Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless Cooks Barbacoa at the Omni Resort, Talks Mexican Destinations and Food in America

Chef Bayless speaks and cooks at the Omni Resort.
Chef Bayless speaks and cooks at the Omni Resort.
Darrylee Cohen and Haute Event Photography

Rick Bayless, Michelin-starred chef/restaurateur and Top Chef Masters winner, was in Scottsdale on Wednesday, October 14, to cook a meal with Omni Resort executive chef Michael Cairne.

Bayless is undeniably the face of Mexican cuisine in the U.S. His restaurants are wholeheartedly devoted to the food and culture, and the chef just released his new cookbook, More Mexican Everyday, which focuses on teaching readers to be better home cooks with a Mexican flavor set, of course. During his visit to the Valley, the chef prepared a feast of slow-cooker barbacoa.

"If you want to get adventurous with it, a lot of Mexican grocery stores sell maguey leaves, which is from the plant that agave is made from," Bayless says. "So if you want to get that rustic quality, you can buy maguey and roast it, get it charred, and then lay it in the bottom of the slow cooker. Put the meat on top, and it’s amazing how similar it is to one from Central America. And we're using the Negra Modelo in the marinade — the recipe is in the cookbook." 

The chef works closely with Negra Modelo, a major sponsor of his popular PBS TV show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, which currently is scouting material for its 11th season.

"They keep the knowledge of Mexican food growing in the U.S. by supporting people like me," Bayless says. "I started working with the Negro Modelo in early 2013, creating recipes and unique food pairing options for the brand. It was the brand I discovered on the streets of Mexico and has always held a special place in my heart."

Bayless sat down with us on the lawn of the Omni, with an unobstructed view of Camelback Mountain. We had a cup of Mexican coffee from a local roaster in hand — and the conversation started there.

CB: It’s nice because this company roasts pretty lightly, so you can still taste the origin — that it's from Mexico in this case.

RB: That’s pretty much the way you have to do it. I mean, you can roast it black, but you’re not going to taste any of the coffee. In fact, that’s the direction most the roasters have gone, roasting way lighter than they did 15 years ago.

No cream needed. Have you traveled to those coffee-producing regions in Mexico?

Oh, yes. Both Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Which region's coffee do you prefer?

Well, the coffee we use at the restaurant is called La Perla, which is from up in the highlands in Oaxaca. It’s south of Oaxaca City, about four hours. In that area, you can say four to six hours, but it doesn’t really mean very much, because the roads are tiny and switchbacks and all that.

Any distance takes forever.

They’re trying to build this road from Oaxaca City to the coast, and they say that when it’s finished it’ll be like a super-highway — it’ll take two and a half hours to get to the coast. Right now, it takes about 10.

It must seem like 20 in the back of a pickup truck.

For sure. We just did it. The last two seasons of our show was all on Oaxaca, and we had a new format to the show that we started that season where every show we focused on a person, and they took us to a place that was an inspiration to them, and it was this sort of joint exploration format. And so we did a lot on the coast of Oaxaca. And then we had to drive the whole crew over the mountains. The small airlines don’t have enough cargo space for all our equipment. We actually stopped at a coffee plantation — this amazing coffee plantation that was north of Puerto Escondido. And it’s just amazing. It’s all biodynamic. They make all of their own fertilizers, and they’re really interested in habitat — because one of the things that happens when people plant coffee, they don’t put enough shade stuff above it — and they’re usually growing the wrong kind of coffee if that’s the case. So this is all done on the side of the mountain and its just amazing. There are birds everywhere. It’s the whole ecosystem. Others, they haven't considered the whole picture — sometimes we’ve made made stupid mistakes.

Are there many places you haven’t been in Mexico — or any places you have but still consider to be a secret?

