Long before Rick Bayless was one of the most recognizable chefs in the US, he was an avid traveler.
In the early 1980s, Rick and his wife Deann put all of their possessions in storage and hit the road, traveling for four years through Mexico sampling the regional foods, exploring the markets, and learning from local chefs and food producers. This research resulted in his first cookbook Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From The Heart of Mexico, widely regarded as a modern classic in Mexican cooking.
Six cookbooks, multiple successful restaurants (starting with Chicago's popular Frontera Grill), and a long-running PBS television series later, Rick's culinary fieldwork hasn't stopped. Each July he travels with staff from his restaurants to Mexico for research (aka, eating lots of tasty things and learning how to make them) and cultural immersion (aka, eating lots of tasty things in their proper context).
I recently got a chance to talk with Rick, and he shared some of his personal tips on food travel in Mexico as well as his thoughts on the renaissance of American regional cuisines.
What destinations would you suggest to travelers interested in exploring the diversity of Mexican cuisine?
Start with Mexico City – it has by far the greatest breadth of foods of anywhere in Mexico. You can find a little bit of everything in Mexico City from all over Mexico and elsewhere.
I generally say that there’s a culinary triangle in Mexico. If you go east from Mexico City and start in Puebla, go east to Veracruz, and south to Oaxaca. Veracruz is on the Gulf of Mexico, so it’s known for its seafood and a generally lighter style of cuisine.
Puebla is often thought of as the gastronomic capital of Mexico, where the cuisine achieved the most polish. The food in Puebla is the result of a blending of the indigenous foods with the Spanish cuisine and techniques. Mole poblano is the most famous dish from the region, and when you learn about it and get into the details of the techniques and ingredients, it’s one of the most intricate and complex dishes you'll find anywhere in the world. Surprisingly, Puebla’s not an amazing restaurant city – there are good restaurants and several cooking schools where people can take classes, but really Mexico City is the destination if you’re looking for fine restaurants.
Oaxaca isn’t very far away, maybe four or five hours south by car, but it’s almost like you're in a different world. Puebla really has one mole, but Oaxaca has a whole range of moles and the cuisine there retains more of the indigenous influence.
Some of the best food in Mexico comes from street vendors, which some travelers might be too timid to try. Do you have any tips for picking the prime spots and avoiding food poisoning?
I have a few strict rules about how I choose. Number one: Look for a line. People know it’s the good place to eat, so I always go where the people go. I look at the place and make sure that it looks like somewhere I’d want to eat at. If it doesn’t look clean and tidy then I usually skip it.
Then, if I decide to eat there then I always choose something that’s thoroughly cooked and avoid anything raw. If they ask if I want lettuce or tomatoes I’ll say no if I’m just there for a short time like a regular traveler. When I lived in Mexico, I could eat anything because your system becomes accustomed to all the flora and fauna that’s there, but it can be hard on systems of people coming from another country. The only exception I make is salsa which usually has cilantro (coriander leaves) in it. Cilantro is one of the most antimicrobial herbs known and they have chiles and salt which are preservatives.
Your latest book Fiesta at Rick's is all about party foods - what kind of parties are you envisioning?
It’s about parties big to little. People might think it’s just a bunch of recipes for quick little hors d’oeuvres for entertaining, but it’s much more than that: it's about what it’s like to be part of the fiesta culture in Mexico. Mexicans celebrate in a big way with big food. For celebrations like weddings and quinceañeras people plan for months ahead of time. I take you through everything, all the way down to digging a pit for roasting a pig. I have a paella recipe that uses a 3 ft wide pan. It’s really about bringing the Mexican fiesta culture back home to wherever you’re from.
The Mexican bicentennial just passed and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution is coming up in November. Are there any special celebration foods for these events?
The traditional food for the independence celebration would be chiles en nogada, a dish from Puebla. It's a stuffed poblano chile with a walnut cream sauce topped with pomegranate seeds and broad leaf parsley so you get the red, white and green effect of the Mexican flag. [Photo of chiles en nogada by The Masa Assassin]
You have an academic background in anthropological linguistics: are there particular foods (or names of foods) that provide unique insight into the history and culture of the Mexican people?
Well there’s a lot, but it gets kind of arcane pretty quickly. Take the word 'mole': it comes from the Aztec language so people assume the dish itself is ancient, but it was probably used much later, after it was taken out of Aztec context and people were already speaking Spanish most of the time. In the Aztec language the word simply meant 'sauce' – you see it in the word 'guacamole', which just means 'avocado sauce'. More recently it came to mean the specific sauce made with dried chiles and spices – a special sauce – and the word itself was chosen because it came from an earlier era and has a sort of gravitas to it.
With your family background in barbecue, where do you go when you need a barbecue fix?
I grew up in Oklahoma City, so I’d probably head there. There’s a place called Earl’s, a newer place that makes some great barbecue. Also, there’s a really old fashioned place I like called the Pig Stand.
Being from Oklahoma, I don’t suppose you’d include any Texas barbecue on your list?
No. No way. But you know Hill Country Barbecue in New York is serving up some really excellent barbecue. They’ve got a wonderful chef there - it's worth checking out if you're in Manhattan.
Where do you find that American regional cuisines and the use of local ingredients are flourishing right now?
In New York or LA, some chefs are very passionate about using local ingredients, but it’s not to the degree that it has been embraced by chefs in Chicago. Go to Portland, Oregon and you'll find it's similar there too. Perhaps more on the unexpected side of things, St Louis: it seems like almost every chef there is using local ingredients now. And you have to mention Albuquerque. New Mexico has been cooking with local ingredients and keeping indigenous foods alive longer than anywhere in the US, so if we want to look for thriving local cuisine we should be looking to New Mexico.
You seem to be an avid Twitter user (@Rick_Bayless) - is that you behind the tweets?
Oh yeah, that’s me. Twitter is a great way of disseminating nice little bits of information. Just recently I was on the road and I heard something about [Chicago Mayor] Daley stepping down or something, and I jumped on Twitter and found everything I needed in seconds just by following the news sources on Twitter. If you’re following people with similar interests, you can be sure that they will have the latest news that’s interesting to you - it's really amazing.
Finally: window or aisle?
Aisle. I don’t like when people fall asleep next to me and I have to climb over them to go to the bathroom. Plus I like to stick my legs out into the aisle and stretch out. People want windows to sleep, and I don’t sleep much on planes. It’s good for me that more people want window seats, that means there's always aisle seats available.