Rick Bayless Talks About His Journey From Oklahoma City To Authentic Mexican Cooking - Exclusive

If you close your eyes and try to make a visualization inspired by the words "authentic Mexican chef," Rick Bayless is probably not the person you'll be seeing in your mind's eye. A smiling Mexican grandmother tending her prized mole sauce? Sure. A busy chef preparing a pot of Sopa de Lima the kitchen at a Mérida restaurant? Of course. A bespectacled gent from Oklahoma? Not quite so much.

So why is Rick Bayless considered one of the best chefs preparing authentic Mexican food today? Simply put, he put in the work. First, he had to have the interest, which didn't start with Mexican cuisine, but his love for food started from his earliest years. "I grew up in a restaurant," Bayless said during a recent exclusive Mashed interview. "I cooked since I was a little kid. It was just part of my world. And I grew up in a place where there were professional cooks all around me, and I liked hanging out with them, and they started teaching me from very early age. I wouldn't say that it was just one person, but it was just being in that incredible environment of cooking all the time that was my biggest inspiration."

However, the Bayless family restaurant didn't serve Mexican food, or even the Tex-Mex that was popular in his native Oklahoma City in the 1950s and 60s. He explained, "I grew up in a barbecue restaurant, so barbecue was the main thing ... [but] I grew up with Tex-Mex too, and we ate it all the time. It was just what everybody did. You didn't ask people: 'Oh, do you like Mexican food?' Everybody just ate Tex-Mex food, which is very different than the food that I do now."

Where did Bayless find that food he cooks now? Initially, it came from the pages of books.

Why Rick Bayless is comfortable calling his cooking authentic

"Growing up, I spent tons of time in the summer down at our local public library, which had all kinds of international cookbooks," Bayless said. "And I would check those things out and study them, and then attempt to make a meal from them ... I worked hard to try to create stuff, just to explore another culture through food."

Soon enough, the chef packed his bags and headed south. "I did my undergrad degree in Spanish language literature in Latin American studies, I went to school in Mexico," the chef said, adding, "I ended up going to Mexico and spending five years there, literally just traveling the whole country and learning about the regional foods of Mexico. And then I came back sort of armed with firsthand knowledge of what the regional cuisines of Mexico are and how to present those in a really positive way."

In an interesting way, because Bayless is not a native Mexican, he had the ability to acquire a knack for foods from all around the nation rather than being steeped primarily in the cuisine from a more specific region. "Because I don't have a Mexican grandmother, I'm not allied to one region of Mexico, so I can embrace them all," Bayless said. "And I can tell you what Mexican grandmothers in all of those places have taught me about the cuisine and about certain dishes, and so forth." 

Despite his background in barbecue, his training in French cooking techniques, and his love for various Asian cuisines, it was Mexican food — authentic Mexican food, not the cheese- and bean-heavy dishes served all too often in America — that would be the chef's true calling. "This is where really my heart is," he says. It's where his skills are, too.

Follow chef Rick Bayless on Instagram and check out his Frontera line of sauces and salsas.