restaurateurs/chefs who have a recipe they think is good enough to market?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: It’s tough. I have a great partner, Manny Valdes, who is an expert in the field. He really leads the way. I don’t think I could have done it without him and he is the one who really brought the idea to me. We work in our test kitchen outside my office and I love what we have done.<br /> <br /> ERM: Someone told me several years ago that Mexican food was going to be the next Italian—that it would ultimately be one of the most popular cuisines for American diners. That certainly appears to have happened. When do you think the tide started turning?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: I love that finally Mexican is being considered an A-list cuisine right alongside of Italian and French. One of the most gratifying moments was winning [Bravo TV’s] “Top Chef Masters” [in 2009] and beating out those two cuisines!<br /> <br /> ERM: What are some of today’s hottest Mexican food trends that you think other restaurateurs should be paying most attention to?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: Customers like to share, they like to try lots of different tastes on the menu. That’s why I love our tasting menus at Topolo.<br /> <br /> ERM: Finally, you’ve won “Top Chef Masters” and cooked for a White House state dinner for Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón. Those are pretty hard things to top, but I suspect you have several projects cooking. What can we expect from you in 2012?<br /> <br /> BAYLESS: We are constantly growing and expanding. We are branching out with our Tortas Frontera places and continue to write books and do television. Currently I am in rehearsal for a theatre production at the fabulous Lookingglass Theatre. It is called Cascabel. I will be on stage as an actor and also doing the food. Food will be considered one of the main characters.<br /> And we have a small book of guacamoles and margaritas coming out in the fall, and will begin shooting Season 9 of [the PBS show] “Mexico One Plate at a Time” in Oaxaca.

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