Well, not so much anymore. There are interesting places that are way off the beaten path that certainly most visitors to Mexico don’t go to. There are places like Chiapas, where that coffee is from, but Chiapas is one of those places that used to be — back in the '70s, especially — this major hippy place, and it’s so filled with incredible culture. There's more density and ethnic diversity in Chiapas than pretty much anywhere else in Mexico. It’s also the poorest state in Mexico. And a lot of these indigenous groups that live there — there are many languages there that are unintelligible in that area of Mexico. So a lot of the hippy types from the early '70s, they moved there to get back to nature and back to the cool diversity and all that sort of stuff, and it kind of stayed that way, and it was really hard to get to the main town. You had to take planes and trains and buses, and it would take you, like, a day to get there. That was where the revolution was and everyone stayed away. So basically from 1991 until 2012, no one went there, and it just kind of crumbled. And all of the sudden, there was this huge rebirth, and a super-highway was built to get there, and now it’s becoming much more well known.

There’s a number of those kind of places. But it’s interesting — of all the people who visit Mexico, something like 90 percent of them only go to the beaches, and well over 50 percent of those people only go to the Riviera Maya. Cancún, principally.

There are the resorts. They feel very comfortable doing that. They never get off the beaten path. And I tell people how many cool things there are to do around there once you get off of the beaten path. You could at least get to the ruins of Coba down by Tulum, and then it's only two and a half hours to Chichen, which is on that list as being one of the great wonders of the world. You gotta go and see that. But they’ll say, “Oh, no, that’s too scary for me.” They’d rather go to their resort and stay at their resort.

It’s the fear of the unknown. We recently read that story in Lucky Peach about the the restaurant Hartwood in Tulum.

That was a good story. [The show is] getting ready to go down there in four weeks to scout for our next series of TV shows. We’re doing them all in the Yucatán. Hartwood is just such a kind of hilarious and inspiring and unbelievable story, and they close up when it gets to be the bad season for them. And so we were trying to get in touch with Eric Werner, the chef there, and he didn’t respond, didn’t respond, didn’t respond [because] the restaurant was closed. Then, like three weeks later, he responds: “Oh, I was at this Milpa farm that we work with. It’s right in the middle of the jungle and there’s no cell phone service out there. I just go to work with the farmers when it’s slow at the restaurant and when we close up.”

And have you seen his cookbook? I just got it yesterday.

You must have an advance copy, because you can only pre-order it on Amazon.

We received it from the publisher because we’re going to shoot an entire show with them. And one of the things I thought that we might do — and we still might — is go to Milpa and see what it’s like there. I should tell you that no matter what we plan, the show will not come out that way — because he is sort of like, “Whoa, I just thought of something. Let’s go over here.” So it's going to be quite an interesting experience. It’s just so wacky, because I don’t think there’s any electricity at the the restaurant.

That’s what the story said, at least. They seems to think it’s just as wacky as everyone else does, but they just do it every day.

Right.

One of the authors is Oliver Strand, who writes about coffee for the New York Times.

Oh, wow, I didn’t know that. That’s great. One of our team member marked one of the pages — apparently, you just open it and it’s a photograph of the Milpa farm, and it’s just right in the middle of the jungle. I thought, well, you could make about 30 seconds of television about, that but I’m not sure what else you could do there. We’ll figure that part of it out.

Let’s talk about your cookbook. Who are you writing for?

Well, you see, this is the follow-up to a book I wrote 10 years ago, and I’d always written about Mexican specialty dishes.They were always set very strongly in cultural context. But I also used that as my base. In my show One Plate at a Time, I’d always give you this super-classic version of a dish and then give you a contemporary variation, where this new version may be better in your kitchen, and I’d show you both things to give you an evolution of the cuisine. But a lot of the dishes you’d just make for special occasions. And it dawned on me at one time that I could really make all these dishes very quickly. And I knew what to do to simplify them and streamline them without really messing up the flavors, so I challenged myself to do a whole book just using the ingredients I could find at the chain grocery store by my house.

I want [readers] to be able to cook the dishes in about 30 minutes. So I wrote this whole book about how I would make Monday night dinner, which is usually one dish and a salad. That kind of thing. And I wanted it to be all really lean food, because that’s what I eat on a daily basis — and then there’s my weekend fare, which is really whatever I want to eat. And then it dawned on me that that’s the way my parents grew up. That’s the way everybody in Mexico eats. We’ve mixed it all up in this country. We need to take a step back and say, well, if you’re going to be healthy, you shouldn’t say, “You deserve it today, you need to have that hot fudge sundae on Wednesday night, you need to have that slab of cake Thursday night, or, these are my little affordable luxuries I do for myself.” What we really need to do is feast only on the weekends.

