As one of the most iconic celebrity chefs in the world, Rick Bayless continues to broaden his professional scope around Chicago and the world in the name of Mexican cuisine. Frontera Grill, his first restaurant, opened in 1987 on Clark and Illinois, the same year he published his first cookbook. He's now expanded to two more locations on the same block, locations inside O'Hare, filmed nine seasons of Mexico: One Plate at a Time for PBS, and had his hands in all sorts of charity work and projects. His latest effort is an upcoming Mexican-style craft beer collaboration with Crown Imports, which has drawn some heat for not partnering with a craft brewery.
Bayless chatted with Eater by phone from his office above Frontera about his forthcoming beer and the backlash, how River North transformed from down-and-dirty to restaurant and nightlife central, and his predictions for upcoming food trends he made in a partnership with Sargento cheese.
So you have a lot going on right now, as you always do. First of all the news at the moment is your beer coming up?
Well the beer is still a long ways a way. It's kind of a funny thing—we did a beer two years ago with Goose Island. We did one that was really super successful called Marisol that we are still producing. It's available here in our restaurant and then at the O'Hare places as well. It's a beautiful Belgian wheat-style beer that's got all these citrusy and coriander overtones. We did it with Jared (Rouben) who has now left Goose Island, but we were approached by Crown (Imports) to see if we would be interested in doing a project with them.
We kind of had in the back of our mind that we would sometime like to be able to open our own craft brewery that has Mexican-style street food or something like that and they were super excited. So we've decided that we are going to join forces and play around with the beer before we could ever do the brewery, but it's in the back of our minds that it's going to be one of the next projects that we're going to really tackle. So we are going to play around with that idea and really make a gorgeous craft beer. Then they would like to scale it up to be distributed nationally, sort of like what the people at Goose Island were originally interested in doing before they completely sold out to Anheuser-Busch.
So Crown approached you. From your standpoint, is that part of the appeal of working with them—so you can distribute it nationally?
When you talk about the status of Mexican beers right now that you can get in the states, almost none of the craft beers that are being made in Mexico are big enough to come into the states because they just don't produce very much. Some of the stuff from Cocopah you can get here. But it's spotty; sometimes they have it sometimes they don't. So the craft beers from Mexico, they just haven't developed very much in that area yet.
We always think of their beers as being solid quaffing beers, almost all of them are what I call "beach beers" because they're very thirst quenching, but they're certainly not craft-style beers. So, when we thought about doing something with Crown, when we were talking to them, the idea was we'll do a real craft beer for you and then we'll figure out how we can ramp that up so that we can do a craft beer that is producible on a larger scale. So then we can have it distributed across the country, but it's one that is really made to go with our kind of food.
How about the brewery? What are you thinking?
It's a dream right now, but that's what we really want to do. We felt that partnering up with Crown would give us the opportunity to see that kind of thing come to fruition. But what we've done bringing Mexican street food-style stuff into what we do here at Frontera and Topolo, and then we added Xoco and the places at the airport, we are well-known for doing all kinds of Mexican flavors. But the flavors that go best with the beer are really Mexican street food flavors so it just seemed like it'd be great to dream about this place that somehow captures the spirit of a Mexican market or Mexican street food and that brews its own beer.
As I'm sure you know, there are a couple people that weren't so happy that you didn't partner with a craft brewery with this.
We already had partnered with a craft brewery. I thought that was a pretty senseless and silly thing to say. I mean can't they do their research before? I hate that people were not even willing to think about that. They had no idea—no one even called me to ask me how we were planning on doing it.
After all of this, you are the first person I've even talked to about this project. The first person. All they had to do was call me and say "tell me about this project that we are hearing about," but instead they chose to pass judgment on something that they had done zero research on. But unfortunately that's the nature of Internet journalism these days. You can say anything you want and you don't have an editor you can just throw it all out there.
What do you think about what has happened to River North since you first opened?
It was a long time ago. When we first opened Frontera, it was just the space at Frontera. We didn't have the bar, we didn't have Topolo, we didn't have Xoco. It was just one storefront. Where Topolo is now, it was this really sleazy bar with what they called "Clark Street Flop House" above it. The sleazy bar was called the Rendezvous Bar and every night when we opened the doors at 5:30 we had to move the bums out of the front because they were huddling up there in front of our door. So we had to move those guys out.
And this neighborhood was super, super sleazy. The only glimmer of anything we could talk about that was sort of upscale at all was the old restaurant Gordon from Gordon Sinclair was kitty-corner to where Naha is now. They had moved in here because they wanted to do a fine dining place in a sleazy neighborhood and make it a real adventure for the guest to come and they were really popular. I know you look around this neighborhood now and you can't even imagine that it was that way. It was all adult bookstores and strip clubs and there were all these bars with little room places up above that you could rent by the hour. But it was the only thing we could afford and so we said well, we could tell people that we are right across from Gordon and there's a parking lot and people would call us up and they'd go, "could you send someone in my car and escort me across the street?"
