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Rick Bayless: Top Chef Master

The Mexican cuisine chef takes home the title. When you found out what the final challenge was, what your strategy?
I wanted to really represent those stages accurately but also keep in mind the challenge of delivering good, exciting food.

Did you have any trouble deciding what dishes you would do?
No … because I grew up in a restaurant BBQ family, I knew that my first food memory would be my home BBQ, and doing the dish with quail was updating it to the now with all of the flavors of my past. As for the experience that made me fall in love with Mexican food and want to make it my profession, traveling to Mexico and tasting black mole in Oaxaca really was life-changing. For my third dish—on opening Frontera Grill almost 23 years ago — my chef Brian and I knew right away would represent and be over-the-top. You really can’t beat Cochinta Pibil. As for our last dish — where we are now and where we are going—we (Brian and I) really wanted to bring in the food from Topolobampo, our fine dining restaurant. So we came up with the arroz a la tumbada. Each course had a direction behind it from Kelly — how concerned were you and other chefs about making sure the courses progresed well? (light to heavy?)
I thought of the menu as a whole, even though each had to represent something. That is why I thought I could still keep my past, etc. but place it in the menu where it would fit best. What did you think of your competitors’ dishes?
I thought Hubert and Michael were true competitors. They all had great stories, and to tell you the truth … I knew it was anyone’s game. Not for one second did I think I had it in the bag. No way. It seemed the only criticism you received was on the last dish, and that I believe was the one with the seafood that you knew at one point was overcooked. Did you ever think about changing the dish? Yes, we did think about it … but during this contest I really did learn one BIG thing—you have to commit to your dish and go with it. The problems we had all came down to not having a clear vision about this dish from the beginning, and that is why it eventually did not work on the plate.

Did you think the seafood was overcooked when it was sent out?
Yes, and there were other problems. The plating was wrong, and there wasn’t time to fix it. Gael seemed especially bothered by “air.” What’s your take on it?
I think it is always good to try new things and listen to your team of chefs. As in the prior challenge with Richard and the avocado ice—I let him run with it. In my kitchen in Chicago, when I have a chef that wants to try and use different techniques, I welcome it. It makes the environment exciting and quite satisfying.

Do you use it often?
In Topolobampo we do play around with using different flavors of “air” on our plates. I don’t think we overuse it or try to make it like we are trying too hard to create something that doesn’t fit for us and our cuisine. How excited were you to win?
I couldn’t believe it! I really couldn’t. This was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life—physically and mentally. I also was thrilled to know that I would be bringing 100,000 back to our farmers in Chicago. How hard has it been keeping the secret?
Not too bad—I sort of stuck to the “We aren’t even done filming it yet” sort of approach. And I loved being able to say: Watch what happens! How did you think your family/chefs will react?
FREAK OUT… they know that it was hard for me to be away from them and the restaurant. Was it helpful was it having your sous-chef there?
Yes! Instant bond and a feeling of great support. Brian has been with me over 10 years. Mexican food doesn’t always get the cred it deserves, do you think this will help? I sure hope so!
To beat out a fabulous French and Italian chef—pretty amazing stuff.

Why do you think that is in the first place?
Perhaps because the ingredients are sometimes not super-expensive. For ages I have stood behind French and Italian cuisine and waited, waited for America to discover authentic, high-end, contemporary wine-drinking (not just beer and margaritas!) flavorful food. Hopefully I showed that on this series. How was your experience overall?
Tough, amazing, incredible, overwhelming, lifetime friend-making, satisfying, tough.

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