Chicago-based chef, restaurateur, TV host, and cookbook author Rick Bayless was in San Diego recently to do a cooking demonstration at Macy's Cooking School in Mission Valley. I spoke with him before the sold-out demo about American misconceptions about Mexican food, Diana Kennedy, his new book--Fiesta at Rick's--and how to encourage kids to cook. Later, at the demo, he regaled the audience with stories about his Top Chef Masters experience (he won, of course) and made a couple of delicious dishes: Grilled Skirt Steak Torta and Roasted Tomato Shrimp Cocktail. Bayless is a terrific teacher. Almost every step was accompanied by fascinating and useful explanations of various ingredients and how to buy and use them. He also spent a lot of time answering audience questions before finally signing books. If he comes to your town, be sure to attend one of these demos. You'll get a lot out of it. (And follow him on Twitter: @Rick_Bayless)
Q: What do you think defines Mexican food? Is there a common thread despite the regions?
RB: The whole notion of sauces work. You could probably find a roasted tomato sauce in every region but it would be different chiles, treating the tomatoes a little bit differently. Coarser in one area, smoother in another. Flavored with different kinds of herbs and all that. Could you find tomatillo sauce? No, you wouldn’t find that in every region. Could you find a guajillo chile sauce? No. So while sauces are really defining to Mexican cooking there’s not one sauce, other than that tomato sauce, that you could find everywhere in Mexico.
Q: Why are the sauces so important in Mexican cooking?
RB: They’re actually the names of the dishes. You don’t go home and have pork. You have a tinga poblana, which is a roasted tomato sauce with chorizo in it. Now you could have it with chicken. You could have it with pork. So they wouldn’t even say what they were having it with whereas everything in our cuisine is all based on meat. Theirs is based on the sauces and the vegetables that go with them.
Q: How did that develop?
RB: It developed out of the fact that it was basically an all vegetarian cuisine before the Spaniards arrived.
Q: So that leads to the question, what is the biggest misconception Americans have about Mexican food?
RB: That it’s real simple and based on tacos, enchiladas, burritos, and nachos. First of all, nachos and burritos aren’t even known in Mexico. Things that everyone thinks of as Mexican in the United States, certainly U-shaped tacos, crispy tacos, things like that, were all developed here on American soil.
The biggest misconception is that tacos, enchiladas, and food in that category is the thrust of Mexican food. I have to say that even in a place as sophisticated as San Francisco, only recently have people dared to make a real restaurant with real Mexican food as you’d find it in Mexico because everyone says, "I love Mexican food. Those taquerias in the Mission District are just the best." That would be like someone saying, "I love American food. We eat hot dogs at every meal." Taco trucks are like hamburger joints. They’re fun. I love eating hamburgers but I don’t eat them very often. For me, it’s simple brash food and seasoned in a way completely different than what you would eat sitting at a table.
Q: What is the difference between what you and Diana Kennedy do? How are your approaches different?
RB: It’s very clear to me. She’s looking for person who makes the best recipe. I’m trying to distill the cuisine of the culture. She’ll go hunting down so and so who’s reported to make the best thing and then she’ll give you the recipe, telling you that you have to do it this way, you have to choose these ingredients, you have to cook it for this amount of time. To me there’s a way of looking at food that’s quite different than that. And that’s saying that this is a regional dish in this area so I’m going to eat it from a bunch of different people and I’m going to distill the commonalities there. And I’m going to give you what I consider to be an archetypal recipe. If you make this, everyone in the community is going to say you’ve done a really credible job with that. It’s not usually as distinctive.
And sometimes you can get into some of the Diana Kennedy recipes and they’re impossible to make unless you’re in the community where that woman is buying her stuff because if you try to vary any of the ingredients at all you’re going to have loads of trouble and things aren’t going to come out very good. I’m looking at recipes that people can easily reproduce in the United States and when you finish it you’ll have something that anyone in Mexico would recognize as a really good version of that dish.
The other thing is that I’m not interested home specialties—someone who developed some kind of recipe two generations back. I’m interested in food that people make to sell. That’s what I grew up in. I grew up in the restaurant business. I love the restaurant business and no matter where you go in the world people are making food to sell. And when you’re making it not just for your own family but for a wide audience you tend to think about things differently. I’m always really interested in that. If you make a recipe from me you know that I’ve tasted it from lots of different people, I’ve read recipes in books. I’ve distilled what I think is the best of everyone and packed it into one thing. I do all my testing in the United States because I want the people who read my books to have great success.
Q: How many times are your recipes tested?
RB: Many of them are based off what we’ve done a thousand times in our restaurants so that gives us another basis of understanding. But then we break it down into small quantities for home use. And then everything gets tested at least three times. There was one we tested for our new book that’s coming out in July over 30 times before we got it right. It’s a wacky recipe with a cake component we were trying to scale up. I was bound and determined to get it right.
Q: So, tell me about the book.
RB: It’s called Fiesta at Rick’s and it’s something we’ve been working on for years now. It was a topic for a series of TV shows from last season. I know that when people these days are cooking a lot of the time they’re cooking for friends coming over. Food seems to be the major catalyst that creates the spark that creates the good time. Putting good food in front of people changes their perspective on everything, changes the way they think about life and friends. Almost always when you’ve had a great time with people there’s been food involved and I wanted to give people a lot of great recipes that are great for sharing with people.
The chapters are divided up more like the way you’d think of putting a menu together for a party, so there’s a whole section on drinks and guacamoles and ceviches. A whole chapter on small dishes to put out for people that can be scooped onto chips, onto soft tortillas. You could pile them on bread like bruschettas. There’s another chapter for grilling. There’s five really big parties, including one in which I teach you how to dig a pit to roast a whole animal. It’s one of the most common things that guys come up to me and tell me they’ve done. Since time in memorial, roasting an animal has been a major fiesta kind of thing. It’s what commemorated something.
Q: Do you have a go-to ingredient you absolutely love?
RB: Well, dried chiles are the hallmark of real Mexican food and the one thing most Americans don’t get at all. I think if there’s one thing we do exceptionally well at our restaurants it’s dried chile sauces. You have to know how to balance their flavors. Each one has their own very distinctive flavors.
Q: Your daughter Lanie is on the show. What would you suggest to parents who want to teach their kids to cook and be competent in the kitchen? What did you do?
RB: First, never tell them that they should. It’s the wrong way to approach it. We cook all the time and have people over all the time. When she was little, she got real used to being part of that whole “we’re cooking, we’re doing this stuff together.” So the first thing I had her do was make an appetizer plate. She could cut up cheese, arrange it on a plate with crackers, decorate the plate with flowers from the garden. Whatever she could do. But I let her create her own dish. To this very day, I ask what dish she wants to make when we have people over. It’s really important to me not to have kids “help you out” because they get bored with that really fast but to have responsibility for something themselves. It becomes Lanie’s dish.