Que Bueno! An Interview With Chef Rick Bayless

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Photography By Barry Rustin
Chef Rick Bayless' newest restaurant will be built green and will offer organic food in biodegradable to-go boxes.

Chef Rick Bayless has long studied the art of traditional, local and specialized cuisine. In the early 1980s, Bayless and his wife, Deann Groen Bayless, lived in Mexico, where they penned Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico (William Morrow and Company, 1987). After settling in Chicago, they opened Frontera Grill in 1987, followed in 1989 by Topolobampo and, in 2005 by Frontera Fresco–a food kiosk in Chicago’s historic Marshall Fields (now Macy’s) building. This spring, the chef-restaurateur and host of PBS’ Mexico -One Plate at a Time will open XOCO–a quick-service and take-out restaurant that serves his trademark fresh, organic Mexican cuisine. XOCO is designed to achieve Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program

What led you to focus on sustainability? 

We decided back in 1987 that investing in people, living in balance with the natural world and running our restaurants in fiscally responsible ways highlighted our values. We wanted to serve authentic Mexican dishes and leave less of a dent in the world. We began buying locally produced foods and recycling glass, aluminum and cardboard. Seven years ago, we started to recycle food waste as well. Now we create approximately a quarter of the waste generated by most restaurants. 

XOCO includes a grab-and-go menu. How will that be sustainable? 

I never wanted to offer take-out before because of the packaging waste. But we found biodegradable packaging that I’m comfortable with, and there’s demand for this type of high nutrition. Sustainability every day includes eating and living healthily, even when you’re on the go.  

How did broadening your goals to include social and environmental sustainability change the way you do business?

At XOCO, the whole restaurant revolves around sustainability, from locally sourced materials and nontoxic paints to solar panels for heat and this incredible range hood that makes the whole place more energy efficient. Broadening our goals made us more creative; we approach our business in active, positive and thoughtful ways. We value people. And, we came to learn that sustaining our business also meant developing long-term relationships with members of our community; their creativity and energy fuels our commitment to environmental and social sustainability.  

Is Mexican cuisine inherently sustainable?

Americans gave up sustainability to be modern. They never did that in Mexico. So Mexico is way ahead of us–they are more sustainable and way more localized than we are. Most Mexican chefs use local, seasonal ingredients and traditional cooking methods. 

Is there a connection between buying local ingredients and running a sustainable kitchen? 

Yes, buying local helps sustain the farms and farmers in your area and means bringing fresh, seasonal and nutritious raw foods into your kitchen. You keep farms and people thriving, and the foods you buy and prepare add to that healthy cycle. Buying local ingredients means fewer carbon emissions from transportation, thus closing the loop between your purchasing power and your food preparation.  

What kinds of agricultural practices fit into your food purchase and preparation decisions?

 We have a garden on the roof of our four-story building. We grow organic chilies and tomatoes and offer a seasonal rooftop salsa made completely with ingredients grown on our roof. I’m a big fan of urban agriculture and find using this space to grow fresh ingredients adds to our restaurant’s nutritional and environmental quality.

I’m also into bio-intensive agriculture. At my house, I have 1,000 square feet where we grow 100 percent of the salad greens for all of our restaurants. We plant short-term crops and keep harvesting and planting. 

How did your work with the Frontera Farmer Foundation, an organization that supports small local farmers, play into your decision to create XOCO? 

The Frontera Farmer Foundation comes out of a long-term commitment to being part of a community. The key is keeping the local farms going. Most of them use organic practices. For a long time all you heard about was USDA organic, but for me organic means more than farmers just not spraying X, Y and Z in their soil. Sustainability is based on the farming community, on the way they tend the soil; they create better earth and, therefore, better produce and a healthier, thriving community. . 

What chef do you admire most and why?

I admire people doing creative things with local foods and seasonal ingredients. Food and culture are my real passions–how people express themselves through food, who came up with it, its history. Suddenly every plate is telling this really incredible story. Then the flavor seduces you. 

Rick’s Favorite Things:

• My Toyota Prius (45+ mpg)
• Seeing the bike rack full in our employee basement
• Bacon
• Seeing Barack Obama in Topolobampo 

Don’t forget to check out XOCO and Chef Bayless’ other restaurants.

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