Rick Bayless has become a household name thanks to a pair of Chicago restaurants – Frontera Grill and Topolobampo – a series of cookbooks, and a food-focused travel show on PBS called Mexico – One Plate at a Time. He’s also got the more casual Xoco, a trio of Frontera Fresco locations inside Macy’s department stores and his latest venture, Tortas Frontera, which brings Mexican-inspired sandwiches and a guacamole bar to O’Hare International Airport. Bayless certainly made a splash when helping to open RED O, a flashy pan-regional Mexican restaurant with a doorman in West Hollywood. On the eve of RED O’s first anniversary, which brought Bayless to L.A. to prepare the black mole that helped him win Top Chef Masters, we spoke by phone.
What were you hoping to accomplish with RED O, and have you done that?
Our goal with RED O was simply to bring the flavors known at Frontera in Chicago to L.A. And I feel like we’ve done that really well. One of the things that we do at Frontera is use local ingredients. We didn’t want to just to take those local ingredients from Chicago and bring them to L.A. That’s been the biggest challenge to me because I don’t know the area. I’ve been working with chefs from L.A. who’ve introduced me to the local supply and also purveyors to help understand local flavors and create dishes with those, but in the style that everyone knows from Frontera. That’s helped us get to where we need to be.
Do you still have plans to help open a second RED O, and if so, how will it differ from the West Hollywood original?
Right now there are plans to do that, but no location has been established yet. It takes a long time to find a location. The idea remains, but we still don’t have a location yet.
What impact has winning Top Chef Masters had on your career?
I’ve been at it for a long time, so it wasn’t like people just discovered who I was. People knew who I was, but it showed people a different side, because they just know me as the guy who cooks regional Mexican food. I had the opportunity to show people that I have a varied style and that I cook a whole lot of different things, because I cook at home all the time. What I cook at the restaurants is the food people have come to associate with, but I do a lot of different things as well.
What is there left for you still to accomplish as a chef?
To me it’s not sort of just a list of things because our food and our understanding of food evolves constantly, so I don’t know what else there is to. I love to keep fresh with it, I love to explore new things, and 20 years ago, if you told me there would be a whole movement of chefs working with molecular gastronomy I would have laughed in your face, but today it seems like the right thing to do.
What was the most recent dish that you developed for one of your restaurants, and what was your approach?
We just came back from shooting in Baja, California, and we put a tasting menu on in Topolobampo that focuses on the food of Baja, California. While I was shooting TV there, I did a dinner for a bunch of winemakers. I did a roasted rack of lamb with pasilla chile sauce that had Baja red wine in it, local herbs and black olives. I’m perfecting it and that’s just on the menu now, starting last Tuesday.
We go through a whole lot of testing before we put something on the menu, the same as when we do something for books and shows, we test the recipes a lot.
Do you feel like you’ve made dishes over the years that you could not have improved?
No, I think that food always evolves. It’s never perfect, it’s perfect at that moment. You can always come back to it and think about it in a different way.
What you look for when hiring a chef to work in your kitchen?