Rick Bayless presenting at Modern Mexican

“What is the relevance of the Mexican pantry in modern cuisine?” asked Rick Bayless of a crowd of about 60 or 70 people assembled lecture-hall-style in front of a test kitchen area at Kendall College on Saturday morning. The chef of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo was leading an all-day session on Mexican cuisine in fine dining called Modern Mexican, or Mod Mex for short, an adjunct event to the upcoming Chicago Gourmet festival in Grant Park at the end of the month. The goal is to widen understanding of how to integrate Mexican flavors into American cooking—and to raise money for the Frontera Foundation’s scholarship programs.

One example Bayless cited of Mexican foodstuffs’ relevance to the U.S.’s cuisine scene: Chicago has “the greatest variety of fresh masa not only in the U.S., but in the world”—masa being the corn product from which tortillas are made. And, as it turned out, Mexican corn would be one of the major subjects of the day. The format for the morning chefs’ session was that Bayless had assembled an assortment of Mexican flavors and ingredients, and each chef could pick some to use in demonstrating a dish. Ana Belaval, a blogger and personality on WGN TV, emceed.

Curtis Duffy. This ones for the ladies

First up was Curtis Duffy of Grace, whose looks were the subject of much comment from Belaval, especially when he came to explain how the edible ice cylinders filled with raw fish that figure on his menu were made—initially, condoms were used in helping shape them. (Eventually he had some permanent silicone molds made, because he refused to have Grace’s accounts showing bulk purchases of condoms.) Anyway, getting back to Mexican food, he explained that he doesn’t really like spice or use it in his food—tasting menus can’t take a lot of spicy food killing tastebuds along the way—but at the same time, “It’s foolish to say I can’t use limes or prickly pears because they’re not in my cuisine. The challenge is, how do we take those ingredients so rooted in [Mexican] cuisine and do them our way?” He showed how to use nonspicy Mexican flavors such as prickly pear and the herb hoja santa, along with a lime-based hamachi ceviche, to make a Latin-tinged version of the dish (which, he admitted, is about to be retired).

Plating hamachi ceviche inside the prickly pear ice cylinder
  • Michael Gebert
  • Plating hamachi ceviche inside the prickly pear ice cylinder
Pablo Salas

Next up was Pablo Salas of Amaranta in Toluca, near Mexico City, who’d had a good week—his restaurant was just named to the S. Pellegrino list of world’s best Latin American restaurants. Salas’s restaurant is focused on pork in particular, specifically the black pigs that were the first brought from Spain, the same breed that’s used for jamon iberico. And he addressed the question of how you decide the place of peasant ingredients in fine dining, such as offal—”It has to be really clean, and you have to know each part and how to present it in a beautiful way.”

He cooked pork jowl sous vide and integrated it into an upscale version (complete with swoosh on the plate) of a traditional dish involving a pepian (pumpkinseed) sauce, pineapple vinegar, peas, and a prickly pear gastrique.

Fany Gerson in conversation with Ana Belaval

Third was Fany Gerson, who has a Mexican ice and sweets company called La Newyorkina in Brooklyn. Gerson’s focus was on Mexican corn, which was the basis of the ice cream she made. She showed four different varieties of corn and said that Mexico still didn’t appreciate the range and flavors of heirloom corn varieties—blue corn tortillas more often result being dyed rather than anyone seeking out rare varieties. Her dish included Mexican cinnamon, cacao beans, and peaches poached in a sweet wine-honey liquid.

Rick Bayless

The last chef was Bayless himself, who acknowledged that he had an unfair advantage as the one who picked the ingredients to choose from. So he gave himself a disadvantage—he decided to make his dish something that would have gone with his “1491” menu earlier this year, using only ingredients available to the pre-Columbian Native American population, which meant no domesticated livestock, no limes or cilantro, no onions or garlic, no lard—indeed, little of what we now consider Mexican food. (See my conversation about this menu with him here.)

So what did they make back then? A lot of tamals. He showed off how you give flavor and texture without so many modern standbys, adding oil to the masa with pumpkin seeds and other things. Along the way he gave an impassioned endorsement of water, which he called one of the most underrated cooking ingredients—deprived of broth, he had to rely on the natural flavor of the corn and other ingredients and bring them out with water.

Making a tamal by hand

Not that you have to drink the stuff with them—for each dish Topolobampo sommelier Jill Gubesch selected an accompanying drink based on the ingredients each chef chose. A champagne with a high percentage of meunier for Duffy’s prickly pear ice; a “bone-dry” Riesling for Salas’s pork; tawny port with the corn ice cream, and, finally, pinot noir to match the pasilla chiles in Bayless’s tamal.

Another adjunct event to Chicago Gourmet I’ll mention in passing just because I’ll be one of the judges on behalf of the Reader’s sibling the Sun-Times: the Friday night Hamburger Hop competition for local chefs making burgers. The Hamburger Hop is sold out, but there are still tickets for the party afterward.