Helping them make food at all.

Helping them make food at all. I was looking at our farmers market compared to what we had 10 years ago when I was writing the first volume. I was like, “Wow, it’s a whole new world out here." There are all these cool ways to work with vegetables that weren’t in that first book — and it’s in our kitchens, and we do it all of the time at our restaurants because we’ve always been very local, so I started working on recipes for that. It’s just simple cooking and I give a lot of options because [lean is] the way I like to cook. In my refrigerator at home, there is unsweetened Greek yogurt. I can use that in place of cream for pretty much anything I cook. But if it were the weekend and I was inviting friends over, I wouldn’t do that. I’d go get some cream or Mexican crema, and I’d want it to have a more luxurious mouthfeel. So I just put in all in the book — you make your choice of what you want to do and how you want to incorporate this stuff.

And I gave them what I call the secret weapons, which are the things I keep in my refrigerator at all times, because I cook 10 meals a week in my restaurants, I cook two meals a week at home, and I eat out twice — once for lunch and once for dinner. It’s a pattern I’ve had forever. But when I’m cooking at home, sometimes I have time and sometimes I don’t. Monday night is my time to invite friends over, and I’ll spend three hours making dinner and I love every moment of that.

What do you make on a night like that?

Last week, I made Thai food. I just did four Thai dishes. I never cook Mexican food unless the people I’m having over request it. That’s what I do professionally, but I like to explore everything.

What would you say to someone who isn’t familiar with Mexican food beyond meat, rice, and beans?

It’s interesting to me because I’ve had the opportunities to take many different groups of people to the Mexican markets over the years. Almost without exception, after my first market tour, someone will say, “Oh, my God, this entire place is just filled with incredible vegetables. But Mexican food doesn’t use vegetables, so what what do they do with all of this stuff?” You could take your typical plate with rice and beans on it — and sometimes in Northern Mexico they might do that, but those two things are almost never served together.

The idea of putting rice and beans on a taco is mostly unheard of in Mexico. We think that it’s going to be a tomato or tomatillo sauce — there’s your vegetables. Maybe guacamole sauce. Maybe some shredded iceberg lettuce on the side of the plate. People in Mexico look at that and they don’t know that balance of things.

In America, we look at coursing meals as being fancy, but in Mexico there is a standard progression to a comida, and there are these little places called comidas economicas, and they’re usually just one-room storefronts or they may be in the living room of someone’s home, where they’ve taken the furniture out and put four tables in. And Mom or Grandma cooks the meal everyday. You go into these places, and for just a few bucks, you can have all the run of courses. It starts with a brothy soup filled with vegetables. Then it's a plate of rice with fried vegetables or a scoop of mole on top of it. The third course is the stew, and it’s almost always some sort of stew with meat or poultry that has been braised along with a bunch of vegetables, and the meat will be two to three ounces' worth at the most. After that, they’ll ask you if you want your beans or not, and then you’ll get your dessert custard like flan or stirred custard or poached fruit.

There’s a lot of room for vegetables. It’s not just an enchilada plate. We know a very different Mexican food in this country.

Even here in Sonoran restaurants, it’s almost all tacos and beans and rice, and it’s very hard to find the vegetables and the diversity.

And that’s exactly what people think — that Mexican food isn’t diverse. So my goal has always been to introduce people to the diversity of Mexican cuisine. Because if you eat one meal in Chiapas and then you eat one meal in Sonora, you’re going to feel like you’re eating in to separate countries — they’re not even speaking the same language in the kitchen.

So you’re up against the prevailing identity of Mexican food in America — the Mission-style burrito. The rice, the meat, the beans, and the sour cream.

Yes, if you say burrito to the average person in Mexico — not like a Mexican hipster — they won’t have a clue what you’re talking about. They will have never seen it, as it was something developed in L.A. In Mexico, there is a kids snack called burritas. But they’re small and made with corn.

