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
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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.


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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. 


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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.    
        
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16 comments
skypylit
skypylit

Sad, 'cause you didn't win the prize, emanations from a hopeless toady.

Por que tan Enchilado!
Por que tan Enchilado!

I agree with some points, not all. Most of the article is beyond biased. Sounds angry honestly. It Kinda discredits the validity of the arguments. Then again it's a blog article....as I read somewhere, "graffiti with punctuation".

Scooby Snacks
Scooby Snacks

but like I said atleast their more going on dialogue wise about food.

ScoobySnacks
ScoobySnacks

hahaha you just got called out and now thats the best you can come up with? no wonder nobody takes your shit seriously and your only local appearances is on KOCE with the good old boys' as their token mexican lol hell Bliss and Ghetto juice are newer mags that aren't even necessarily about OC  and those are gone the instant they come out  mean while you can always find the lowly stack of wasted paper that is OC Weekly lol Its used to be a fun read now its just boring and bitter with the same stories just different faces over and over and over again.

Scooby Snacks
Scooby Snacks

Gustavo, thats part my point you dont bash Two Hot Tamales and they are doing the same thing? Is it because it is easier to bash the white boy okie than the lesbian? (all in all Iam stoked that on either side there is this much conversation going on about food in general in today.) oh and fuck you on the laughable insight punk bitch, you aint go know clue who the fuck your talking to when it comes to food. I've been in the food game longer then you have been draggin this mag into the ground at 17 I was cooking for one of the best  in the USA and being invited to cook with Julia Child so suck it easy lol

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 Will do! Felicidades on the zesty latina wife. Mexican Made Easy Season 5--it just gets better and better. 

Scooby Snacks
Scooby Snacks

I like on Mexico One Plate of a time he is a great promoter of mexico, there seemingly  is hate and bitterness from OC Weekly for the sake of having it. Its weak. Like rather than appreciate the fact that at least a white boy okie is doing this much you just wanna shit on em. Its like "oh well Rick just didnt do it the way Gustavo and Bill thinks he should have so let shit on him for it...fuck the fact that he hsa done more to at least put mexican cooking on the radar then Gustavo has ever done and quite possibly whill have ever done.(although credit is due to Gustavo to getting the  few thousand readers of OC Weekly to venture in to OC they normally wouldnt go to. ) Also there are some good (not amaziing etc) chefs on tv you just have to look for them and be willing to watch foriegn channels. Although Kim Chi Chronicles is good, and Pattis Mexican Table. And how bout that one nun who cooks I forgot what channel she is on in Spanish And who cares about if he promotes a brand isn't that what OC Weekly does too? Oh heres our new story....dont foget WE brought it to you first..... blah blah

selena
selena

 hello. My name is Miss Selena, I was looking for a man for friendship serious, when I came across your profile and decided to leave this note for you, I'm asking for serious friendship with you, I'm lonely and bored and I do not hide my feelings, please, I want you to contact me directly to my private email address for easiest communication, (selenaob@yahoo.com). I will send my pictures to you and tell you more about me when I hear from you. I'll be waiting to read your mail in my email box. Thank you. (selenaob@yahoo.com)

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 Hello Lesley! It is specifically in regards to the various interviews, two of which have been attached to this post, where he said he was bringing southern Mexican cuisine to LA where there are a ton of oaxaquenos, poblanos, michoacanos, and chilangos while saying that the Mexicans here were making burritos and tacos. In the other interview he's asked why he's the best Mexican chef in America he responds by saying because he's not bound by traditions. There are other interviews where he does the same--it wasn't necessary to list all of them here. The Feast interview is really enough. I've spoken with Mexican chefs who've approached him and have been ignored, I've heard from chefs in LA who were confused by some of his proclamations, and some that were very upset. There are other people here that I'd rather not mention as it's a small world. Myself, I found it an absurd statement.  I don't doubt Rick minded his P's and Q's in Puebla, a place he has a lot of respect for. No one is disrespectful to everyone. Bayless promotes a brand, Authentic Mexican is just a pitch man's phrase his team throws around--it's a campaign. The Mexican government is unaware of how Mexican food has developed in the US--that's no surprise. Truth is, it has been the mass produced products that have promoted Mexican cuisine, and ultimately the irresistible combination of flavors. El Torito has reached more people than Bayless, and have practically brought them to the same foods give or take a mole or two.  He came to LA with non-Southern flavors, not shaking hands with local chefs and cooks bringing food items people in LA and the OC have been eating for years. Shaking some hands in Puebla doesn't change any of this. "Probably made some Mexicans pay attention..." Indeed. The perception that Americans have learned about Mexican food because of Rick Bayless is a myth. There's no evidence for this and no way to substantiate it. There's overwhelming evidence to the contrary--it's all in Gustavo's book, and estoy de acuerdo. And, yes, I agree he's a smart business man, that's fine, the Walmart family is full of geniuses. He has the success, but is asking for something else he doesn't deserve. His peers aren't asking for this: Puck, etc.  Well, that's a whole other thing--why don't we have more kick-ass Mexican chefs like Marcela on TV? Why aren't their more Asians on food television?  Let's discuss this more after at least 6 drinks at La Mascota listening to our favorite band, and splitting a chamorro. Besos y abrazos!            

