Chef Rick Bayless cooks at the 2018 James Beard Awards. - Eliesa Johnson / <a href=''>Topolobampo</a> Chef Rick Bayless cooks at the 2018 James Beard Awards. - Eliesa Johnson / <a href=''>Topolobampo</a>

Innovative Restaurateurs: Rick Bayless Is Still Stretching His Wings

Rick Bayless, easily one of Chicago’s most famous chefs, was supposed to spend 2018 working on a memoir.

Instead, he opened another new restaurant. And he finally admitted something that generations of customers at his Mexican-inspired restaurants already knew.

“Only within the last year I would allow anyone to call our enterprise a company,” Bayless said.

Despite building a collection that now takes in $20 million a year, with about 300 employees, Bayless said, “I only wanted us to be a restaurant.”

That enterprise includes four restaurants on Chicago’s North Clark Street, including his original restaurant, Frontera Grill, which opened in 1987, and two on West Randolph Street, in the bustling West Loop area.

There are also three licensed Bayless operations at O’Hare Airport, two outposts in Chicago-area Macy’s stores, and one each at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and at the Disney Springs resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Around the time he opened his latest place, Bar Sotano, which focuses on mezcal- and tequila-based cocktails, he knew it was time to “cross the line,” and become “a company with values, a company with vision.”

A Hands-On Approach

Bayless, who turned 65 last fall, is at the age when many chefs become figureheads, rarely donning their white coats except for occasional tours of their dining rooms.

Not him. Bayless still cooks for restaurant patrons at special dinners, like one he conducted last year at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and for his closest friends, including Peter Sagal, the host of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, the NPR quiz show.

“He’s done more than anyone to spread the gospel of Mexican food as a legitimate national cuisine, as important, complex, [and tasty] as French or Italian or Chinese,” said Sagal, who met Bayless in 2002 when he asked him to sign a cookbook as a gift. “More than any other one person I can think of to make Chicago a dining destination and a vibrant place to eat.”

Yet he’s a Windy City transplant. Bayless grew up in Oklahoma, where his father owned a barbecue restaurant. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma and a masters from the University of Michigan, where he met his wife and business partner, Deann.

Although Bayless was pursuing a Ph.D. in Anthropological Linguistics at Michigan, the pair decided to move to Mexico, where he fell in love with Mexican cuisine and wrote his first book, “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.”

Building a Business

Once based in Chicago, his Frontera Grill was quickly a success, followed by Tompolobampo, one of the city’s first restaurants stressing high-quality Mexican cuisine. A Michelin star followed, and Bayless’ reputation soared, boosted by his devotion to supporting local farmers and his public television program, “Mexico: One Plate at A Time.”

Ina Pinkney, who owned Ina’s, a beloved Chicago breakfast café, says she still remembers the first time Bayless visited her place.

“When I opened on Randolph Street, and he walked in with his family, I nearly fainted. He was the rock star [chef] in 2000,” said Pinkney, now a columnist with the Chicago Tribune.

Pati Jinich, a native of Mexico who has won accolades for her own Mexican cuisine, says she’s grateful to Bayless for raising awareness of her country’s dishes.

“I think he’s done an extraordinary job in promoting Mexico and getting people to know Mexico,” said Jinich, who recently won a 2019 James Beard Award for her TV program, “Pati’s Mexican Table.”

Although the debate over cultural appropriation has created waves across the food world, Jinich sees no problem with an American-born chef embracing Mexican cuisine.

“Everybody has a right to explore what they are interested in. I don’t think only Mexicans should cook Mexican food. What’s the point of that?” Jinich says.

Decades after discovering Mexican cuisine, Bayless still talks of it in a way that can make listeners salivate. “We’re action-oriented and physically oriented. People [who work for him] are visual learners and very, very sensual in terms of using all their senses all the time,” he said.

He can tell how a dish is developing by smelling it from 16 feet away. “You walk into most offices and for me, they smell like stale coffee and bad cardboard. The most uninteresting smells in the world. Bad smells,” he said. “I walk into my work, and I can tell you when it’s time to take the carnitas off the stove or that we’re roasting ducks right now.”

Yet he also approaches his company with an eye to improvement. “Every year, I look at our business from 30,000 feet, and say, ‘What are we really lacking? What’s gone off the rails? What’s going on with this aspect of our business?'” he said. “We’re looking at how to be better with the most pressing need.”

Employee Focus

Bayless picks an annual theme on which to focus his employees. For instance, 2019 has become a year of storytelling within his restaurants, a theme that comes up regularly in meetings about potential menu items.

“All you hear people talking about is ‘what story we can tell with this dish’,” Bayless said. “It makes everyone hyper-conscious of this. We’re building patterns and making it part of our DNA.”

Rather than draft long-term goals, Bayless said his company has evolved organically. “You have to be completely open to all the possibilities around you. In my mind, I consider one thing after another. That could be our next move.”

When he hears a staffer mention a new idea, he asks questions. “I want to know more of what they just said. I might have four or five things [in mind], but until I’ve committed to it, I don’t have a time table. I’m waiting for the right people to move across my line of vision.”

Yet he doesn’t ignore what’s happening in real time. Bayless said he has three staffers assigned to watch over his airport operations, and Sagal said he has spied the chef on occasion.

Of those outposts, which often have long lines stretching down the concourse, Bayless said, “I’m very aware that for many people, it is the only taste of Frontera they will ever get.”

Sagal believes Bayless could have an even bigger business, if he wanted, but that would mean taking a lesser role.

“He genuinely believes that cooking is an interpersonal transaction,” Sagal said. “When you go to his restaurants, he’s cooking, for you — and you lose that at too great a scale.”

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