The flavors of Mexico have inspired Rick Bayless to create award-winning cookbooks, TV shows, a line of prepared foods and a pair of Chicago eateries: Frontera Grill and Topolobampo – one of America's only fine-dining Mexican restaurants. He's known for his modern interpretations of traditional regional dishes, turning them into a feast for the eyes as well as the palate.
STIR: You just returned from Mexico. What did you do there, and what was the most memorable thing you saw or tasted?
RB: We were shooting the fifth season of the show (PBS' Mexico – One Plate at a Time), all on the Yucatan peninsula. What was most memorable? That's easy. Everything. A whole pig baked in a pit, wrapped in banana leaves … seeing the Mayan ruins at Uxmal … fishing on the coast and cave-diving.
STIR: When you picture Mexico, what colors immediately come to mind?
RB: It varies. The Yucatan is much lighter, with Caribbean colors. Central Mexico is more intense. There I picture Mexican pink, or rosa Mexicano; a blue that they call colonial blue, which is cobalt; and a yellow that I've never heard anybody describe, that veers just off yellow into green.
STIR: What role does color play in authentic Mexican cuisine and its presentation? How would you compare it with other culinary traditions?
RB: There's the real simple stuff: red, white and green – like guacamole, ceviche [a seafood salad] and salsa. That palette runs through so much of the cuisine. Beyond that, it turns very earthy. Mexican food is the earthiest-colored cuisine, because it weaves so many chilies together. The chilies dry to different colors. Some are completely black; others are cranberry red.
STIR: How do you adapt or interpret that palette in your cooking?
RB: I like to add fresh greens and white onions as an intense, bright contrast to all that earthiness. I try to keep that balance. In Mexico, you live surrounded by so much color. Flowers are everywhere. They're surrounded by that so they don't have to put it on their plate. Their food presentation is simple. They don't like decor; they think it's silly. I have to try in my translation of dishes to capture the beauty of Mexico. I have to put it on the plate, because it's not surrounding us. I might sprinkle marigold petals over a salad, like edible confetti, or put an edible bloom in a plate of ceviche. That would be pretty unusual in Mexico.
STIR: Colorwise, what's the most beautiful Mexican dish you've ever seen?
RB: You'll laugh. It's molé poblano. It's this almost mysterious dark color. It looks like it was cooked too long, but not quite. In Mexico, if you can pick out any one flavor in molé, it's a poor molé. They're going for unified flavor, where everything has lost its identity and becomes part of a whole. The color is the same way. You can't describe it.
STIR: What is the color palette in your restaurants? How does Frontera Grill's differ from Topolobampo's?
RB: Frontera is all warm colors. It has two-toned walls, with pale gold above the wainscoting and a rusty burnt orange below. It's painted to really look old. In Topolobampo, the top of the wall is stuccoed white, then glazed with a hint of amber. The bottom of the wall is cobalt blue. In Topolobampo, we have a huge collection of fine art, and it shows beautifully on the white walls. Frontera has more folk art, and the golden color embraces the art. It's a more relaxed atmosphere, with bright acoustics, and you have a sense of the food being really communal. It's the color of the hearth, and the food calls less attention to itself. Topolobampo has more design elements, and it's quieter. It's a slower dining experience.