Mexican Cuisine Pioneer Rick Bayless Is a Culinary Explorer

By Kam, Nadine | Honolulu Star - Advertiser, May 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Mexican Cuisine Pioneer Rick Bayless Is a Culinary Explorer


Kam, Nadine, Honolulu Star - Advertiser


One of Rick Bayless’ first stops upon his arrival on Oahu was Papahana Kuaola, home to Hawaiian cultural and educational programs focused on environmental restoration and a sustainable future.

What Hawaiian cultural practitioners at the institution didn’t know was that the Oklahoma-born chef was about to teach them a thing or two he’d learned from years of trekking through Mexico, experience that fully prepared him for the tasks of poi-pounding and imu-cooking.

He compared poi-pounding to the use of mortar and pestle in Mexico, being told, “Hey, you’re pretty good at this,” after besting his instructor at the task of finishing his poi to the perfect consistency.

“It was one of the best experiences I’d ever had. I didn’t know where I was going when I arrived here. I was afraid that I was just going to be in hotel and school kitchens that are the same all around the world,” said the chef, known for his extensive culinary explorations of the cities and villages of Mexico.

For his championing of sustainable agriculture and culinary education since introducing traditional Mexican cuisine to a Tex Mex-eating America in the 1980s, the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival honored Bayless at its second Culinary Heroes dinner Thursday. The event, at Kapiolani Community College’s Ka ‘Ikena Laua‘e restaurant, matched Bayless with Hawaii chefs George Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong and Roy Yamaguchi in preparing a five-course menu with wine pairings.

The dinner included Bayless’ renowned Oaxacan mole negro, a chocolate sauce comprising 30 ingredients that takes three days to make. The process took him a decade to master before he felt confident enough to put it on one of his menus. It runs from crushing spices to frying and roasting ingredients to intensify their flavors until they achieve an alchemy in which no one item stands out.

“If someone tells you, ‘I love the cinnamon in this,’ that’s not a good thing,” Bayless said. “There’s so much subtlety in such a bold sauce.”

A second event Friday at the Kahala Hotel & Resort featured Bayless and nine other chefs.

For that event he basted a pig with a classic achiote sauce, to be roasted. Describing the dish brought to mind the imu at Papahana Kuaola, and another link to Mexican cuisine. Bayless compared the round imu pit to those used to roast agave for mezcal. Smaller rectangular pits are used to roast animals smaller than the pig he prepared here, he said.

With his sincere, low-key Midwestern style and an enthusiasm that comes from living his dream, Bayless has made the art of traditional Mexican cookery accessible to mainstream America for four decades. He takes all that he has learned through years of travels through diverse regions of Mexico and distills that knowledge into cookbooks and television shows.

His YouTube channel includes Taco Tuesday lessons, using methods home cooks can replicate, such as remaking Oaxacan lamb barbacoa, traditionally cooked in a pit, for the charcoal grill.

His Chicago restaurants include two that have won James Beard Award Foundation awards — Frontera Grill, founded in 1987, and Toplobampo, opened in 1991.

Bayless understood early the importance of preserving food traditions. He hails from a family of barbecue restauranteurs in Oklahoma, and said he saw how important his family’s role was in maintaining a regional culinary history and tradition. …

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