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Rick Bayless Talks Craft Beer, Dubai And Bright, Bold Flavors

By Melissa Wiley in Food on Mar 19, 2013 6:00PM

Travel emboldens. It makes adventurers of us all, not least our palates. Breaching foreign shores inevitably intensifies life’s flavor, which ideally survives the voyage home. Such is the particular aim of chefs when they venture abroad. Last week we got a chance to speak with Chef Rick Bayless about his recent travels to the Middle East, the flavor profiles that spoke to him therein, how he sees his beloved Mexican food evolving, and why Americans are starting to embrace all things rustic and bold.

Chicagoist: You recently traveled to Dubai. What foods most appealed to you there, and would you ever want to bring them to bear in any of your restaurants?

Rick Bayless: Dubai wasn’t really on my radar screen as a place I wanted to go to, but this opportunity just fell in my lap. Everyone always says that Dubai and Abu Dhabi are soulless places, all about conspicuous consumption, but that’s not what we found at all. Only 10 percent of the people in the Emirates are from there. It’s an extremely eclectic place, and what all the immigrants have brought with them, of course, is their own culture. The two foods that stick out the most in my mind are sumac, which has a lemony flavor, and pomegranate molasses. They’ve been really fun to play with, and they go so well with our cuisine. There’s a lot of similarity between Middle Eastern and Mexican cuisine, because Middle Eastern cuisine is so complex—lots of elements combined to create unique flavors right on the plate—and so I saw some definite opportunities to put them into some of my dishes. So you might come into Frontera and see some sumac or pomegranate molasses on your plate soon.

Chicagoist: In light of your extensive travels, what flavor profiles still largely lack for a voice here in the U.S. and how can home cooks most easily incorporate them into their meals? How does your partnership with Sargento cheese play into this effort?

Bayless: I think Mediterranean is the most approachable. Mediterranean cuisine is great because it’s heavy in veggies and complex spices. It’s rustic, which is an operative word these days, meaning it creates so much more flavor. I think we have relaxed enough and become confident enough in our own culture that we don’t have to pretend that we’re fancy anymore with flavors that are overly subtle. Americans are embracing flavors that are big and bold. There’s char at the end of it, and we’re big on spice now. With Sargento, I’m seeing that people are really into the flavor of habanero chili, the most distinctively flavored chili out there. It has all these tropical and citrus flavors, and you can mitigate the heat and bring out the flavor.

We’re also on the verge of exploring so many greens we haven’t before. Kale has helped us across that threshold. Greens used to mean spinach, maybe Swiss chard, but kale has moved us past those limited options into dandelion greens to the tops off beets and turnips. Farmers markets are helping us want to use all of the vegetable, including the green tops of beets, so I see that as a real trend.

Chicagoist: Word has it that you’re partnering with Crown to create a Latin beer. What are you envisioning and how would it be different from previous beers you’ve helped create?

Bayless: We haven’t created it yet. I did a bunch with Goose Island before, and one, Marisol, we were super happy with. We created Marisol to go with traditional Mexican flavors, what I call party food. I think it was a really solid beer, with bright flavors of citrus; it was a Belgian wheat ale with green coriander. It had this bright note to it. Our original idea was to scale that up, but we couldn’t do it. It was too craft-beer like. It had too many elements to go into a bottle. Then the Crown people came to us, but their focus is to create something that we can produce as a craft beer in Chicago that we can take national. Most Mexican beers are quaffing beers, for drinking when you’re sitting on the beach. That all works really well except that now everybody, Mexico included, is interested in craft beers. So we decided to do this with an eye to the fact that it’s a beer that will go in our restaurants and see what works best. It probably won’t be ready for consumption for over a year, however.

Chicagoist: How do you see Mexican food evolving, both in Mexico and here in the States?

Bayless: In Mexico, there’s now a huge young chef movement, where they’re reinterpreting old dishes in a very exciting way, doing very high-end cuisine. Mexico City has become a major cuisine city. Oaxaca, which is the food capital of Mexico, has four high-end modern restaurants, and they’re doing so many inventive things. Even street vendors are upping their game, offering so many new and different ingredients. We’re not there yet in the U.S. But I’m amazed that in the 25 years I’ve been doing this that I can now assume a tremendous amount more knowledge on the part of my consumers. People realize that Mexico is about regional cuisine. People used to sit in our restaurants and go, "This is Rick Bayless cuisine, not Mexican," because they didn’t know enough to know what real Mexican cuisine was. Now they know that my food is what they find all over Mexico.

Chicagoist: You’re expanding more and more into fast casual. Is that because this style of eating feels more authentic to you in light of Mexican street food culture?

Bayless: I’ve always embraced all kinds of Mexican food, and the reason I waited so long to explore Mexican street food is because most people in the U.S. think that’s all there is to Mexican food. So rather than just play into what people already know, I decided to show them a facet of Mexican cuisine they didn’t realize was there.

But notice I haven’t opened a taqueria. I’ve gone with tortas instead, which are so delicious. In Mexico, there are as many people serving tortas as tacos, but no one was doing that in any serious way here. So when the city asked us to open something at O’Hare, I suggested tortas, which have been hugely successful. We’re also making them with all local ingredients. I’m super proud. I was always so embarrassed of the cuisine at O’Hare, but now that’s starting to turn around.