Backstory and Context
Although Rick and Deann Bayless opened Frontera Grill in 1987, their journey with Mexican cuisine started many years before. From 1980 to 1986 the two lived in Mexico and worked on research for their first book Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico.1 The cookbook was described as the "greatest contribution to the Mexican table imaginable"2 by Craig Clairborne in The New York Times.
The same year they published Authentic Mexican, they opened Frontera Grill in downtown Chicago. Located in River North, Frontera was far from predominantly Mexican neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village on the city's west side. Almost immediately the restaurant saw great success with Rick Bayless being awarded “Best New Chef of the Year” by Food & Wine Magazine. In 1989, Tobolobampo opened next door. The new venture was one of the few Mexican Fine-Dining restaurants in the US.3 Both restaurants went on to have great success and have received numerous awards, both locally and nationally.
Rick Bayless mission to expand the reach of Mexican cuisine into American diets has taken many avenues, with Frontera Grill being one of the most prominent. Alongside the flagship restaurant, Bayless has published numerous cookbooks that explore lesser known Mexican cuisine. Bayless also has hosted multiple shows on PBS that focus on Mexican cuisine. The longest-running and most successful has been Mexico: One Plate at a Time. The show, syndicated by PBS, has run for 12 seasons and 168 episodes. The show, which is filmed in Mexico, follows Bayless as he focuses on one dish for each episode. Different seasons have been filmed in geographic regions across episode, with the last season centering around Mexico.4
Bayless’s efforts to bring Mexican food into American kitchens have also included the Frontera Foods label. The brand makes a variety of products including chips, salsas, and grilling rubs. The brand was launched in 1997 and was Bayless’s first foray into creating products for the home. According to Frontera Food’s website the brand is “inspired by the robust, spirited flavors of regional Mexican cuisines, Frontera Foods was founded to help you create a gourmet Mexican experience at home. Our family of delicious foods is crafted with the highest-quality ingredients and gourmet-cooking techniques, so you can build bold, authentic flavors to enjoy and share every day.”5
Frontera Grill and Toblopbampo have not been Bayless’s only restaurants. In 2005, Frontera Fresco opened in Macy’s on State Street in Chicago’s loop. The fast-casual kiosk provides a more accessible version of the cuisine available at nearby Frontera Grill. Bayless has also opened another fast-casual option Tortas Frontera, which led the Chicago Tribune to exclaim “Finally a reason to get delayed at O’Hare.” Tortas Frontera has been named one of America’s 10 best airport restaraunts by USA Today and GQ Magazine.6
An important feature of all of Bayless’s restaurants is an emphasis on local sourcing ingredients. According to Frontera Grills’s website lists many Illinois farms and suppliers as sources for ingredients. Most notable among the local sources is El Milagro Tortillas, a Chicago-based tortilla manufacturer located in the Little Village run by the family of the founder, Raul Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who came to the US in 1942. Lopez started the company while working as a laborer on the Illinois Central Railroad.7 Bayless’s insistence on locally sourcing ingredients has been praised by outlets such as Time Out Chicago, which said, “An airport restaurant listing the local farms where its meat comes from? Unheard of…Bayless has outdone himself.”8
While it’s hard to quantify Bayless’s impact on the popularity of Mexican cuisine in the US, it is possible to chart its growth since Bayless opened Frontera Grill in 1987. In 2014, Mexican food was named as the third most popular menu type in the United States. The same report found that there were 54,000 Mexican restaurants in the US, making up 8% of the total US restaurant landscape.9 Between 2012 and 2017 Mexican restaurants had the highest rate of growth among restaurant categories.10 Much of this growth can be attributed to the continued growth of the Mexican population in the United States, but at least some of the credit should go to Rick Bayless who through his many books, television shows, and restaurants has familiarized countless Americans with authentic Mexican cuisine.
Frontera Grill and Rick Bayless have not, however, been an uncontroversial part of Chicago's thriving Mexican food scene. Bayless has been accused countless times of cultural appropriation and profiting off a culture that some believe he has no legitimate ties too. In an interview with NPR's Sporkful entitled, "Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food," Bayless was pressed on how he responds to criticism of a "white guy from Oklahoma" being the country's most famous chef focusing on Mexican cuisine. Bayless emphasized the extensive time he's spent traveling throughout Mexico and his knowledge of the Spanish language as evidence that he truly valued Mexican culture.11 Many critics still maintain that Bayless has unfairly profited off a culture that is not his own. Contrastingly, there is some evidence that Bayless is on good terms with at least some of Chicago's varied and heterogenous Latino community. Some of Bayless's chefs have gone on to open restaurants in traditionally Latino neighborhoods. One man, Alonso Sotelo, is the head chef at 5 Rabanitos in Pilsen, which opened in 2016.12 Bayless has also been active in debates over immigration, closing four of his restaurants in 2017 as part of "A Day Without Immigrants" in Chicago as well as donating to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.13 Dissecting the opinions of the two million Latinos living in Chicago is an impossible task, but it is fair to conclude that Bayless has both vehement critics and enthusiastic supporters in Chicago's Latino community.
2 Rick Bayless. PBS Food. . Accessed May 31, 2019. http://www.pbs.org/food/chefs/rick-bayless/.
3 Frontera Grill. RickBayless.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/frontera-grill/.
4 Mexico: One Plate at a Time. PBS Food. . Accessed May 31, 2019. http://www.pbs.org/food/shows/mexico-one-plate-at-a-time/.
5 About Us. FronteraFoods.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. http://www.fronterafoods.com/about-us.
6 Tortas Frontera. RickBayless.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/tortas-frontera/.
7 History. El-Milagro.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.el-milagro.com/history_1.html.
8 Tortas Frontera. RickBayless.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/tortas-frontera/.
9 Mexican food is the 3rd most popular menu type in the USA, representing 8 percent of the total national restaurant landscape. CHD Expert. May 13, 2014. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.chd-expert.com/blog/mexican-food-is-the-3rd-most-popular-menu-type-in-the-usa-representing-8-percent-of-the-total-national-restaurant-landscape/.
10 White, Lisa. The Evolution of Mexican Cuisine. Foodservice Equipment and Supplies Magazine. February 01, 2019. Accessed May 31, 2019. https://fesmag.com/features/foodservice-news/16559-the-evolution-of-mexican-cuisine.
11 Saini, Anna Noyes, writer. Other People’s Food Pt. 1: White Chef, Mexican Food. Sporkful. Recorded March 21, 2016. NPR, 2016.
12 "Affordable Mexican from Former Bayless Chefs in Pilsen." ABC7 Chicago. April 17, 2016. Accessed June 10, 2019. https://abc7chicago.com/food/affordable-mexican-from-former-bayless-chefs-in-pilsen/1293442/.
13 Lulay, Stephanie, and Stephanie Lulay. "Rick Bayless Closes Restaurants Thursday In Solidarity With Immigrants." DNAinfo Chicago. February 16, 2017. Accessed June 10, 2019. https://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20170215/downtown/rick-bayless-close-restaurants-thursday-solidarity-with-immigrants/.
14 Search for "Rick Bayless Frontera Grill". America's Historical Newspapers. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://infoweb-newsbank-com.turing.library.northwestern.edu/iw-search/we/HistArchive?p_action=search.
15 Frontera Grill. RickBayless.com. . Accessed May 31, 2019. https://www.rickbayless.com/restaurants/frontera-grill/.