Friday, August 21, 2009

¡Viva Rick Bayless!

Reversal of the long-time dumbing down of Mexican food by the likes of Taco Bell and Chili's may have momentum with Rick Bayless' victory in Top Chef Masters.

The outcome on Bravo TV Wednesday surely surprised many people and, one would hope, began building long-overdue respect for Mexican food. Bayless was taken aback by his victory. The judges expressed open surprise that the food Bayless laid before them was superior to the competing classic French and Italian dishes. Give them credit for recognizing it and overcoming their biases.

Chalk it all up to two equal factors:

* Rick Bayless' relentless attention and faithfulness to the details of regional Mexican cooking. He visits Mexico frequently, and on those excursions, he has learned the recipes and the techniques it takes to carry them out, how to use the wide array of ingredients and a genuine respect for the people, the culture and the food.

* The nearness of Mexican food to its indigenous roots. It is closer to its roots than French and Italian are to their roots. It is fundamental cooking with ingredients that are consistently one, two, three steps closer to their original states than what other classic cooking presents.

Note that I said other classic cooking. Those of us for whom Mexican food has been our life-long nourishment always knew it was classic and had a place beside the world's great cuisines. Now it can be declared.

That Bayless defeated a classically trained French chef, the delightful Hubert Keller, and a classically trained Italian-American chef, the volatile Michael Chiarello, in the finals of Top Chef Masters is further testament to his skills and the cuisine.

In doing so, he won over a panel of judges whose palates and prejudices had seemed to favor the classics of the French and Italian kitchens. Judge Gael Greene was openly amazed that Bayless' winning black mole had 27 ingredients and took him 20 years to perfect. Her reaction to how it tasted: “You set off sky rockets tonight.”

The best part of Top Chef Masters was watching all these great chefs in action, their passion on full display. Here's how Bayless characterized it in a post-competition interview with the Los Angeles Times:

"At this point in my life, I’m 55, and what I really want to do is prove to myself that I can still cook at all. I don’t work on the line anymore, but I miss it! I cook all the time at home. I love it! I just want to cook."

(Photo credit: Google Images)

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