Bayless Victorious in Top Chef Masters
Master chef Rick Bayless reached back into his Oklahoma roots then to his passion for Mexican cuisine to capture Bravo’s first-ever Top Chef Masters title.
After a nine-week competition with some of the greatest chefs in the U.S., Bayless stood alone as the best of the best.
He said the competition was the most difficult undertaking of his career, but in the end the show’s impossible tasks and unforeseen obstacles couldn’t keep Bayless from winning $100,000 for his Frontera Farmer Foundation.
The foundation provides capital improvement grants that allow farmers to purchase equipment to allow them to remain profitable.
Bayless said the foundation began when a local producer to his two Chicago restaurants teetered on the brink of closing.
“We started it out as a $10,000 loan to be paid back in product. It was so successful, we decided to form the foundation.”
In Wednesday’s finale, he competed against French chef Hubert Keller, who resides in San Francisco and Italian-American chef Michael Chiarello, from the Napa Valley.
They cooked in the historic Getty Villa near Los Angeles. Guest judges included all five winners from Bravo’s flagship reality show, “Top Chef” plus the regular judges for that show Tom Colichio, Padma Lakshi and Gail Simmons.
The three chefs were asked to cook a three-course meal that took diners through a historic, culinary journey through the chefs’ careers.
Bayless drew from his parents’ barbecue restaurant, The Hickory House, where he first learned to cook. The dish was a hickory-smoked quail in the hot barbecue sauce and “sour slaw” his parents served through the 1960s.
From there, he served classic Oaxacan black mole, which is an ultra-complicated sauce that requires nearly 30 spices from dried chile to bitter chocolate. The dish is an incredible balancing act. He said on the show, the recipe took 20 years to perfect. He served it with plantain tamales, seared tuna and nopales (cactus). The dish was clearly his best, drawing raves from the judges.
Next, he served cochinita pibil. Translated, it means baked suckling pig. The traditional dish from the Yucatan typically involves a whole pig marinated in achiote paste, citrus juices and numerous herbs and spices, then wrapped in banana leaves and cooked over hot coals — preferably underground. But Bayless put a more sophisticated spin on the dish, packing it tight in a pan and roasting into a block that could be sliced into squares then plated with sunchoke puree and topped with batter-fried pig’s feet.
His final dish was Arroz a la Tumbada with tomato-jalapeno broth and chorizo “air.” This dish was his weakest in the judges’ estimation. They felt it suffered more from the logistics of the dinner than execution.
He scored 18 stars out of a possible 20 to take the crown.
Bayless watched the finale from his Frontera Grill in Chicago, where he was hosting a watch party. He took time away from his party, to call a local party hosted by chef Ryan Parrott at his Iguana Mexican Grill. He said as he and the competitors were waiting, they assessed the reaction of the judges opposite of the final result.
“We thought Hubert took first, Michael second and me third,” he said.
Bayless has won three James Beard Awards and numerous others, but he said winning this prize was more personal.
“In this competition, it really was my achievement. If I needed garlic, I had to peel it.”
The party drew about 60 people, filling the bar and spilling into the dining area where Parrott had a big-screen TV brought in.
Local chefs in attendance included Sean Cummings, Vince Howard and master chef John Bennett. One fan in attendance attended high school with Skip and Rick Bayless at Northwest Classen High School.
Bayless’ “Mexico: One Plate at a Time” begins its sixth season in September on PBS. A book featuring the sixth season’s recipes is planned for the spring.