Rick Bayless Dishes on Chicago’s Culinary Culture

Courtesy Brooklyn Magazine

You’ve already picked up a few pieces of festival advice and Chicago food scene insight from Jimmy Bannos Jr. and Tony Mantuano, now find out which parts of Chicago’s culinary culture are most exciting to Rick Bayless – plus a teaser of his new project!

Chicago Food + Wine: What do you think sets Chicago apart from other vibrant food cities across the country?

Rick Bayless: I think more chefs have taken advantage of all that Midwest farms have to offer, and they’ve gotten more inventive while doing it. And when that happens — when a restaurant really stands out —  the buzz starts to build. And when the buzz builds, it seems that more chefs and restaurateurs want to be a part of that momentum. So the end result is that we have this spectacular conglomeration of culinary talent, all in one place. Lucky us.

How has local restaurant culture changed since you first started cooking in the city? 

Look no further than River North. When we opened Frontera Grill in 1987, it was pretty dilapidated. Nearly 30 (!) years later, it’s grown into a serious and incredibly popular dining destination.  

That’s true with parts of the whole city, too. Look at the Fulton Market District. Who would’ve thought an industrial part of town would one-day attract hot restaurants? (Disclaimer: My craft brewery, Cruz Blanca, and an adjacent restaurant will be opening at 900 W. Randolph St. later this year.)  

The rest of the food world has certainly taken notice. The James Beard Foundation decided, after 25 years, to move the awards out of New York and into Chicago for at least two more years. That’s an enormous endorsement for the city.

In your opinion, which young chefs are helping to shape the future of Chicago’s culinary landscape?

Adam Hebert at The Radler. A youngish chef with a world of experience under his belt, he’s elevated an ethnic cuisine (in this case, German) past its traditional roots.

I also think the concept for DAS Radler, the private fine dining chef’s table within the restaurant, is so interesting. Establishing a fine dining restaurant under the same roof as a rustic place is sort of like what I’ve done at Frontera and Topolobampo, and I think anyone who approaches a cuisine with ambition and passion should be recognized.

Food festivals are essentially a party full of good times, great culinary discoveries and exciting experiences. What pieces of advice do you have for first-time festival-goers? 

I’d say pace yourself. Surrounded by so much great food (and so much wine!), it’s easy to get carried away. But make sure to save room for dessert!

What about your ‘Fiesta al Fresco’ demo at the festival – can you share some pre-fest tips on what guests will learn?

We need to invest time in creating a rich fiesta experience for those we care about — I really do think it’s a basic human need. But it doesn’t just come together magically. You need to make the magic. The building blocks of a real fiesta are planning, crafting and splurging, all of which take some forethought.