Rick Bayless in the rooftop garden above Topolobampo and Frontera Grill on Clark Street.
  • Rick Bayless/Facebook
  • Rick Bayless in the rooftop garden above Topolobampo and Frontera Grill on Clark Street.

Three decades ago fine dining in Chicago happened at places with names like Maxim’s, Le Perroquet, and Chez Paul. Then the 1980s saw three restaurants open and refine other national cuisines besides French—Spiaggia for Italian food in 1984, Charlie Trotter’s for American cuisine in 1987, and, most surprisingly, Rick Bayless’s Topolobampo for Mexican, a cuisine then inextricably associated with cheap eats and big strong drinks, in 1989.

Through Topolobampo and its slightly older sibling, Frontera Grill, plus his cookbooks and his TV shows, Bayless has long since succeeded in making people take Mexican flavors seriously (and making once-scuzzy River North a restaurant destination). For its 25th anniversary this year, Topolobampo is getting refreshed. That includes some decor changes, new serving pieces from Mexico, and, most interestingly, a new way of organizing its menu, breaking it up with descriptors like “Vibrant” or “Soulful” or “Complex” designed to help diners find their way more easily among unfamiliar ingredients. It’s also marking the anniversary with an entire season of historical Mexican menus aimed at showcasing the evolution of Mexican cuisine under its many historical influences.

Yesterday I posted a slide show of the first of these historical menus, “Mexico City 1491,” devoted to pre-Columbian Aztec cuisine. Today I talk to Rick Bayless about that menu and Topolobampo’s own history over the past quarter century of dining in Chicago. (You can see the new Tobolobampo menu here.)

Michael Gebert: So this Mexican history series is kind of a 25th-anniversary series for Topolobampo?

Rick Bayless: Yeah, it is, it’s the 25th anniversary year. We’re doing a whole bunch of anniversary menus, and every other one will have a historical perspective. The next big change after [the arrival of the Spanish] is when Mexico becomes independent. So it’s the beginning of what people would call, not New Spain, which is what they called it before, but Mexico. It’s the emergence of Mexico.

Between 1491 and 1650 you’ll see very clear shifting from all the indigenous ingredients to the ingredients which were brought to Mexico. Then the third one, which is Mexican independence from Spain, becomes those things starting to meld. Then the fourth one is about the emergence of a new Mexico after the revolution of 1910. That was where the people—the everyday people, not the fancy people—started to emerge and become something that’s really: “What we eat is who we are.”

The fifth one will be modern Mexico, the way it’s envisioned from the perspective of the chefs in Mexico. So we’re going to do riffs on what all the really hot young chefs are doing in Mexico. And then the last one will be modern Mexican from the vantage point of Chicago.

Do the French figure in, or were they there too briefly to matter?

They were there for a short period of time, but what they brought to Mexico was substantial because it had to do with breads and pastries. All those pastries that you see in Mexican bakeries were brought by [the Emperor] Maximilian and his crew—in the early 1860s he brought this huge amount of bakers into Mexico. Before then, bread was what you would call peasant bread. And then after that, everyone made the bolillos and the teleras, everything that Mexico is known for these days.

Let’s talk about the pre-Columbian menu. The challenge, as your chefs told me when I was photographing the menu, is working around all those things that the Spanish hadn’t brought yet. How did you do that and how did you come up with the menu?

I’ll say that this is the third or fourth time that we’ve approached this kind of menu, and the first time that I felt my hands tied behind my back in such a crazy way. I found it really hard to make the menu. [Before] we only did it for a festival menu, and we did it for just one night. And we’ve played with it over the years, but this is clearly the most extensive that we’ve done.

Now the constraints that are obviously the hardest are obviously no wheat, dairy, pork, pork fat, limes, cilantro, onions, and garlic. It sounds like it would be easy to cook without onions and garlic, except in Mexican cuisine almost every thought begins with, cook the onions and garlic. So you have to leave that stuff out.

The cuisine that we know as Mexican cuisine has been influenced by so many groups that brought their stuff to Mexico, and Mexico just opened its arms to it. I would say that Mexican cooking is really the most perfect example of fusion cuisine—I know a lot of people like to laugh at fusion cuisine and say it’s overdone or it shouldn’t be done, but Mexican is really the perfect example of what it means to have a true fusion cuisine.

Because the first thing that happened was the collision of the pre-Columbian, almost vegetarian world with the Spanish, almost completely carnivorous world. And those two things collided and began to integrate almost immediately, and over the next 300 to 400 years, the only way that goods went from Asia to Europe was that they were all collected together in Manila in the Philippines, they would be packed on Manila galleons and go to Acapulco. Then they would go overland to Veracruz, and then they would cross the Atlantic. Remember, this is the era when Constantinople had fallen to the Turks and they had cut off the trade routes. So all those goods going from Asia to Europe had to go through Mexico.

And Mexico was incredibly enriched during that period with all the spices that we associate with moles and things like that. So that wave came through, and the French wave came through, a second French wave came through at the end of the 1800s with the Porfirio Diaz era, then a staunch “We are Mexican,” throw-off-all-that-stuff era came in the early 1900s.

But the kitchen has always been a kitchen that has adopted, with open arms, pretty much anything that came its way. It was all woven together from a Mexican point of view with a Mexican spirit.

So they never chased any of the foods away when the politics changed?

Well, they did, but that’s an uninteresting cuisine to me, because when the politics change, the cuisine changes only for the ruling class. And that’s a tiny, tiny group of people. The food of the ruling class has never been very interesting to me because I think it represents put-on cuisine in a whole lot of ways. Whereas in the rest of Mexico, 99 percent of people, they’re all eating this evolving cuisine all the time.

