Small Kingdoms: Rick Bayless Talks Early Success, the Power of Change, and His Draw to Authentic Mexican Cuisine

Chef Rick Bayless has become a household name in the food industry. And though the backbone of his concepts all revolve around authentic Mexican cuisine, you never know what Bayless will have up his sleeve next. He doesn’t follow trends; he creates them. 

One-half of a power couple with his wife Deann, the Bayless duo currently stands behind three Chicago restaurants — Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco — and a tortas shop at O’Hare Airport, Tortas Frontera. Look at his Twitter profile, and you’ll see he is also the winner of Top Chef Masters and has received an Emmy nomination for his PBS show “Mexico — One Plate at a Time,” which is currently in its ninth season. Another show, called Frontera Now, was introduced at the end of May. Rick and Deann also have seven cookbooks out that they’ve co-authored, and a garden that spans across three lots, which also includes a climate-controlled greenhouse, beehive, and a few compost areas. Oh, and the couple — along with their restaurant staff — created the Frontera Farmer Foundation years ago.

You’re probably asking yourself how such a busy man finds time to even sleep. Before we got a chance to ask him, well... he had to run off to his next meeting. Foodable was fortunate enough to sit down with the Chef at this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago last month (check out the video below). Donned in a crisp white chef uniform, complete with his name etched in perfect stitching, Bayless’s demeanor is contradictory in a sense — soft and approachable, yet strong and aware. We’d expect nothing less than for him to command the attention he did, being that he has championed the space for so long.

The Beginning of a Small Kingdom

Deann and Rick Bayless conceptualized their first restaurant concept in 1987. The couple’s passion for authentic Mexican cuisine fueled the initiative, and what the future held was unexpected, as most new ventures go. Now, 27 years later, Frontera Grill holds a handful of stellar accolades, including a 2007 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant and a 2010 Most Popular Chicago Restaurant nod by Zagat. Considering Chicago’s robust culinary klout, this award is not to be taken lightly. 

Topolobampo was born just two years after Frontera in 1989, and, according to the team, “If Frontera rocks and claps, Topolo slinks. She is the quiet, sleek, classy sister. She’s also the more daring one.” These adjectives perfectly describe not only the fine dining Mexican restaurant as a whole, but the dishes themselves, which are contemporary, artsy, and plated in perfect presentation. It’s no wonder Topolobampo has also received its fair share of nominations and awards, including two James Beard Foundation nominations — one for Outstanding Service (2011-2013) and another for Outstanding Restaurant (2002).

The Power of: A Menu, Fresh Ingredients and Change

Frontera Grill and Topolobampo have been around an extremely long time, especially measuring it in terms of restaurant years, but constantly changing things up has been a prominent key in their success. “The heart and soul of our operations is really the menu,” Bayless told Foodable. “When we first opened [Frontera Grill], I would change the menu completely every week. Now, most people would say that was just the craziest thing that anyone could ever do, but it was the way that I developed the big repertoire.” Bayless and his team now switch the menu out monthly. The reason for a monthly change-out versus a seasonal one stems from the limitations of local sourcing. When working with local farmers, there are some ingredients that don’t last a full three months. “We can capture that moment of seasonality on a menu by changing it every month,” he said.

Aside from keeping the menu fresh, Bayless admits to also constantly making sure the space at large is fresh looking — “new paint jobs, new art on the wall, new flower arrangements — all of that.”

Entering the Fast Casual Space

The Bayless team’s most recent concept, Xoco, which opened in 2010, is catered toward a different crowd by jumping into the fast casual segment. If you’ve been following along, you already know that fast casual has become the fastest growing segment in the restaurant industry. Keeping with the authentic Mexican thread, Xoco is more Mexican street food with a Midwest flair and less Fresh Mex. It’s paved its own way in fast casual, considering its unique offerings — a guacamole bar (with the guac being housemade with a rotation of seasonal ingredients), empanadas, freshly made churros, caldos (soups), and crusty tortas. Foodable was lucky enough to explore the behind-the-scenes workings of Xoco with Manager Arthur Mullen a few months back (you can check out the Fast Casual Nation episode here). A second Xoco location — in Wicker Park — will be opening this summer.

Learning How to Deal with Food Waste

One of Rick’s passions, aside from culinary, is the environment — not only local sourcing, but specifically, minimizing food waste. “When you talk about food waste, it’s a really big deal right now because we’re putting into the landfills a whole lot of stuff that we don’t need to be putting into the landfills. We could take all of that food waste and compost it and make it into something that’s beneficial for the farmers,” said Bayless.  

But how does one begin the composting process? “What we decided to do first was take one easy step, and I recommend this to anyone who’s interested in composting: We got rectangular garbage cans and round garbage cans, and we said ‘All food waste goes in round and everything else goes in rectangular.’ And, you now, everybody got it just like that — literally, within one day. Of course, we’ve refined that through the years, but it was really quite simple,” he said.

Why Authentic Mexican Cuisine?

We couldn’t let Bayless leave us without answering one last question: What is it about authentic Mexican cuisine that gets him out of bed each morning? His eyes lit up, a true testament that the Chef is not at all tired of what got him into restaurants in the first place.

“When you taste the food that people make in Mexico — I mean, the real deal — it’s so incredibly vibrant. It’s got soulful aspects, it’s got really complex aspects... it’s really varied. And for me, that’s what keeps me coming back to it. When you think about Mexican-American food and the kind of things you get in a lot of the quick-service places, it’s kind of limited in scope of textures and tastes, and so forth.” “But the real deal is really amazing,” he said, beaming. “It’s just so beautifully enticing that every time I go to Mexico, or every time I walk into our kitchen at Frontera, Toplobampo, or Xoco, I’m thrilled. I’m just so engaged with the flavors that are there.”

And in that final answer, we learned everything we needed to know about Rick Bayless’s success.