Lesley Tellez
Lesley Tellez

Bill, you know how much I love to hear you talk about Rick Bayless, but I still don't entirely get your argument. You said in a comment: "It's about him dissing real Mexican chefs, it's about him passing himself off as the best Mexican chef in America, and not being even close to mom and pops, haute cuisine in Mexico, or our Mexican chefs doing fine traditional cuisine here, let alone in Mexico." Which specific Mexican chefs has he dissed? When I saw Bayless at the Mole Festival in Puebla this year, he had squeezed in time to visit with Poblano chefs and cocineras, and they were all honored that he visited their restaurants. (Or at least they were outwardly.) Also, I don't remember him specifically saying that he's the best Mexican chef in America. Maybe I missed that? I think the spotlight is on him because he's a smart businessman and he's learned how the game works. Of course we could use more high-profile, kick-ass Mexican chefs on TV and in the mainstream media, and I think we're already heading in that direction. Marcela is totally kick-ass, and I'm a huge fan of Patricia Jinich. But I don't think Bayless is saying he has to be the king.  One other thing I wanted to mention, in regards to the Order of the Aztec Eagle, is Mexico's complicated relationship with its own cuisine. A lot of trendy fondas and restaurants in Mexico City don't actually embrace Mexican cooking -- there's still a sentiment here that any food from the United States or Europe is cooler/better. All of this to say that by being a gringo promoting Mexican food, Rick Bayless probably made some Mexicans pay attention, or at least caused them to rethink their stance about Mexican food not being good enough. Here's a link to the proclamation that ran in the Diario Oficial: http://www.dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5251077&fecha=06/06/2012

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 Ha! Well, Marcela is a dear friend, and is one of the most amazing people I know, but I'm married to a hot Brazilian, so you tell me. Mexican Made Easy is amazing, Marcela is divine.

Chuy Nomas
Chuy Nomas

Mr. Dodd, Obviously there is a war on Baja cuisine...Give me a list of places to go to in Baja and I will compare them to what Mr. Esparza has on his blog. If the places you go to are better than Esparza's suggestions I will personally bring you a bottle of rare wild tequila, otherwise you will have to eat your words. Fair? Let's get it on. Chuy Tovar

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 Do you have jalapeno pop corn or something spicy? Some Victoria's too if you have them.

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 I love that this is coming from a twitter follower that asks where eat good Latino food.  Could that be--passive-aggressive?

Bill Esparza
Bill Esparza

 NOBODY here is on his case for being a white guy who cooks Mexican. There are plenty of examples that I shall not list as I'm not interested in taking the race bait here. Rick is one chef, and doesn't represent White-Americans anymore than he does Mexican-Americans. Can we move on from that?--because that's not what we're talking about. You know what, every housewife that heads to Oaxaca to take the Seasons of my Heart classes, or any other mole cooking courses can do a damn good mole, but it doesn't make them Mexican chefs. It's about him dissing real Mexican chefs, it's about him passing himself off as the best Mexican chef in America, and not being even close to mom and pops, haute cuisine in Mexico, or our Mexican chefs doing fine traditional cuisine here, let alone in Mexico. Puck, Keller, etc.don't go around claiming to be the best Chinese, French, etc. I also don't agree with the political merit of the the Order of the Aztec Eagle in this case. Some agree, I disagree. Mexican line cooks work in practically every sushi restaurant in LA prepping and doing hot foods, but Japanese food sucks in Mexico. I also believe Japanese make the best Japanese sushi masters. It's not blood my friend, it's the formative experience. Mexicans are from all races, ethnicities, but their experience as Mexicans living and eating in Mexico makes a huge difference. Just like Rick's huge accent in Spanish, his cooking has a tremendous accent, which could use a dash of reality, and a pinch of humility. This has nothing to do with your chilaquiles, which I'm sure I'd enjoy.       

Agliopiccante
Agliopiccante like.author.displayName 1 Like

Keep milking that Baja cow for your own agenda Esparza...

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