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Chicagoist Grills: Rick Bayless on Mastering Twitter

By Chuck Sudo in Food on Sep 8, 2009 3:20PM


Rick Bayless has consistently been in the news in recent weeks. First, there was his winning Top Chef Masters and earning a $100,000 check to his Frontera Farmer Foundation. After two years of planning, today Bayless opens XOCO (449 N. Clark St.). Inspired by the legendary Churreria El Moro in Mexico City, XOCO is Bayless's tribute to Mexican street food: tortas, hearty soups, churros and chocolate. Anticipation among food media and foodies, not to mention the pared down, simple menu, has primed XOCO to be the Publican of 2009.

What we've found most fascinating about Bayless lately has been his mastery of the social media messaging service Twitter. From the premiere of "Top Chef Masters" onward, Bayless's Twitter feed has become indispensable reading. In the maximum 140 characters that Twitter allows users to post updates Bayless has shattered any barriers between himself and fans, posting photos and videos of trips to Mexico; updates on XOCO's opening; goings-on with Frontera Grill and Topobolampo; interacting with other users; answering questions about the Frontera Kitchens empire and family; and re-tweeting posts he finds fascinating. In the past week alone Bayless has used Twitter to offer rousing endorsements of Wicker Park's Taxim, sixteen at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and Terzo Piano in the Art Institute's Modern Wing. Where other chefs have used Twitter — and other forms of social media — to update readers on specific dishes or offer rote updates of their lives outside the kitchen, Bayless has embraced Twitter as a way to get people to know him. We had a chance to speak with Bayless last week and ask him a few questions.

Chicagoist: How did you: A) Come to discover Twitter and B) did you ever expect to become so adept at using it?

Rick Bayless: A friend of mine in California suggested it to me. I was looking at ways to connect with fans of the restaurants and promote Top Chef Masters and I liked the idea of brief updates, having a finite amount of characters to work with. What also appealed to me is that I can so it directly from my phone and it barely takes any time at all to post an update.

C: What do your PR people think of the way you've dived into the world of social media? It seems almost as though you're doing their job for them.

RB: Well, all of our PR is done in-house, so there was really no discussion other than to do it.

C: Did you look at other social media such as Facebook, Posterous or Myspace?

RB: I did look at Facebook; my wife and daughter are on it. It looked like it something that would just consume me if I dove in. I had to convince my assistant that this would work.

C: When did you realize that it was becoming more than just a promotional tool?

RB: I never wanted to use Twitter solely as a marketing tool. 90 percent of my business is behind closed doors and I wanted to use this as a means of making fans of the restaurants vested members of the Frontera family. It's hard to do that within the context of, say, a public appearance or a book signing. I want to hear what people have to say, be able to have a conversation with them, and create a forum for discussion.

C: And you're sharing more than just what's happening behind the scenes with your restaurants. You're forwarding other people's updates via your feed and taking the time to answer questions from seemingly everyone.

RB: It's easy to do within the context of that 140 character limit. I probably spend no more 15 minutes a day on Twitter. Again, it's a great way for fans to get a glimpse into our world and it's a community that's immediate. I can drop off it for a few days and catch right back up in no time.

C: How did the idea for the haiku contest for the Top Chef Masters finale viewing party at Frontera come about (Ed. Note: Benjy was one of the contest winners and attended the viewing party — CS)?

RB: It was something that made total sense to me to do and we got a lot of very creative submissions. It was a lot of fun do do that contest and very fun to read the submissions.

C: You also were working on a blog to promote Top Chef Masters at the same time you started up with Twitter. What's going to happen with the blog?

RB: I intended to use the blog as a means of giving people a look behind the scenes at Top Chef Masters, discussing what you didn't see on the screen.

C: How much time did that take?

RB: During the show's run I probably spent a couple of hours a day updating the blog and reading comments and emails. I was bound and determined to read each one, which is another reason I like Twitter. It's easier to answer (fans') questions.

C: Do you have an internal censor that keeps you from posting too much information?

RB: I like being able to post what's on my mind, like photos from my backyard garden, those impromptu videos of the open-air markets in Mexico, or the irony of finding a Paula Deen cookbook at an airport bookstore in New York filed under "Health and Nutrition." The videos, in particular, were a lot of fun and very different from when we're shooting the tv show. For the tv show I'll be rehearsing my script and doing retakes. With these shorter videos I just point, shoot and feel free to speak.

C: Have other chefs taken notice of what you're doing with Twitter and asked for advice?

RB: Some have. Mainly they just tell me they don't know how I can do it. they seem to think that they can't find the time to do something like this, connect with the people who come to their restaurants.

C: Are there other chefs on Twitter you consider required reading?

RB: I've read other chefs' feeds but what they're posting could be written by a PR rep. "We're serving this at the restaurant today." I get bored reading that; it just winds up being self-serving.

C: With XOCO opening, what future plans do you have regarding your Twitter feed?

RB: I'm going to keep on with it. The readers are the people who've supported what we've done and I don't need to sell them on anything. I think they'd be savvy enough to recognize if I tried.