This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless of Top Chef Masters fame and the famed PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Below, Bayless delves into Tex-Mex versus Mexican cuisine, recreating historical menus, and his great love for Mexico City.
Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?
Rick Bayless: I can’t speak to Austin specifically, but I think smaller cities all over the country are becoming great food towns. And the reason for that is simply accessibility, information through the Internet, inspiration from food magazines and television shows, [great] ingredients, funding from websites like Kickstarter, and more. It’s an open playing field these days.
LL: Traditional Mexican cuisine has vastly transformed over the years. What’s an interpretation you’re noticing a lot of chefs embracing recently?
RB: A lot of us are looking to history. I know we’re doing that at Topolo. We’re doing a series of menus that look at what ingredients were common in 1491, 1671, etc. Then, we take that information and make completely contemporary plates out of it. It’s a way to approach food with reverence and sometimes the constraints make you more creative.
LL: What’s coming up for your PBS series Mexico: One Plate at a Time?
RB: The past few seasons have been thematic, and right now we’re exploring the possibility of doing a season dedicated to Mexico City. Nothing is set in stone yet, and I’m about to embark on a research trip, but filling an entire season of television with shows about Mexico City would not be hard. I could do 100 shows about Mexico City. And by the time Mexico: One Plate at a Time is done, I probably will have shot 100 shows there.
LL: Down in Texas diners sometimes confuse Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican cuisine. How best would you describe the differences to a puzzled diner?
RB: Honestly, I see the connection between the two to be pretty tenuous. I have nothing against Tex-Mex at all. I can get down with a burrito just like everybody else, but when I think of Mexican food I think of fresh corn tortillas, intricate sauces, and a cuisine that is largely built around chiles. As far as I know, Tex-Mex isn’t built on chiles, except maybe for the jalapeño, and relies far more on melted cheese than on sauces.
LL: Will you be checking out any restaurants while you’re in town?
RB: I have a list of places, but who knows if I’ll actually get to them. One place I’m interested in checking out is La Condesa. I saw the chef there do a vegetarian demo at a Culinary Institute of America conference recently and was really intrigued.
LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the festival.
RB: I’m doing two demos with Jill Gubesch, the wine director of our restaurants. Jill and I have worked for years on developing a curriculum for pairing wine with Mexican food, and I love doing demos with her because she’s a great teacher and people walk away with a lot of knowledge. I’m cooking enchiladas and a ceviche at one demo and a porcini and crab guacamole and red peanut mole at the other. At both demos, Jill will talk about what wines pair with these dishes, and, more importantly, why they go well together.
LL: You became a household name after your stint on Top Chef Masters. Why do you think audiences have become so captivated by that show over the years?
RB: Top Chef is nail-biting experience for both the chefs and the viewers. It’s not quite indicative of what it’s like to cook in a restaurant kitchen, of course – though that can be pretty nail-biting too – but the passion, stress, determination, skill, and love you see in these chefs is very real. You need all of that to make a restaurant work. And all that emotion and drama makes for great television.
LL: What’s over the horizon for you?
RB: A lot! We’ve got a new season of Mexico: One Plate at a Time. I’m finishing up writing my next book and I can’t stop thinking about the book after that: a big, weighty tome unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I’m appearing in a musical in Chicago called Cascabel this summer, and we’re going to throw the second annual Mod Mex conference. I fly in chefs from all over to talk about what the future of Mexican food is for the conference. I also have a few more restaurants opening, too. A second XOCO will open this summer, and there are other projects after that. So, I’m definitely keeping busy.