Once again, Epcot Food & Wine Festival guests had a unique opportunity to explore culinary flavors and topics beyond the norm with one of the most proficient chefs of the day.
Most people know Chef Rick Bayless as the winner of Bravo’s "Top Chef Masters" but his name also is synonymous with authentic Mexican cuisine north of the border and has been for quite some time. His highly rated PBS series, "Mexico – One Plate at a Time," is in its ninth season, he has published eight cookbooks, and he has three top restaurant concepts in Chicago.
The casual Frontera Grill was founded in 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation’s highest award, Outstanding Restaurant, in 2007. The 4-star Topolobampo served its first meals in 1991. And the very popular, fast-casual Xoco has been around since 2009, serving wood-oven tortas, steaming caldos, golden churros and bean-to-cup Mexican hot chocolate. Bayless' quick-service Tortas Frontera have changed the face of food service at O’Hare International Airport, while Frontera Fresco has brought Frontera flavors to several Macy’s stores and Northwestern University. His award-winning Frontera line of salsas, cooking sauces and organic chips can be found coast to coast.
Bayless was a guest chef Friday during the Food For Thought series at the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival at Walt Disney World. He has been a frequent speaker over the years at the festival. This year, he spoke about his start in the culinary arts while preparing various foods and offering cooking -- and eating -- tips to the audience.
How did you get started on this Mexico path?
I always loved food -- not just cooking it, but serving it, gathering around the table. My grandmother was hugely inspirational in my family about that. … She taught me the most important lesson I could possibly ever learn about cooking and that is you bring a lot more than just a dish to the table. … She was the one who taught me how to create a community around the table. That's why I say the profession of being a chef is one of the most noble you can have.
When I was 14, I was taking a Spanish class and I got super interested in the culture of Mexico … So, I planned a family vacation to Mexico. … My family had never been out of the country. We arrived in Mexico City at 9 at night and that's the time people are starting to go out to dinner … There is so much life there. There were balloon vendors, there were street vendors and I could hear them from the hotel. There were ladies roasting walnuts and you could smell it up into the room. There was so much vitality -- the joy of life -- coming out of that park. I felt like I had come home, and I continued to go back to Mexico every year and I continued Latin American studies in college. I decide to go to graduate school in anthropology and linguistics.
Chicken Tinga Tostada with Avocado and Cheese
Grilled Corn and Poblano Guacamole
Rules for street food anywhere in the world
A lot of times when people travel to Mexico, they don't know if they should eat in the marketplaces. I think those are the best places to eat because you can see everything -- how the food is held, how the food is prepared, everything about it. You go into a fancy restaurant and the dining room may look really pretty but you don't see the kitchen, so you have no idea what is going on.
1. Eat food that is well-done, well-cooked. That simmering pot of whatever is going to most likely be the best bet.
2. If they put fresh, raw garnishes on it, I usually say no. If I'm only going to be there for a short period of time, I skip that part of it. The only exception that I make -- and this may surprise some of you -- is salsa that contains chiles, cilantro, salt and acid. Cilantro is the thing in the plant world that is the most anti-microbial … It will kill pretty much any germ. Salt, chiles and acid are preservatives so salsa is a pretty good risk if you're going to have something that is fresh and you want to get the flavor of what they're doing. Raw onion and raw lettuce, I usually say I'm going to skip that because I don't know how they washed it and all that sort of stuff.
3. Do I want to eat there? Does it look good? Is it well organized? Is it clean? Are they taking care of things? If I say yes to [those questions], then I ask, "Are there a lot of people there?" If yes, it's either really good or really cheap. Sometimes it's just cheap and I throw that one out. If it's the same price as everybody else, then I say, "Fine, I'll eat at that one because it must be good, and they're going to have a lot of turnover, so nothing sits around for a long time. [That's important because] with marketplace cooking, there's no refrigeration. Basically, you want something that's cooked and kept warm.
On getting good recipes
You can't go anywhere in the world and ask for a recipe. First of all, they may not know what you are talking about. A recipe is a fairly recent invention that would have exact quantities and steps. In the really old cookbooks in Mexico, they would list the ingredients and the assume you would know the quantities and how to balance them for your own taste, and then they would list the most basic of steps. These were essentially notes from my kitchen and I assumed you already knew how to make the dish. The really detailed recipe have only come in the last 50 years or so, as we have gotten further and further away from the kitchen.
So the only way I could work with street stall cooks was to let them know that I knew how to make that dish. My first question was never, "Oh, can you give me your recipe and show me how to make it?" It was "Do you put this combination of chiles in there like the person down the street or do you just do it with one chile?" And I would only ask that question after I consumed a whole portion of whatever it is they made.
How to make freshest guacamole
Pairing alcoholic beverages with Mexican cuisine
Bayless has entered a partnership with the popular Negra Modelo beer, a dark-style lager that contains a slow-roasted caramel malt and is a complement to many dishes that he prepares. On the company's website, NegraModeloUSA.com, the chef has contributed recipes for entrees, such as Grilled Skirt Steak Tacos With Salsa and Negra Modelo, that are prepared with the beer. There also are recipes for items that pair well with the beer, such as the Chocolate Pecan Pie Bars that I sampled at the Food for Thought tasting at Epcot's Food & Wine Festival. This particular dessert -- which is to die for -- has been served at Bayless' Frontera restaurant in Chicago since it opened in 1987.
Equally as delicious in the fall is the Mexican Snakebite Cocktail that we sipped at the tasting. As our treat to you, here's the recipe:
2 cups tamarind pulp
3 1/2 cups ice-cold apple cider, preferably fresh-squeezed and unpasteurized
4 (12-ounce) ice-cold Negra Modelos
1. In a blender, combine the tamarind and half of the cider. Blend to thoroughly combine.
2. Pour into a pitcher and stir in the remaining cider.
3. Cover and refrigerate until you're ready to serve.
4. When that moment comes, measure 2/3 cup of the apple cider mixture into 8 tall glasses, then slowly top off each one with half a Negra Modelo.
5. Serve right away.
8 (12-ounce) cocktails
Bayless says that adding 1 cup sugar to the tamarind base lessens the beer taste in the cocktail and other flavors emerge. No wonder I liked it so well!
If you have a chance to catch Bayless at future Epcot Food & Wine Festival events, I would recommend you consider it. Even though his Friday discussion and demonstration was a separate ticketed event, he offered a wealth of cooking information that you can take home with you into your own kitchen and share at your table. And that, as any foodie will attest, is priceless.
Check out our other Epcot Food and Wine Festival Videos:
DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of Walt Disney World and Negra Modelo. This did not affect my review; my opinions are my own.