Rick Bayless: An Oklahoma-Grown Hero
Oklahoma City native Rick Bayless has crossed the goal line with the pig skin. Of course, it came off a suckling pig marinated in an achiote-citrus based mix rather than a football. But the Sooner state is on its feet nonetheless.
Kids from Texas, California and occasionally Oklahoma who don a football uniform for our college football teams routinely are the topic of conversation, hero-worship, much fawning and praise. It’s a nice thing for the kids. Football is a nice escape from maudlin lives. It all works out. They move on to the NFL or normal lives, and we move on to the next crop. To quote Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused,” we get older and they stay the same age.
Nevertheless, once they wear a football jersey, their lives carry a certain level of interest forever, whether they end up with a bust in the Hall of Fame or just busted.
To earn the attention, respect and interest of this community from any other field is a tall order.
But master chef Rick Bayless has been filling tall orders since he was a teenager. While most of us went through high school ordering take out from rib joints, Rick was in the kitchen making the sauce. While most of us were bouncing through high school trying to make our first love connection, Rick was running a catering operation and working ahead to get through school in three years instead of four. When most of us turned 21, it was license to go on our first bar crawl. When Rick turned 21, he was starting grad school and, again, running a catering company. He’d been through plenty of heartbreak and disappointment by 21, but he never stopped reaching forward.
I’ve been a fan of Rick’s since 1987 when his first book, “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico” was published.
I grew up in San Diego and Austin and was supported by a leather goods manufacturing business owned and operated by my parents but run by Mexican employees. The business began in Tijuana as a mail order holster supplier. It grew over time into a manufacturer for the U.S. military. I worked in the factory every summer, listening to Tejano music, ducking dried balls of contact cement and begging for food made by the wives of the men who worked for Cathey Enterprises.
I remember having dinner at our foreman’s house when I was 16, we ate without silverware that night.
“In Mexico, most people don’t have money for that sort of thing,” Alfredo told me. “Tortillas are our forks”
Then he showed me the art of the swipe: tear a tortilla into four, then using the thumb and forefinger pinch the wedge firm enough to slide into the beans, rice and pork/chicken/beef and lift. Presto, you have a bite-size taco. When the eating is done, you’ve not only finished all the food, you’ve also cleaned the plate.
I still have the first cookbook I ever bought, “Mexican Cookery” by Barbara Hansen. I was 12 and only had money for a paperback. The book tore in two at least 20 years ago, but I still have both halves and proudly use a number of recipes from it and a lot of the techniques today. I’ve thrown a gringofied Cinco de Mayo party every year, and that book is greatly responsible for it.
Then I bought a used copy of Diana Kennedy‘s “Recipes From the Regional Cooks of Mexico,” which was the perfect segue into Bayless. “Mexican Everyday” is more than a book title for me.
When Rick described his first experience with Oaxacan black mole, it reminded me of my first mole experience. I was 12. My parents and I ventured out one Monday night to a popular local Tex-Mex spot in Austin called Jorge’s. Little did we know, Jorge’s was closed Mondays. Just down the street was a new restaurant called Fonda San Miguel, which featured interior Mexican cuisine. They were opened Mondays and mole on the menu. At first, I wasn’t sure about it.
It had this chocolate aftertaste that confused my fledgling palate. It had a peanut butter tone that seemed out of place to someone who was used to getting his Mexican on at a place called Jorge’s Uptown Enchilada Bar or Matt’s El Rancho.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and tried it again on a subsequent visit. Then again and again. Both Jorge’s and Fonda San Miguel still stand today, just a few blocks apart, but my family never ate at Jorge’s again. When I go back to Austin, I rarely miss a chance to go to Fonda San Miguel. And every time I go, I think I’m going to try something new but when the waiter asks to take my order, I invariably end up saying, “pollo en mole poblano.” It has a flavor unlike anything I’ve ever tasted. It’s a rich clash of spicy and sweet, nutty and smooth. I cook a lot, but I don’t cook mole. It’s a labor-intensive and time-consuming dish.
When Rick first started trying to make mole, he had only the experiences from his parents barbecue restaurant to draw from — no classical training. He had no Internet recipes to compare, no instructional videos to observe. He had only what he’d learned in his travels and the resolve to begin a 20-year journey to perfect a single dish. The result: renowned food critic Gael Greene admits: “I was just shivering all over when I tasted that dish.”
Rick tasted something he loved, saw how hard it would be to make and got started on a 20-year journey to perfection. I tasted something I loved, saw how hard it would be to make and chose a different recipe to learn. Rick wins Top Chef Masters, I watch him win Top Chef Masters.
He’s never chased money, but money found him. His Frontera Foods line was the idea of a regular customer.
But does he sit in the corner of restaurant counting it? Nope. He said he chose to compete in Top Chef Masters because he likes challenge himself, step outside his comfort zone. Like his mother who picked up golf at 50, Rick is pushing himself at 55. That’s how you become Top Chef Master.
But that’s a made-for-TV title. A passing fancy. Take a good look, folks. You’re looking at far more than a reality TV star.
The Joseph Campbell model tells us heroes overcome weakness or bondage, using resolute courage to rise from the masses and elevate the consciousness of the community through self-sacrifice for the greater good.
So what do you call a kid who after losing his father as a teen takes on family responsibilities while getting his education in less time than required in order to speed up pursuit of his dream? Courageous.
What do you call someone hurtling down one path who stops midstream to follow his life’s calling despite the investment in time and money and throws himself into this new dream without reservation and turns that decision into a multi-platform, multi-million dollar career that not only supports his family, but pays respect to the underappreciated, elevates his community culturally and uses his success to sustain others financially? And what if that person is a chef whose never been classically trained but himself goes on to train up-and-coming chefs into rewarding, successful careers? And what if the cuisine he chooses has long been marginalized and is now looked at with respect thanks to his years of passionate and reverential sharing and education?
Way more than a Heisman Trophy winner. Sounds like a hero.
Congratulations Rick, you’ve earned it. You’re an inspiration to millions and a source of incredible pride to your home state of Oklahoma. And by all accounts, you’re a good son, too.
Go behind the scenes of Top Chef Masters with Rick here.