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May 2, 2014 08:45 PM

Chef Rick Bayless to Surrender the Chips and Salsa and Open a Modern Mexucan Restaurant?

Diana Kennedy's cookbooks and Rick Bayless' were the first to engage my interest in and igniting a passion for learning about Mexican cuisine beyond the Taco Bell influence on my teenage tastes while growing up in Orange County, CA.

Enough about me - Bill Esparza's anthropological essays about the history of Mexican cuisine just blows me away with the depth of his research and scholarship

Here is a link to his recent essay:

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  1. Well...Bill's article is hardly an 'anthropological essay'. He has an odd take on the restaurant scene in Mexico City, and he makes what I believe are some unfortunate and truly apples-to-oranges comparisons. I take exception to his statement about "tourist friendly traditional restaurants he's favored in the past like El Bajio and El Cardenal". Both are indeed traditional, both are old, old family restaurants, each with a dedicated and loyal Mexico City clientele, and both are institutions in this city. Neither makes any claim to be anything but the jewel that it is.

    My personal disclaimer: I like Rick Bayless very much as a person. I don't care much for either his recent cookbooks or for the direction he is going in what Bill Esparza continually calls 'Modern Mexican'. The correct term, by the way, is cocina de autor, which translates essentially to 'cuisine of the person making it.'

    Having said that, I also don't like the tone of Bill's article. Mexico hasn't had a restaurant culture until fairly recently--about 20 years ago. Prior to that time, most people ate at home, ate food prepared by either wives or employed cooks. All of that food was either indigenous or European-influenced. Restaurant food was generally French, and that's what people wanted to eat on the infrequent occasions that they did go out to dine. Other than that, it was street food, fonda food, and home cooking.

    Rick Bayless is not a traditionalist. Neither are any of the 'name' chefs that Bill Esparza mentions. They need not be, of course. But in my opinion, this 'cocina de autor' trend too shall pass. The 'modernist' Mexican kitchen is no more representative of Mexican food than the tweezer-platings of any other world-class city. When I eat 'cocina de autor', I could be anywhere: London, Paris, New York, San Francisco. The use of tortilla masa, epazote, and chiles in strange and unrecognizable dishes does not make what's on your plate into Mexican food. It makes cocina de autor, and that, regardless of Rick Bayless and others of his ilk, is not the future of cocina mexicana. Fashion in food, like fashion in dress, is fleeting. Traditional Mexican food will be around forever.

    2 Replies
    1. re: cristina

      Cristina, to clear up a few things.

      Rick was presenting traditional food that he got from places like El Bajio (it was a regular stop for his chefs on their Mexico trips) and people called it Modern Mexican, journalists, too. There was no jab at these places other than they are in practically every guide book ever written, making them tourist destinations--this is not an insult.

      My take on the history was from interviews in Mexico City, Oaxaca, Estado de Mexico, Baja California, and at numerous culinary throughout Mexico with the people who created Modern Mexican and those who worked in their kitchens and my own experience dining at the restaurants. Their timelines are all in synch with what took place at Pujol and Pangea.

      The whole entire world was dictated by French technique 20 years ago and going back--chefs follow developments in the world of international chefs.

      Cocina de autor means nothing but the literal meaning, and is used by some to say do what ever you want. The cooking today has elements of modernist cooking, the Noma influence, and as well as other elements. In the U.S., the term used is Modern Mexican--derived from modern cuisine which incorporates the lessons of El Bulli--but these are titles given by journalists, and it really doesn't matter. Most chefs I speak with use the term vanguard cuisine, or just the vanguard, contemporary cuisine--again, this is really nitpicking-- these terms don't change what's on the menu. The haute cuisine of Mexico has changed and terms have changed as fast as the world is changing--most chefs don't even care for these terms, so cocina de autor allows for a broad cuisine, without unrealistic expectations from diners. It's a license to do what you want. Cocina de autor may be international, but ingredients are local and what currently define the national styles.

      Rick Bayless presents traditional dishes in his U.S. restaurants with some substitutions, but it's not the cooking of Olvera, Berestain, and so on. He is not at modernist--he serves a tamal on a rectangular plate, a ceviche, a taco is taco, and enchiladas have a clean plating, some arrangement, etc., but are not modern interpretations.

      People in the U.S. think after some guacamole, a tamal, and a mole with heritage chicken that they've had modern Mexican cuisine. This is what my article was about--Rick is going to move towards modern cuisine, and people will be surprised that the chips and salsa will be missing.

      In the last part of your response it seems as you stopped reading my post and just started opining. Chefs will follow chefs as they always have and they currently are very tuned in to their local ingredients, but if you don't see the influences in these restaurants then you are missing out. This article had nothing to do with traditional vs. modern, or one being better or what's going to be around.

      I believe your take is odd. You know, you could have just messaged me if you didn't understand. I don't even go on here anymore and we are very connected--that's odd.

      1. re: streetgourmetla

        Bill, thanks so much for coming to CH to talk more about your point of view. We still have some differences of opinion, but by and large I think we are on exactly the same page. It's great to hear from you.