For this year’s Reader Key Ingredient Cook-Off, we asked some of Chicago’s top chefs to create a dish to honor a person who influenced their cooking. The exercise stirred many kitchen memories.

Chef: Dan Salls

Restaurant: Quiote

Crab salpicon

Mentor: Rick Bayless, chef and owner of restaurants including Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and Xoco, and host of the TV series Mexico: One Plate at a Time

“The first kitchen I ever worked in was my own, at the Salsa Truck. I spent almost a year after I left my white-collar job formulating the Salsa Truck and teaching myself how to cook. I spent a lot of time watching Mexico: One Plate at a Time and cruising through that awesome encyclopedia of Mexican food on [Rick Bayless’s] website. I never worked for him, but he had a strong impact on the way I fell in love with Mexican food.

“I wanted to be a professional chef, but I feel like Bayless is what helped guide me. I’m pretty proud of my breadth of knowledge of Mexican food and cuisine, and I think I owe it to someone like Rick Bayless, who opened up those doors and allowed for chefs outside of Mexico to cook with these ingredients. In some strange shape or form I feel a mentorship even though he probably doesn’t know who I am.”  v