Last week, NPR inspired a lot of foodie hand-wringing with a post about an interview that superstar chef Rick Bayless did with a public-radio outfit regarding whether it was okay for a gabacho from Oklahoma to become America's best-known chef of Mexican food. What caught my eye wasn't that Bayless is perfectly fine with his status—as he should; more on that in a bit—but his response to the haters.
"I know that there have been a number of people out there that criticized me only — only — because of my race," he told WNYC's The Sporkful. "Because I'm white, I can't do anything with Mexican food. But we have to stop and say, 'Oh wait, is that plain racism then?'"
In other words, Bayless is claiming reverse racism for anyone who question whether he has the right to cook Mexican food. Keep this thought for a further bit as we go through the foodie hang-wringing first.
The reaction to the piece came fast and quick, but nearly everyone missed Bayless' true sin. It's not that he's a foreigner cooking the cuisine of another culture—such a thought is an insult to all the mexicanos who make amazing pho, spectacular Neapolitan pizzas, intricate béarnaise sauces and more in Orange County and beyond. Nor is the sin that he refuses to acknowledge his supposed privilege when cooking the cuisines of other cultures, as a writer for The Stranger insisted; that's an argument better left for late-night dorm ramen at Lewis and Clark College. Fact is, the only privilege in the food world is who has money and who doesn't, and who hustles and who doesn't—and frequently, the latter is far more important than the former on the road to success (just ask the King Taco family). And as I've written before—hell, I wrote a whole book about it arguing this next point—anyone who loves Mexican food should thank gabachos for their insatiable desire for chili, nachos, tacos, micheladas, fajitas and all the "Mexican" food trends that have swept across the U.S. over the past 125-plus years. Without them, both the gabacho consumer and the cook, Mexican food in this country would be as remarkable as sauerkraut.
So here is where we get to the true problem with Bayless: he's is a thin-skinned diva who really, truly believes he's the modern-day incarnation of Quetzalcoatl, the Mesoamerican deity that Spanish chroniclers claimed was the light-skinned, bearded savior of the Aztecs. And when people don't automatically genuflect at his messianic genius, Bayless not only gets mad: he gets chavala in a way that's unbecoming of his star status and speaks to the man's true worth.
We at the Weekly know this Bayless very well. Back in 2010, I attended a benefit dinner keynoted by Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold in which he challenged Bayless' assertion that he was going to teach Southern California about Mexican food with the opening of Red O, a restaurant that Bayless consulted on. Bayless was so incensed that he left the following comment:
First of all, I'm incredulous that Jonathan Gold didn't check his facts. I know it's all the rage for journalists to go into unsupported hyperbole, but I never said I was going to introduce Southern California to "authentic" Mexican cuisine. I said I was going to bring the flavors of Frontera Grill to Los Angeles. Which is completely true. I guess getting a Pulitzer doesn't mean you're beholden to truth. But I'm sure it made for a "fun" evening for all gathered there. Such is the state of modern journalism.
Stop and think about that quote again. Bayless called Gold a liar—Gold! He left the comment despite the following interview, which he had recorded before Gold's speech and which captured Bayless stating he joined Red O because was intrigued "how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California"—exactly what Gold accused Rickzalcoatl of saying. Roll the tape:
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Not only that, but Bayless tweeted out the story; his apologists summarily piled on me for reporting the facts, and Gold for stating the truth. (I wish the 200-plus comments from six years ago were still up there, but the original story published about five web revamps ago, which means those comments are stored in some server somewhere). The fight went national, with Bayless eventually making his peace with Gold because Gold is a mensch.
We faced Bayless' wails again in 2014, when Weekly food critic Edwin Goei, contributor Dave Lieberman and I went to Red O together to give it a legitimate shot (for those of ustedes who think I don't go into places with open minds at all times, track my evolving thoughts on Lola Gaspar, from its opening to our year-in-review for 2015. Or, better yet: my later, kinder review of Red O's bar). We came away underwhelmed; again, Bayless became so chillón at someone daring to not like his food that he left another whiny comment (I wish the comments from two years ago were still up there, but the original story published about two web revamps ago, which means those comments are stored in some server somewhere). By then, Bayless had long ago blocked Weekly contributor Bill Esparza on Twitter for Esparza's gleeful, repeated takedowns of Bayless' ego.
And this might be the time to remind everyone that OC Weekly is a tiny-ass, insignificant fish wrap, and Bayless runs an empire—yet he has the time to deal with us?
Now, there very well might be critics that trash Bayless' career based solely on his race—but those same armchair Aztecs most likely hate myself and Esparza, too, and don't count for jack shit. Those trolls aren't the people that bother Rickzalcoatl. No, he doesn't like it when people like Bill and I call Bayless out for really, truly believing his own hype and for his instant ridiculing of anyone who doesn't—just look at his whiny response when San Francisco Mexicans got pissed at him for insulting their city's Mexican bona fides. And yet his many fans trash me, Bill and others who point out their god's fragility. That's not someone who deserves the adulation and money of millions; that's someone who deserves to get made into a piñata.