A Long, Withering Takedown of Rick Bayless on Occasion of Him Receiving an Award from Mexico, or: Rick Bayless, the Michael Bolton of Mexican Food

Categories: Indigestion
On June 6, Chef Rick Bayless received from the Mexican government the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Insignia class (lower ranking reserved for non-royals and non-politicians) for his work in promoting Mexican cuisine in general, and Mexican haute cuisine, specifically, in his PBS television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time (recently shot in Baja California) and his first cookbook Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico. This is the highest honor awarded to a foreigner in Mexico, an award that counts among its recipients Nelson Rockefeller (think this one was given to help Nelson forget about his lost Mexican oil holdings?), Placido Domingo, Diana Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran. I presume Mexico didn't want to make the same mistake with Bayless as they did with Diana Kennedy--they practically gave her the Order of the Aztec Eagle post-mortem.  

Let's get this straight--this award is only for Bayless' TV show and cookbooks promoting Mexican cuisine, not for cooking, as some would insinuate. Due to the limits of Google translator, Eater, Food and Wine, and other US coverage of this story have slightly altered the announcement to include his work at Frontera and Topolobampo, or have failed to report specifically why he was given this award, and the class. We don't want Chef Bayless getting lumped in with the Shah of Iran, right? Hey, I guess they skipped over Bayless' gig as consulting chef for Burger King's Santa Fe chicken baguette?  

But before I go any further let's revisit our history with Sr. Bayless beginning with the first putazo he received when he came to LA, and to the attention of this publication. 

I had written a scathing review of Bayless's cooking after visiting LA's Red O: Cuisine by Rick Bayless titled Tinga tu Madre and Guacaviche in response to an interview he gave for NBC's Feast. Chef Bayless famously dismissed Los Angeles Mexican cuisine as tacos and burritos while stating that he was bringing his southern flavors of Mexico. At Red O, my dining group encountered subpar Mexican cuisine mostly from the north, Pacific, and any other region except the south, but we did get a foul tasting chilpachole with Carlsbad mussels that "tasted more like Long Beach." Maybe that's what chef meant by the south? 

And this triangle he speaks of in the South, the triangle of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City he has ceaselessly promoted for decades as the only regions of Mexico worthy of visiting for its food? Straight-up bullshit. He has dismissed the North and had previously referred to Tijuana and Baja as a wasteland until LA bloggers (your truly and Dave part of the mix) made folks in the US reconsider the region. Matter of fact, in the next couple of months Chef Rick Bayless and his restaurant staff will be coming to Baja for workshops, and training sessions. So much for for the pinche triangle theory. The former anthropology student can't find great Mexican cuisine in LA, or Baja--he needs a fixer or to read blogs.    

In the same NBC interview he contradicted himself saying that LA doesn't have the complex moles he prefers while at the same time acknowledging the large Oaxacan population in LA. There are more moles in LA than any other place in the US with our many Oaxacan restaurants, poblanos, chilangos, zacatecano, and the haute style moles found in restaurants like La Casita Mexicana, Juan's Restaurant, and Rocio's Mole de Los Dioses. I'm glad I watched this video again, as I realized I was wrong, Bayless is even more pendejo than I thought. He even claimed that burritos might have been invented in LA! Not true, of course: read Gustavo's book for further info.   

I managed to sneak past the Red O defenses one afternoon not too long ago with a visiting chef who wanted to try a few plates--it was just as mundane as ever, and I stand by my original review.  

I completely understand the Mexican government's decision to give Chef Rick Bayless this award: these types of awards exist in every country and are ultimately diplomatic instruments. For her part, Diana Kennedy has credited Mexican cooks for recipes, and never commercialized her experience in Mexico outside of cookbooks and culinary tours, but she also shows little respect for the Mexican chefs cooking haute cuisine in DF, including some barbs at chef Patricia Quintana's Izote--Chef Patricia Quintana is the real culinary ambassador of Mexico. 

Rick doesn't have to have a Mexican mother or grandmothers, he wants all of yours!

Señor. Rick has always been a good businessman. He launched a cookbook, TV show, and Frontera Grill all at the same time in a seemingly unlikely Latino market (Chicago, which actually has long had the second-largest Mexican community in the United States outside of Los Angeles) to become the big fish in a little pond. When asked by a local station a few years back, "Why is a non-latino from Oklahoma the best Mexican chef in the US?", he accepted the laughable assertion instead of rejecting it, remarking that he's not bound by the traditions of a region, and that he can select traditions from his many "Mexican grandmothers." This was the battle plan behind restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, Red O, and Frontera Fresco. As I said before, these restaurants already exist in Mexico--they are called hotel restaurants, and they do a better job than Bayless.

Bill Esparza
Chef Rick Bayless' Xoco, Chicago

I visited Xoco for the first time last summer and am still recovering from the indigestion. Xoco is a more distilled version of Bayless' tus abuelitas strategy: churros ripped off from DF's El Moro, tortas ahogadas from Guadalajara and DF, and classic Mexican soups inspired by various regions. Plus, the usual Bayless touches like a torta of Woodland mushrooms--sas!  

A recent New York Times article on how American-born chefs borrow and commercialize ethnic cuisines written by Francis Lam echoed what we've been saying here for years. By avoiding the challenging flavors, textures, and ingredients for the mainstream American consumer found in regional cuisines, chefs like Rick Bayless can keep his food accessible and commercially viable in the US market. I mean, all this talk about Oaxaca and he only offers a few moles. There are 722 regional plates in Oaxaca, and we kill it here in LA and OC for Oaxacan. Bayless visits a region, snags some recipes that he thinks will sell in his restaurants, shoots his show, saves some stuff for his cookbooks, and then returns with his chefs to better replicate the flavors in his restaurants. 

Bill Esparza
Torta ahogada, Xoco

The torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich at Xoco comes on a french roll made at a nearby bakery--there's no attempt to make a pan salado in house, or find a bakery that can produce the hard roll that's a specialty of Jalisco. Sr. Bayless: even the mom and pops you diss here in LA have suppliers for pan salado--local bakers.    
But, wait: there's more!

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