AUSTIN — Every vacation young Rick Bayless took involved the family station wagon. He grew up middle class in Oklahoma City. International jaunts weren’t in the budget.
It was no small feat, then, that at the age of 14, the future celebrity chef convinced his parents to take the family to Mexico City.
‘’I don’t think they were as in love with it as I was,” Bayless said. “I got there and it felt like home. It just felt like the place I wanted to be.”
The trip was proof of Bayless’ charm and persuasive abilities, and a testament to his lifelong passion and curiosity.
‘’I’ve always loved other cultures,” Bayless said. “From the time I was a little kid, I would read about other cultures, dream about traveling.”
Bayless’ youthful interests led to an undergrad degree in Spanish language, literature and Latin American studies from the University of Oklahoma, and he pursued a graduate degree in anthropology and linguistics. The chef, who spent his childhood and adolescence working in his parents barbecue restaurant, published his first book, “Authentic Mexican,” in 1987, the same year he opened adjacent Frontera Grill in Chicago.
In the 27 years since, he’s opened four more eateries in Chicago (including Topolobampo and Xoco), developed a line of salsas and sauces, published seven books, hosted a long-running PBS cooking show (“Mexico -- One Plate at a Time”), won six James Beard Foundation awards, and established himself as the preeminent American authority on Mexican cuisine.
Bayless attends the Austin Food & Wine Festival for the first time this weekend. He and Frontera Grill and Topolobampo sommelier Jill Gubesch will conduct demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday called “Classic and Modern Make a Pair.”
The Saturday demo focuses on high-acid aspects of Mexican cuisine, which Bayless says is actually very wine-friendly, despite what some Europeans may say. “Especially if you choose what we’d call New World wines, ones from the Americas or Australia that have wonderful tropical fruit notes and racy acidity.”
Sunday’s session will introduce attendees to the mole Bayless suggests for those starting out with the dish, as well as guacamole that includes porcini mushrooms and browned butter.
‘’You can see that we’re going toward flavors that are both soulful and earthy, flavors we can easily pair with wine,” Bayless said. “My goal is that people will graduate from thinking about wine pairing as related exclusively to protein (‘red wine with meat, white wine with fish’) and think more about the other flavors on the plate (in our cuisine, it means pairing primarily with the sauce).”
Some will find irony in the fact that one of America’s most celebrated chefs of Mexican food lives in Chicago, but Bayless says the Mexican food products and proliferation of artisan masa in Chicago were some of the reasons he chose to move to Chicago decades ago as opposed to living somewhere like Los Angeles.
Despite his love and appreciation for classic Mexican cuisine, Bayless doesn’t attempt to bridge the distance between Mexico and his Chicago restaurants by adhering to strict culinary rules. He doesn’t believe in “museum-quality cuisine” that demands executing recipes with the same ingredients in Chicago that a chef may use in Puebla.
‘’We walk a funny line here in our restaurant. We are deeply inspired by the regional cuisines of Mexico, meaning that we’ve gone and we’ve learned them on their home turf, we’ve really studied them and understand them in the historical perspective,” Bayless said. “But we express them all with local ingredients. Because I think it’s fake to cook something where you have to bring all the ingredients from another place. The fresh ingredients should really speak of the place where you are, and that’s the way we cook.”
Bayless films his television show in Mexico, which affords him the chance to “understand the culture and cuisine in a deeper and more meaningful way.” The former winner of “Top Chef Masters” has an astounding knowledge of Mexican culinary history and curates an impressive library of culinary books in the offices above his downtown Chicago restaurants, but he doesn’t think all diners need to have a grasp of Mexican culture in order to be moved by the food.
‘’Food speaks for itself like music does, so you don’t have to really understand another culture very much to have it touch your heart through the basic medium,” Bayless said. “Sometimes you can taste something and just fall in love with it even if you couldn’t communicate through language with the chefs or the cooks.”
Bayless attends an annual conference at the Culinary Institute of American in San Antonio, but he doesn’t get to come to Austin as often as he’d like, so he plans to spend his free time here exploring what he calls our “exploding scene.”
‘’I want to go there and I want to eat, and I want to experience more of that,” Bayless said. “There are so many places that I want to at least drive by.”
In addition to his fest commitments Saturday and Sunday at Butler Park, Bayless will compete against a group of fellow celebrity chefs (including two-time winner Tyson Cole of Uchi) in the Rock Your Taco contest at Republic Square Park.
Does the master of Mexican cuisine feel like he has a home-court advantage in a taco challenge?
‘’I’m not too worried about it,” Bayless said. “You just get out there and make something you think is damn delicious.”