Houston—One Plate at a Time

Rick Bayless Is Cooking in The Woodlands

The celebrity chef talks Tex-Mex, Houston and what Mexican food you should be eating.

By Alice Levitt March 7, 2016

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Rick Bayless, getting ready to cook inside a department store.

You never know who you might run into in the aisles of Macy's. Unless of course, you're in the home department in The Woodlands between 2 and 4 p.m. on March 19. Then you will definitely encounter multiple James Beard Foundation Award winner and TV host, Rick Bayless, who will be making brunch. What?

Turns out that between running award-winning restaurants, repping his own Frontera food brand, winning "Top Chef Masters" and hosting PBS show "Mexico—One Plate at a Time," Bayless is also a member of Macy's Culinary Council. 12 other big-name chefs, ranging from Marcus Samuelsson to Ming Tsai, all make the rounds, doing appearances at stores around the country.

Though Bayless is known as a Chicago chef, he's a native of Oklahoma who grew up on Tex-Mex long before he became synonymous with the most authentic of Mexican delicacies. In anticipation of his visit to Houstonia, we chewed the fat with him about chili gravy, mole and the Pastry War.

Houstonia: Have you eaten much in Houston?

Rick Bayless: I don't get there very often, but it seems like every time I get back it's another explosion of very good restaurants. I always see them in the news and when we go to the Beard awards there are always all these places being talked about. I wish I could go there more frequently. It seems like the scene is growing so fast and so many things are happening.  

I got to eat at Hugo's again the last time I was there. It was great to be back there. I was at Underbelly—that was super good. I’ve also had a chance to eat at some of the places that aren't as high profile. This time, I'm going to go to the Pastry War. I’m very much looking forward to going there. I’ve been trying to get there for a long time. I love mezcal and I hear they have some of the best.

As an evangelist for authentic Mexican food, are you pleased that Tex-Mex cuisine seems to be experiencing a decline?

No, 'cause I grew up on it and love it. It’s a simple thing, in a way. I grew up on barbecue, too.

In San Antonio at the Granary ['Cue & Brew], some chefs are doing modern barbecue. It's not like stark white-tablecloth fine dining, but it's creative representations of the kind of barbecue I want to eat now. Their food is so right for this moment and not heavy. So much barbecue food is heavy.

I would love it if some young chefs of the Southwest would grab onto Tex-Mex and figure out how to do it with that. So many of these young chefs, instead of trying to do the perfect, modern version of Tex-Mex, they're taking the dishes from the interior of Mexico and incorporating it into their cooking. Tex-Mex is like my go-to thing. Cheese enchiladas with chile gravy, whenever I felt down when I was a kid, that was all I wanted to eat.

What regional Mexican cuisine is most underrated?

Probably all of them. There are times that you will talk to people who say things like "I know that the Oaxacan cuisine is different than the cuisine of Puebla." Most people, if you say something like that, it just goes over their heads. When I go to places in the Southwest, because Mexican food is such a big part of the local cuisine and culture, they'll say, "Yes, I know that the interior Mexican food is different that the Mexican food we have here." 

"Interior" is like saying Chinese versus Hong Kong. I think that the one that people know the least right now is probably Yucatan-style food because it's so different than the rest of Mexico. For some reason, it’s disconnected from the rest of Mexico. I just finished my Yucatan season [of "Mexico—One Plate at a Time"]. I’m hopefully going to enlighten a few people about what the cuisine is really all about.

I did a series of shows there about eight years ago. At the time, every hotel that I knew about down there had a foreign-born chef. This time, there were no foreign born chefs. They were all Mexican nationals. Before that, it was all about the international clientele—they'd get Swiss or French chefs and make the kind of food that plays on the international stage. Now there's a swell of pride around the cuisine and people are focusing on what regional specialties they can get on the menu.

When most of us think of food from the Yucatan, we think  of the slow-cooked pork dish, cochinita pibil.

In Mexico, no matter where you are in the country, you will find cochinita pibil. Some people stew it and call it cochinita pibil, but it really needs to be marinated overnight and wrapped in banana leaves. Here, we try to capture the sense of it being done in that in-ground pit by putting it in a wood-burning oven overnight.

Is there any other Mexican dish that you think is worthy of more attention in the U.S.?

I think that most people know about mole, but it's a major thing in Mexican cuisine. But most people only know the red mole that sort of resembles mole poblano that isn’t focused in its flavors. I don't think that many people realize how many moles there are. There are so many varieties and intricacies of flavors. I would love it if we could graduate into a little bit of a broader knowledge of what mole is. A lot of people say, "I've tried mole and I don't like it." That's like saying you had a sandwich once and you didn't like it. That's like saying all sandwiches are bad. 


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