On June 6, Chef Rick Bayless received from the Mexican government the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Insignia class (lower ranking reserved for non-royals and non-politicians) for his work in promoting Mexican cuisine in general, and Mexican haute cuisine, specifically, in his PBS television series Mexico: One Plate at a Time (recently shot in Baja California) and his first cookbook Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico. This is the highest honor awarded to a foreigner in Mexico, an award that counts among its recipients Nelson Rockefeller (think this one was given to help Nelson forget about his lost Mexican oil holdings?), Placido Domingo, Diana Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran. I presume Mexico didn't want to make the same mistake with Bayless as they did with Diana Kennedy–they practically gave her the Order of the Aztec Eagle post-mortem.
Let's get this straight–this award is only for Bayless' TV show and cookbooks promoting Mexican cuisine, not for cooking, as some would insinuate. Due to the limits of Google translator, Eater, Food and Wine, and other US coverage of this story have slightly altered the announcement to include his work at Frontera and Topolobampo, or have failed to report specifically why he was given this award, and the class. We don't want Chef Bayless getting lumped in with the Shah of Iran, right? Hey, I guess they skipped over Bayless' gig as consulting chef for Burger King's Santa Fe chicken baguette?
But before I go any further let's revisit our history with Sr. Bayless beginning with the first putazo he received when he came to LA, and to the attention of this publication.
I had written a scathing review of Bayless's cooking after visiting LA's Red O: Cuisine by Rick Bayless titled Tinga tu Madre and Guacaviche in response to an interview he gave for NBC's Feast. Chef Bayless famously dismissed Los Angeles Mexican cuisine as tacos and burritos while stating that he was bringing his southern flavors of Mexico. At Red O, my dining group encountered subpar Mexican cuisine mostly from the north, Pacific, and any other region except the south, but we did get a foul tasting chilpachole with Carlsbad mussels that “tasted more like Long Beach.” Maybe that's what chef meant by the south?
And this triangle he speaks of in the South, the triangle of Veracruz, Oaxaca, and Mexico City he has ceaselessly promoted for decades as the only regions of Mexico worthy of visiting for its food? Straight-up bullshit. He has dismissed the North and had previously referred to Tijuana and Baja as a wasteland until LA bloggers (your truly and Dave part of the mix) made folks in the US reconsider the region. Matter of fact, in the next couple of months Chef Rick Bayless and his restaurant staff will be coming to Baja for workshops, and training sessions. So much for for the pinche triangle theory. The former anthropology student can't find great Mexican cuisine in LA, or Baja–he needs a fixer or to read blogs.
In the same NBC interview he contradicted himself saying that LA doesn't have the complex moles he prefers while at the same time acknowledging the large Oaxacan population in LA. There are more moles in LA than any other place in the US with our many Oaxacan restaurants, poblanos, chilangos, zacatecano, and the haute style moles found in restaurants like La Casita Mexicana, Juan's Restaurant, and Rocio's Mole de Los Dioses. I'm glad I watched this video again, as I realized I was wrong, Bayless is even more pendejo than I thought. He even claimed that burritos might have been invented in LA! Not true, of course: read Gustavo's book for further info.
I managed to sneak past the Red O defenses one afternoon not too long ago with a visiting chef who wanted to try a few plates–it was just as mundane as ever, and I stand by my original review.
I completely understand the Mexican government's decision to give Chef Rick Bayless this award: these types of awards exist in every country and are ultimately diplomatic instruments. For her part, Diana Kennedy has credited Mexican cooks for recipes, and never commercialized her experience in Mexico outside of cookbooks and culinary tours, but she also shows little respect for the Mexican chefs cooking haute cuisine in DF, including some barbs at chef Patricia Quintana's Izote–Chef Patricia Quintana is the real culinary ambassador of Mexico.
Rick doesn't have to have a Mexican mother or grandmothers, he wants all of yours!
Señor. Rick has always been a good businessman. He launched a cookbook, TV show, and Frontera Grill all at the same time in a seemingly unlikely Latino market (Chicago, which actually has long had the second-largest Mexican community in the United States outside of Los Angeles) to become the big fish in a little pond. When asked by a local station a few years back, “Why is a non-latino from Oklahoma the best Mexican chef in the US?”, he accepted the laughable assertion instead of rejecting it, remarking that he's not bound by the traditions of a region, and that he can select traditions from his many “Mexican grandmothers.” This was the battle plan behind restaurants Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, Red O, and Frontera Fresco. As I said before, these restaurants already exist in Mexico–they are called hotel restaurants, and they do a better job than Bayless.
I visited Xoco for the first time last summer and am still recovering from the indigestion. Xoco is a more distilled version of Bayless' tus abuelitas strategy: churros ripped off from DF's El Moro, tortas ahogadas from Guadalajara and DF, and classic Mexican soups inspired by various regions. Plus, the usual Bayless touches like a torta of Woodland mushrooms–sas!
