Inspired by the markets in Mexico, Bayless delves into the world of medicinal herbs for his newest restaurant concept.
Cocktails that are good for you? Count us in. Food & Wine caught up with Rick Bayless, the chef-owner of Frontera Grill (and the whole Frontera empire—fun fact: Bayless was a F&W Best New Chef in 1988) last week at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen to find out what he's working on next—and he gave us the scoop on his new bijou dining concept: a medicinal herb-centric cocktail bar with a small-plates menu the likes of which you've never seen from the Bayless empire. And it's all thanks to his daughter, Lanie Bayless, who, in 2016, rejoined the Chicago-based restaurant group after years of working in New York City.
"My daughter has recently rejoined our family business," Bayless tells Food & Wine. "She's our spirits director—she's over all our craft cocktail programs, she curates all our lists of tequilas and mezcales, and she's incredibly passionate about that. So we're going to open a little jewel box bar with food in it and it's going to give me the opportunity from the food side of things to look at Mexican food in a slightly different way. It's all going to be small plates, but stuff that is pretty adventurous and cool and stuff that doesn't fit in the rest of our restaurants."
In developing the small plates menu and bar program at his new enterprise, Bayless turned to the markets in Mexico for inspiration.
"The one thing that I'm always marveling at when I'm in Mexico in the markets is all of the stalls that have medicinal herbs," he says. "Mexico is just rife with these places—they'll have, I would guess, probably 60 or 70 medicinal herbs. I know so little about those—some of those we know as culinary herbs, but they're using them in a medicinal way. We're going to focus on learning about medicinal herbs, and we're going to incorporate that into our bar program. I'm super-excited about that. That's our next step restaurant-wise."
After decades in the industry, Bayless is still passionate and committed to his personal mission of sharing—food, knowledge, hospitality, and travel. "Sharing is what I'm really all about," Bayless says. "I can share flavors with people at our restaurants—I can share a sense of generous hospitality with people. In my books, I can hopefully share an empowerment with people to go into their kitchens and make something delicious and then they can turn around and share that. When I've done all my work on television, my goal was always to share my love for Mexico with a broad audience—and, so, I can take people to places I think are just the coolest places in the world."
At home, Bayless leads a restaurant group that will, with the addition of his new medicinal herb cocktail bar-restaurant, encompass nine establishments. I asked him about being a leader in the industry, the role of the chef-owner, and, in light of recent very-public reckonings in the restaurant business at large, what the way forward could look like.
"I've been in this business for a really long time, having grown up in it and then having a restaurant that's 31-years-old this year," Bayless says. "I've seen a lot of changes—from the early years, where if I said I was a chef, people would say, Oh you're better than that, you don't need to be a chef. And I would say, No I'm passionate about cooking and sharing food with people. To this place where we understood chefs as artists, so then we wanted to create the celebrity chef.
"Then we went into the era of the bad boy chef—and I think that has come to a screeching halt," he says. "At least, I would say I hope it has come to a screeching halt. Because what we do in our kitchens is a great craft. You have to practice it and practice it. You have to be incredibly smart and thoughtful and never stop thinking about how to make a dish better. That kind of passion and commitment together with a great sense of professionalism is the wave of the future. Being able to combine that professionalism with a sense of artistry and the dedication of a craftsperson, to me, is that we can offer—what we should be offering. I'm excited to see how we are going to evolve this incredible restaurant industry we have in the United States into something even better."