How do people in Mexico view corn?

It’s so different. People in Mexico view it as a staple of life, without which they cannot live. Now, the richer people in Mexico have become fancy and said, “Oh, tortillas make you fat, so we’re going to eat bread instead.” There are some great artisan bakers in Mexico, but most of the bread is just factory bread.

People really live with the ancient myth that the native race in Mexico came from corn. That’s the Aztec mythology. That’s the Mayan mythology. Because people so identify with the history of the place they come from, you just have that in your head that you are a person of corn. And so corn is in a major difficult place in Mexico right now, because the making of the base dough for tortillas is a daily thing. You can grind wheat into flour and store it for a while without it becoming rancid, but when you do the corn, you can only hold the kernels dry for a long time. When you want to make it into the dough for corn tortillas, you have to cook it with lime and store it over night and then you have to stone-grind it the next day, and then you have to use it within six to eight hours, before it starts to spoil. And that’s been a part of Mexico’s history for a very long time. Someone in the '40s discovered that you could dehydrate that dough and powder it, and it could become stable, and you could pour water on it and reconstitute it. So in the era I grew up in, it was always that stuff on the grocery store shelf called masarina, and you’d always pour water on it. Well, when you taste tortillas made from that versus handmade and it's like the difference between boxed mashed potatoes and potatoes that have been boiled and mashed. 

You’ve really been the authority face of Mexican cuisine in America. How does it make you feel knowing there’s a new generation of chefs interested not only in cooking Latin American food, but specifically regional Mexican cuisine?

There are really two separate groups doing that. There are those who want to make food related to what people eat in Mexico and maybe do a modern version of that. Then there are those who like the idea of tacos, and also what Roy Choi did with tacos. They are doing something that people are calling Mexican food. But it’s not Mexican food just because it’s wrapped in a tortilla. There’s all this fervor around tacos: “It’s all about tacos!” It's like saying French food could be completely defined by crepes. The French would look at you and go, “Are you kidding?” People want to go to Mexico City and do a taco crawl, but the people in Mexico City would say, “Um, we eat that when we’re drunk late at night.” That’s their snack food. That aside, there are really people doing stuff like Alex Stupak — even though his first book came up as Tacos. It’s just come out and I haven’t seen it yet.

But Alex is doing something in his Empellon Cocina, and he was a place that specialized in al pastor tacos, and I’ve only eaten there once and it was with Alex and he just sort of brought food out.

And then there’s Enrique Olvera, but Enrique is Mexican, and this is his foray into the U.S. to try to do stuff — and it’s super-interesting. My daughter works there. Of course, they didn’t do chips and salsa — that’s so American. At first, people didn’t know what to make of a Mexican restaurant that didn’t have guacamole, and they ended up adding a guacamole service, but not the silly tableside thing. But it’s a very interesting — they got a phenomenal review from the New York Times. They’re making tortillas right before you get them. It’s just a completely different perspective. And it’s not trying to be authentic in any way. They have a roasted beet salad on their menu.

What’s more American than that?

But their menu is very international, if you want to call it that, as well as being very rooted. A lot of the very hip Mexico City chefs have turned their backs on mole. It’s a really interesting thing. They say it’s too old-fashioned, so they’re doing these modern things.

Sounds like what happened with contemporary chefs and traditional sauces in France.

Yes. I’m not about to give up mole, because I think it’s the crown jewel of the cuisine. It’s the hardest stuff in the world to do. And my daughter says in the kitchen at Cosme they’re starting to think, “If we’re going to do a mole, what would we do?” And, you know, at Enrique’s flagship restaurant in Mexico, Pujol, it’s all a tasting menu and —

— he’s got that mole dish.

He’s got that mole dish. Okay, but it’s not a dish. It’s mole on a plate. Nothing else. Just tortillas made from heirloom corn.

It’s iconic. It’s just the two dots.

The two dots, yes.

It’s a brilliant concept. And it’s a ballsy move. It works really good because it stops you dead in your tracks. It deserves all the accolades.


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