Frontera Grill, a Mexican-American eatery in Chicago, was recently awarded the prestigious James Beard Award for Best Restaurant in the United States. Bob talks to award-winning chef Rick Bayless, the owner of Frontera, about how he got his start in the cooking business and his approach to preparing meals and healthy eating.
Rick says he grew up in the restaurant business. His parents owned a family-style restaurant in Oklahoma City for 37 years. As much as Rick loved the family business, he says he decided to set out to carve out his own path in life. His love of culture took him to Mexico, where Rick lived for almost six years, all the while traveling and learning about the diverse types of cuisine that Mexico had to offer.
Rick compiled what he learned in his first cookbook, Authentic Mexican, but says he still yearned to take a more hands-on approach with the foods and dishes he had come to love. That's when Rick opened his restaurant, where he says he learned to adapt to his business what he had been taught by regional cooks throughout Mexico.
Rick is largely credited as one of the first American chefs to bring authentic Mexican cuisine to an American audience, changing the image of Mexican food in America. Incorporating fresh ingredients, lots of vegetables and flavorful spices, Rick says his dishes are a far cry from what many Americans regard as Mexican food—things covered in melted cheese, served with heaping amounts of sour cream, guacamole and refried beans. Because these calorie-dense "border" foods—which Rick says are primarily an American invention—are often enjoyed with margaritas and beers, he calls them "drinking food"—not authentic Mexican.
A typical dish on Rick's menu would be something like pescado sarandeado from the west coast of Mexico, in which a whole fish is marinated with lime juice, green chili and garlic, roasted over a wood fire, then served with pico de gallo, a freshly chopped tomato salsa. Rick says it's not only delicious, it's good for you, too. "This is a piece of grilled fish with an all-vegetable salsa—you can't get any healthier than that," he says.
Contrary to the saying in the culinary field that "you can't trust a thin chef," Rick is a fit and healthy guy. He says you can be a great cook and a serious food lover and still be healthy. "I have a theory about good food, and that is that if it's really tasty and well prepared, it satisfies you in a way that poorly prepared food or bland food can never do," Rick says.
Great food and good health go hand in hand, Rick says. "You're always hungry if you're not eating really, really good food," he says. "I can have a modest size portion of something and feel incredibly satisfied with that," he says. "I don't have to overindulge because it's beautiful food, it's fresh food and it's well seasoned." Being mindful when you dine and enjoying your meals are also keys to excellent food and healthy living. "If I am conscious of eating, thinking about the flavors, thinking about the beauty of that food that's in front of me, then I'll eat it at the right pace and I'll know when I'm full," Rick says.
Published on July 09, 2007