A recent New York Times article on how American-born chefs borrow and commercialize ethnic cuisines written by Francis Lam echoed what we've been saying here for years. By avoiding the challenging flavors, textures, and ingredients for the mainstream American consumer found in regional cuisines, chefs like Rick Bayless can keep his food accessible and commercially viable in the US market. I mean, all this talk about Oaxaca and he only offers a few moles. There are 722 regional plates in Oaxaca, and we kill it here in LA and OC for Oaxacan. Bayless visits a region, snags some recipes that he thinks will sell in his restaurants, shoots his show, saves some stuff for his cookbooks, and then returns with his chefs to better replicate the flavors in his restaurants.
The torta ahogada, or drowned sandwich at Xoco comes on a french roll made at a nearby bakery–there's no attempt to make a pan salado in house, or find a bakery that can produce the hard roll that's a specialty of Jalisco. Sr. Bayless: even the mom and pops you diss here in LA have suppliers for pan salado–local bakers.
But, wait: there's more!
Xoco's torta ahogada comes beached, not drowned. Why? Because the bread is not made to handle being doused with a sauce. The spicy sauce began creeping up the bread on the way over to my table, and there's no hope for the second half of your sandwich. And, enough with the two-whales-sticking-out-of-the-water plating, chef: it's a sandwich! Chef's torta aguada comes with plenty of heat, I'll yield on that point, but there was a powerful herb that came with the spice. Here's the thing–in Mexico our salsas are about the flavor of chiles, while in America chiles often take a passenger seat to the other ingredients driving their gringofied salsas. It was overpowering, and superfluous. The manager said that Chef Bayless uses hoja santa, which is great for wrapping fish for grilling, and in Veracruz's caldo de acuyo (regional name for hoja santa), but it's too much in the ahogada sauce, which should reflect the beauty and fire of the Yahualica chile, a regional chile de arbol. Couldn't get a sense of the carnitas at all.
The whole point of this sandwich is the pan salado, and excellent salty carnitas with the Yahualica heat, but fine: you you don't care about authenticity. So let me refer you to Cook's Tortas here in Southern California, where you'll get an elevated torta ahogada that's better in quality and flavor than the one at Xoco and the bread is made in house, by non-Frenchy bakers. If you must pay more for a torta ahogada, go with Cook's tortas, not Xoco.
The churros and Aztec chocolate suffer the same fate of the multiple grandmother's approach. Bayless–unless you've ever been hit upside the head with a chancla, you can't claim these abuelitas! Churros are about the dough, not the sweeteners; again Bayless overspices the churros with unnecessary flairs, and the Aztec chocolate drink finds no balance between chocolate, spicing, and chiles. I felt a little uneasy for the next few hours from these clashing elements, but held it together thanks to the $5 Victorias–the best thing about Xoco, besides the friendly staff and the lovely Marcela, a hostess from Guadalajara.
You want to see Chef Bayless' real craft, try his awkward adventure menus when he's playing with the flavors and not just cooking someone's recipe. He's really an average chef without the stolen recipes. Shouldn't the Mexican government, PBS and Bayless' publishers award the hundreds of uncredited cooks and chefs that have taught Rick Bayless how to make these plates? If some of those abuelitas tasted Xoco's ahogada, Bayless just might actually get a chancla upside his head.
I'm more convinced that Chef Rick Bayless has benefited far more from Mexico than Mexico has benefited from him. Mexican cuisine has conquered America through the mom and pops, through combo plate joints, and even through companies like Frito-Lay and Taco Bell (all inspired directly from Mexicans). In LA and the OC, we've been eating authentic Mexican from day one. If it's just for promoting Mexican cuisine that he's received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, then shouldn't Taco Bell, Pace and El Torito also receive recognition?
We wouldn't bother questioning this diplomatic nod, if Sr. Bayless showed a little respect for actual Mexicans. Ask the countless Mexican cooks and chefs that have approached him to express their gratitude–obligatory–only to be given a cold stare, or to even be ignored. Ask the poblanos, oaxaqueños, chilangos, and jarochos who've not even received a mention in his cookbooks, or the insulted Los Angeles Mexican chefs and cooks that were told that he was bringing real Mexican cuisine to LA. Hell, ask Gustavo and Jonathan Gold about their unpleasant encounter with Rick a couple of years ago. Bayless wants his tres leches, and to eat it too.
Red O, Frontera Grill, Xoco, and Tobolobampo aren't better than the Mexican mom and pops in LA and the OC, and our handful of Mexican chefs like Rocio Camacho leave these restaurants in the dust, yet they won't receive an Aztec Eagle, nor will they attain the commercial success.
Bayless would be wise to follow the example of the Rolling Stones, who used their celebrity to showcase and revive the careers of artists like Buddy Guy, who they had learned from. A little humility and gratitude would go a long way. Singers Bobby Caldwell and Michael McDonald–known as blue-eyed soul men–always showed respect for African-American soul artists, earning their rightful place in the R & B world. But Rick Bayless chooses to be the Michael Bolton of Mexican cuisine; the American pop singer who just came in and butchered soul classics without any regard for its authors and audience.
Chef Rick Bayless has a part in this American and global fascination of Mexican food, but as a profiteer, nothing more. He is a successful restaurateur, but is not a great Mexican chef, or a great non-Mexican, Mexican chef. He should follow Wolfgang Puck's lead; smile, be nice, keep your delusions private, and collect the check. As for his receiving the Order of the Aztec Eagle, Insignia class–chale!