It started to change and gentrify over the first eight or nine years that we were open and then all the sudden it just exploded. Mostly because our landlord, the guy that owns practically everything you can see here, he really wanted to turn it into a restaurant neighborhood. So as places went out he bought them up and he really tried to get good restaurateurs in here. And then it all really changed when he leased the space that is now Mastro's to the Wolfgang Puck people and they put Spago in there. And all the sudden it was like, "oh my gosh we are kind of a funky ma and pa restaurant?I'm not sure we belong in this neighborhood anymore." It became sort of gourmet ghettoish over here.
Then everything sort of settled down and now I feel like it's turning into this "Rush Street South" because we got all these clubs. If you've been down in this neighborhood at 11:00 on Friday or Saturday night, it's just solid clubs all along Hubbard and the lines to get into them are so long. Thankfully it's not when we are doing the bulk of our business because I think it would diminish people's interest in coming down here.
So many of these hot spot Mexican places have popped up since you started as well, what do you feel about that?
Well I am super thrilled that it happened. To me, it didn't happen fast enough. I not only welcome competition, but I can't achieve my goal, which is to bring the real flavors of Mexico to the U.S., unless lots of other people are doing it too. Because one person can't do very much and you need to get a groundswell of knowledge and enthusiasm before you can really have an impact and hopefully I've led some people down the road of confidence to do it. So a lot of other people are doing it too. I can assume when I'm writing or teaching stuff on TV that people have a base knowledge that I certainly didn't expect that they had 25 years ago.
There's all this flack lately about mislabeled seafood and mislabeled fish products. What do you think about that and what other restaurants are doing with mislabeling seafood?
I think that if chefs are being that cavalier to do whatever they want on their menu copy, they should be called on it. Because I think that it's far too rampant in the chef world that people make up beautiful sounding menu copy because they think it sells the dish and it's not represented on the plate. And I've been super meticulous about that from day one. I want everything to be accurate so if you come into a restaurant and we are serving some local product and we run out of that we will let you know that we had to supplant it with something else or we had to change the dish. Certainly in the seafood world people will often times talk about having a fish that's more expensive and then they're really using a similar textured fish, but one that is way cheaper. I want everything here to be 100 percent transparent and honest.
What else do you have coming up that people might not know about that they'd be interested in?
I just finished the ninth season of our TV show (Mexico: One Plate at a Time) and we are really excited—we think we have the best team ever. Unfortunately the director that we had for many years died a couple years ago so we had to change directors. I was really bummed out about it, but after working with this new guy he is so amazing and last year our shows were so great we got an Emmy nomination and I was really thrilled about that.
This season is all focused on the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is kind of the culinary capital of Mexico and I am super excited to bring that back. So we just finished 13 shows from high-end to low-end, from the beaches to the mountains. There's a really great young chef culture in Oaxaca City. It's a town of 300,000 people and they have four really beautiful high-end restaurants that are doing very contemporary versions of traditional Oaxacan food. So that's very cool.
How about the trend predictions?
When the Sargento folks came to me and asked me to do trends I kind of laughed because I'm not really the kind of person that's ever really talked about trends before. A lot of times when you see trend things I think they're always just wish lists for the person that created the list. So I kind of did a list about what I was really excited about right now. So many of those things are reflected on our menus and it's what's driving our creative force.
One of the trends that I pointed out was habanero chilies have kind of hit the mainstream. We are kind of over the chipotle, not over it, but it has become super mainstream now. Ancho chilies, perhaps people have gotten a little familiar with, but the one that people really have gravitated to is the habanero chili. To me that's super cool because it's really emblematic of the cuisine of the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico. It's one of the most distinctive flavored chilies. A lot of people think of it as just heat, but it's also the strongest in flavor and that's one of the things people like. It has all of these tropical citrus notes to it when you smell it.
Another one that I'm really excited about is that we've gone past kale now. Kale was our gateway drug into doing all kinds of other greens and I'm really excited because on our menu we are playing around with all different kinds of greens. Now people are willing to explore other greens like dandelion greens and beet greens and turnip greens. 10 years ago no one would even touch (kale). It was something that lined all salad bars but no one ever ate.
Another one of the trends that we isolated here was Mediterranean food. I've been reading a bunch about Mediterranean food. Not of the Mediterranean side like Greek food but further on in. I got an opportunity to go to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. It was fun to be there because it's the kind of a place where all cultures from the Middle East are represented. To see the similarity and contrast from one country to another as we went from one restaurant to another, I got these things that I've never thought about before, like sumac and pomegranate molasses, which we have now started playing around with in our kitchens because sumac has such a lemony flavor that fits beautifully into our cuisine. Don't be surprised if you see them on our menus in the next couple months.