Stainless steel counters, blinding overhead lights, and a sea of mise en plase — a chef's kitchen is the arena in which he or she throws down artful plates of food night after night in an endless game of "satisfy the diner." At home, chefs' kitchens play an equally important role with a distinctively different feel. At Rick Bayless', it's one of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century tavern.
The pioneer of modern Mexican cuisine's Bucktown home is built in a former tavern that dates back to 1903. However, when he moved in 20 years ago, the kitchen was something straight out of a 1980's Better Homes and Gardens issue — stark white counters with matching frameless cabinets "jarred my perception of what this place was or could be," he says. Bayless gutted the room and returned it to its former — while adding some gourmet additions — with Terrazzo flooring, original metal tiled ceiling, knotty pine inset cabinets, stain-resistant soapstone counters, and a central island covered in maple butcher block.
While Bayless' kitchen, with its plant-covered windowsills and cabinets lined with artifacts from his travels, is no doubt aesthetically pleasing in a rustic and cozy way, it is first and foremost utilitarian. "A kitchen to me is not a beautiful place," he says. "It's a working place, so it should be incredibly functional." The counters are made with the same material found in chemistry labs so they are stain-resistant, while the central island acts as one big cutting board. The pride and joy of his kitchen, however, is its design.
"A kitchen to me is not a beautiful place. It's a working place, so it should be incredibly functional."
"I built it with a tight triangle that should be in everyone's kitchen," Bayless says. "That triangle is from workspace to sink to refrigerator, and it's one step to each place. A lot of times people don't think about that when they're building a larger kitchen like this one, but basically you also have to have your place to work and you can't be running across the kitchen to the refrigerator and running across the kitchen to the sink. All of that will tire you out and you'll dislike your cooking."
What is Bayless cooking in his ergonomically friendly kitchen? Not Mexican food. He, like many of the chefs who work at his restaurants, takes a more eclectic approach to home cooking by fusing flavors and recipes from his travels with his Oklahoma roots. A fourth-generation cook, Bayless' family owned a barbecue restaurant, so much of his home cooking is a combination of southern and southwestern styles. He even uses the fireplace in his living room to grill vegetables and slow-roast meats such as pork loin.
Aside from his fireplace and Fire Star range, Bayless rarely uses many of the gadgets that fill his kitchen. From a Cryovac machine to a Thermomix that is popular in Mexico and Europe but not sold in the United States, the most utilized tools are a sharp knife and heavy skillet. His knives come from all over the world — a surprise trip to Japan that his wife got him for his 60th birthday, gifted by a chef from Beijing, and commemorating a "Chef of the Year" award. "It's not my go-to everyday knife, but it'll be the one I pull out, and as I'm cutting, I'm reliving all of the experiences on that trip or who I got to eat with or cook with or go to a market with," he says. "Those are some of my most prized possessions."