Rick Bayless Surveys a Decorated Career with a 35th Anniversary Menu
January 23, 2024
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To serve Oaxacan black mole at the White House, Rick Bayless had to circumvent some security protocols. “The thing that people don’t understand is that, when you do a state dinner, you can’t take any prepared foods with you” or provide your own ingredients, Bayless says, lest a nefarious actor gain access to the food. But black mole – which is currently on a menu celebrating the 35th anniversary of Bayless’ fine dining River North restaurant Topolobampo – traditionally takes three days to make and incorporates almost 30 ingredients that can be difficult to find in the United States.
Nevertheless, Bayless was determined to serve it at a 2010 White House state dinner honoring then-president of Mexico Felipe Calderón. (Topolobampo was a favorite of the Obamas, and Bayless was once rumored to be their first choice for White House chef.) “We were working with this fellow who had been the chief procurer for the White House for I think about 30 years, and he had never been asked for any of these ingredients,” Bayless recalls. The procurer couldn’t find some of the necessary dried chiles, but relented and allowed Bayless to send them to his house, where he examined them himself before bringing them to the White House.
Asked if he found a loophole in White House security, Bayless laughs and says, “Don’t say that out loud!”
That mole and the White House state dinner are just a couple highlights of Bayless’ long and decorated career as a chef who has helped introduce Americans to the complex cuisine of Mexico via deeply researched cookbooks, PBS TV shows, and several Chicago restaurants, including Topolobampo, which opened in 1989. The mole is one of various “greatest hits” from throughout the decades featured on the 35th anniversary Topolobampo menu, which runs through March 9th.
You can try making the mole yourself at home, thanks to Bayless’ recipe and his accompanying YouTube tutorial. Just be warned: he calls it “one of the hardest dishes to get right in the world.” (It won him the first season of Top Chef Masters in 2009.)
“It was like the holy grail for me, because it’s such a hard dish to get right,” he says. He didn’t include it in his first cookbook, released the same day he opened his first restaurant, Frontera Grill, in 1987. He only felt confident enough to publish it a decade later in his second cookbook. In the intervening time, he “was going back and forth to Oaxaca a couple of times a year, and every time I would go, I would eat it, I would watch people make it, I would be in hands-on cooking classes making it, and it took me a full decade to get it right,” he recalls.
“My thing was that, if a Oaxacan grandmother came into our restaurant, would they taste my mole negro and say, ‘Well, it’s not exactly like mine, but he really knows what he’s doing.’”
That has been the goal of Bayless and his wife Deann through all of their restaurants: to bring outstandingly prepared traditional Mexican dishes to Americans. “I want to have shown a really bright light on the integrity of really great Mexican food, the way that it’s made in Mexico, done at the highest level,” he says. “We wanted to say, ‘This cuisine deserves more,’ but you have to really understand how to make it.”
He and Deann have put in the time to understand it. They spent five years traveling Mexico to write that first cookbook, and have continued to return to sample and learn new regional specialities. It was on one such trip down the 1,000-mile length of the Baja peninsula that Bayless came up with the name for Topolobampo. Decades ago, the roads in Baja were bumpy, gas stations were so far apart that you had to carry extra fuel with you, and lodgings were restricted to camping.
“I’m a big city person through and through,” Bayless says ruefully, “So this was sort of not my favorite thing.” At the end of the journey, they took a car ferry across the Gulf of California “back to a Mexico that I knew” and landed in the Sinaloan town of Topolobampo. When he was trying to come up with a name for his fine-dining restaurant, he settled on the name of a town that “represented a new frontier” and also a “refuge.”
The restaurant Topolobampo certainly represented a new frontier for many Americans. When it opened, most of the Mexican restaurants in Chicago were “neighborhood places and inexpensive,” Bayless says, serving standard tacos and burritos in order to cater to American tastes. “What we were able to do was craft a menu that changed regularly and really celebrated the different regions of Mexico.”
Since that opening in 1989, Bayless and Topolobampo have received a staggering number of accolades, from consistent four-star reviews in hometown publications to James Beard Awards for Outstanding Restaurant (Frontera also won that), Outstanding Chef, and Humanitarian of the Year. Only five Chicago restaurants have maintained a Michelin star since the Michelin guide came to the city, thirteen years ago; Topolobampo is one of them.
Perhaps part of the continued recognition is because of Bayless’ restless search for the new. He opened Xoco in 2009 to serve tortas, churros, and drinking chocolate, and Bar Sótano in 2018 to highlight the agave-based spirits of Mexico. (Topolobampo offers beverage pairings featuring both Mexican wine and agave spirits.) The menus at both those restaurants, as well as Frontera and Topolobampo, changes regularly – Bayless is also a champion of seasonal, local produce, and supports local farmers through his Frontera Farmer Foundation.
“Perhaps my favorite moments are when we’re changing to a new menu at Topolo and we get to go through all the brainstorming for that: new techniques that we’re going to use, and new ingredients that we’re going to bring in and introduce to our clientele, and developing the dishes that go with it,” he says. He didn’t want to do an anniversary menu until he realized that he and his team could improve the recipes from when they previously served them. “Creating new menus and making things better all the time, I never tire of that,” he says.
New dishes or ideas often come from his staff, who might have knowledge of a regional style from their childhood or a relative’s cooking. “Last week, one of the cooks in Xoco came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this torta that I ate growing up, and I think it could go on our menu,’” Bayless says. “He’s from the state of Veracruz and there’s this famous torta that’s only from one town, and it’s a town I’ve never been to.”
Frontera Grill’s February menu was developed by the restaurant’s chef Richard James and sous chef Javauneeka Jacobs, who just won a Chopped tournament on the Food Network, thanks in part to skills and recipes cultivated in the kitchens of Bayless’ restaurants. In honor of Black History Month, the menu focuses on Afro-Mestizo dishes that were created by enslaved and later freed Africans in Mexico utilizing Spanish and indigenous Mexican ingredients.
Bayless believes that well-prepared, faithful food can foster understanding of other cultures, something that is “more important than ever,” given “what we face with immigration issues.”
“The people [about whom] we oftentimes hear folks saying, ‘Keep them away!’ are actually bringing a rich culture with them,” he says.