Chef Rick Bayless Explains What Americans Get Wrong About Mexican Cuisine - Exclusive

Rick Bayless knows a thing or 10 about authentic Mexican cooking. He has spent the better part of his life cooking Mexican food, writing about Mexican food, hosting TV shows devoted to it, giving live demos focused on Mexican meals, and working with other chefs equally steeped in the cuisine.

Before he did any of that, Bayless spent years learning all he could about the cuisine that would define his life, starting when he was a kid, inspired to cook at his own family's Oklahoma City restaurant. However, that restaurant didn't serve authentic Mexican food or even the Americanized Tex-Mex that was so popular in Oklahoma and beyond. The family restaurant served BBQ, so when he wanted to learn about the cuisines of other cultures, Bayless turned to books. "I spent tons of time in the summer down at our local public library, which had all kinds of international cookbooks," Bayless said during a recent Mashed interview. "And I would check those things out and study them, and then attempt to make a meal from them."

Inspired to take his cuisine journey even farther, Bayless later headed south. 

"I did my undergrad degree in Spanish language literature in Latin American studies [in] Mexico and ended up ... spending five years there, literally just traveling the whole country and learning about the regional foods of Mexico," Bayless said, adding, "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. Because I don't have a Mexican grandmother, I'm not allied to one region of Mexico, so I can embrace them all. And I can tell you what Mexican grandmothers in all of those places have taught me about the cuisine and about certain dishes."

Another thing he learned? Americans have a lot to learn about Mexican food.

The differences between real Mexican food and the American take

If you want to get chef Rick Bayless talking a mile a minute, ask him this question: "What are a few common American misconceptions about Mexican food?" Bayless leaned back, nodding, a knowing look in his eyes, then took a breath and replied,: "Oh, that it's Tex-Mex food covered with sour cream and guacamole — that's not Mexican food at all." 

The main point Bayless wanted to make clear? Not only is what Americans think of as Mexican food not, in fact, representative of the country's cuisine, but thinking of any one type of food as quintessentially "Mexican" is missing the point. "Mexican food is incredibly varied and very regional," Bayless explained. "And so the food, say, in the Yucatan Peninsula tastes nothing like the food in Mexico City. And it's a very complex cuisine that has to do with all of these long cooked sauces. They're called moles or adobos, and those are really the essence of the cuisine."

One other major point Bayless mentioned is that Americans have introduced some decidedly non-Mexican ingredients to "Mexican food." He said, "That whole notion of putting sour cream on everything is sort of weird too. And the other thing is that there's a certain type of restaurant that might put beans and rice on a plate, but it's certainly not, let's say, a very nice restaurant. The whole notion that you have to serve beans and rice with every plate is so not Mexican. They eat a lot of rice in Mexico, but the beans would be a sort of separate thing for another occasion for most people. So that whole beans and rice thing that is a big differentiator between Mexican American food and the food of Mexico."

Follow chef Richard Bayless on Instagram and check out his site for more.