You’re changing things around at Topolobampo, and the biggest change in terms of the food is that the entire menu is now divided by these eight attributes or descriptors. What was the thinking behind doing that?

It came to me because I teach so much. And people were asking me [to] talk about the different types of food. And I started developing this list and I said, there’s this group of dishes that seem to have a relationship, and this group. But as I began to do that in my class I thought, well, I could put a name on those groups. But it’s not exactly a class of dishes that you could say, “Oh, these are the ceviches.” Because it was a group that was a little bit wider than that.

So I started thinking, what ties these things together? Because in the Mexican cook’s mind or the Mexican eater’s minds, there are these different kinds of foods. And what I began to realize was that what I was really talking about was flavor profiles. Because in Mexico, people often discuss their dishes in terms of commonality of flavor. And with the commonalities of flavor, they kind of fall into these eight different groups that we have on the menu now.

Did any of it come from customers often being unfamiliar with the cuisine and wanting to help them zero in on what a dish was going to be like?

Honestly, it was more in helping the people that I was teaching to zero in on the dishes. I do a lot of work at the Culinary Institute of America, and I’m trying to teach, very quickly a lot of times, culinary students to help them understand the cuisine. And I found this to be a very helpful way. And then I thought, you want to make it easy for your customers by just telling them, “Here’s our appetizer section,” and so on. And that didn’t really help them that much to understand what some of the words were on the page.

So if I could give them a flavor description—like “bold” or “complex” or “fresh” or whatever—if they were trying to put together a menu for themselves here, they could balance it out. Oh, let’s start with some “vibrant” dishes, and then some that are really “soulful,” and then some that are really “bold.” And you know that your meal is really going to come together.

Then we brought to that the idea that, why don’t we make all the dishes the same size? So it’s not like you’re going from small to large. That kind of came to me when I was visiting my daughter last summer in France and all the restaurants that we went to, every course was the same size. Just because your first course is first, doesn’t mean it’s smaller. So we thought, why don’t we just do that? It makes it easier for our guests.

Let’s talk about Topolobampo at this quarter-century milestone. It came just two and a half years after Frontera Grill, but where Frontera had a casual, good-time feel, Topolobampo seemed much more of an explicit attempt to make people take Mexican food seriously—as Charlie Trotter did for American food, say. Would you agree with that characterization?

Absolutely, absolutely. You know, when we opened Frontera in ’87, what I really wanted to do—I wasn’t personally ready for it yet—was to open Topolobampo. Because I had just moved back from Mexico City, and we used to go to these wonderfully elegant restaurants that featured Mexican cuisine. And if you said Mexican cuisine in the States—I actually said this to an acquaintance before we opened Frontera, “We’re going to open a Mexican restaurant that’s a little nicer, a little more upscale.” And she said, “What does that mean, you’re putting parsley on the tacos?”

  • Frontera/Facebook
  • Rick Bayless on location in Oaxaca for one of his TV shows.

So we started with Frontera, which actually was hugely upscale [for Mexican] at the time, and two and a half years later, we opened Topolo. And to this day you’ll hear guests as they walk into the dining room say things like “Well, this isn’t really Mexican food, this is just Bayless’s food.” And the funny part of it is that it’s actually cooked from a totally Mexican perspective. And I understand very clearly the difference between cooking dishes with Mexican ingredients and cooking from a Mexican perspective, because you balance things differently, you use different techniques, and so on.

Yes, our food has always been contemporary, and more so all the time. But it’s all cooked with a Mexican sensibility. And it’s very interesting, because if we have cooks here who don’t understand what that is, they will always try to cook an American dish and throw chiles in it, that kind of an approach to it.

And I’ve never wanted to do that. Because Mexico has so much to offer. You just have to put aside your American perspective, which is heavily influenced by Western Europe. And when you do, you get a completely new vantage point. And what we’ve always tried to offer in that room, is to offer that vantage point.

How has Topolobampo evolved over the years—and how has the customer for it evolved?

Well, the customer has really evolved. This country is just astonishing right now. When we opened [Frontera] in ’87, we could do very little exotic stuff. Our first menu was quite simple. And then we decided that we would start to explore some of the more unusual dishes, and slowly but surely we’ve brought people along.

It took a long time, but now there’s a general understanding in the world, I think, that there are different kinds of Mexican food. I mean, obviously that’s the first step for our guests, that, oh, there’s the kind of American Mexican food that we all grew up on, and maybe we just love to death, but there’s also this kind that comes from Mexico.

The second step is, it’s not all tacos. Because that’s the thing that we fight against the most. No, we don’t fight against it, but we come up against it. That if it’s really good Mexican food, it’s nothing but tacos. Maybe we’ll let ceviche in, but that’s as good as Mexican food gets and if you’re going to eat the good stuff, you’re always going to go to a taqueria. Well, nobody says that in Mexico. You might have your favorite taqueria, but nobody says that the very best food in the country comes from taquerias.

They love them for what they are in the same way that Americans might go out for their favorite hamburger, but you don’t serve hamburgers on Thanksgiving Day, you know? You do another style of cuisine for special occasions. There are certain times for certain things.

And that’s another thing that we’ve sort of had to work with, but I think we’ve gotten a lot of people to understand that not only is Mexican-American food different from Mexican food, but great Mexican food is not just tacos. And then the third thing, which is what we do a lot here, is show people that there are different regions with different cuisines in Mexico. Those three things are just huge for us. And I feel like we’ve made a lot of inroads in helping people to understand it.

My only reason for wanting people to understand that is because—I feel like my only goal in life, the path that I have chosen to be on, is to enrich peoples’ lives through food. And Mexico has so many things to offer. And if we just open ourselves up to them, we can allow that cuisine, and that culture, to enrich our lives. It has given so much to me, I just want to be able to give back by sharing it widely.