We’re big fans of “Top Chef”. The other night the new season of “Top Chef Las Vegas” began just as this past summer’s “Top Chef Masters” was ending. The “Masters” series focused on 24 of the best and most accomplished chefs in America, pitting them in challenges each week. The winner, announced on Wednesday night, was awarded $100,000 that went to the chef’s charity. This year’s Master, went to famed Chicago restaurateur and owner of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, Rick Bayless.
The finale came down to three amazing chefs, all of whom well-known and friends: French-born Hubert Keller of San Francisco, owner of Fleur de Lys, among other restaurants, and Michael Chiarello, owner of Bottega in the Napa Valley, and known for Italian and Mediterranean cuisine, and Bayless. The finale asked the chefs to create a meal for 12 that represented the past, present and future of their chef careers.
Specifically, they had to create four courses: a dish from their first food memory, the dish that made them want to become a chef, a dish from their first restaurant and a dish that represents where they are heading next. It was a terrific example of why this new “Top Chef Masters” series worked so well and how different it was from the regular series that centers on the up and coming chefs. Here, we got to meet truly amazing chefs who worked hard and who respected each other. We saw true camaraderie, without any petty behavior or nasty competitiveness of the regular “Top Chef” show; these chefs were already beyond accomplished in their own right, often with successful restaurants and under-control egos as well. True to the name of the show, it was almost as if we were watching master chefs at work, and competing not so much against each other but for their respective charities.
I have been a huge fan of Bayless’s for a long time. More than any other chef in America, he has championed Mexican cuisine this his numerous excellent cookbooks and outstanding PBS series, “Mexico: One Plate a Time”, which this falls begins its 8th season. The loving care with which he prepares his dishes comes from a deep appreciation of the Mexican culture, something the Oklahoma-native has done all his life.
In fact, part of the appeal of the TV show is that it works almost as a travelogue. One moment you see Bayless ordering tacos in the bustling Mercado la Merced in Mexico City, possibly the largest outdoor food court in the world; the next moment he is back in his airy Chicago kitchen recreating the same complex salsa that he was served. Like Julia Child and French cuisine, Bayless has unlocked the many mysteries of Mexican cuisine by being truly authentic about its roots. By raising the profile of Mexican food in modern cooking, he has also rescued it from being merely seen my many as simply a plate of melted cheese atop a pile of rolled tortillas, or a plate of sour cream and guacamole. Moreover, Bayless down-to-earth nature and obvious enthusiasm make him a lot of fun to watch, both on his PBS show and the recent “Top Masters”.
Bayless’s fans in this country are many, and especially in Chicago. Many have seen his websites, www.fronterakitchens.com and www.rickbayless.com. Bayless himself kept up his own personal blog about his experiences on “Top Chef Masters”, which was entertaining and really gave you insights on what you didn’t see on the show, called www.root4rick.com.
According to Bayless, the cooking he and his sous-chef Brian did during the finale was “some of the best food ever made anywhere… It was a serious, timed competition and with some of our country’s best chefs cooking the stories of their lives. I felt just as I had at the meal we cooked for each other during the first of the finals: incredibly privileged to have been there … to have been cooking there.”
His competitors Chiarello and Keller were no slouches either. Chiarello, who was perhaps unfairly characterized on a recent show as being a showboater with a prickly ego, is a pretty spectacular chef as well. Keller, who was probably the slight favorite going into the finale because of his incredible precision, impressed many with his 18 (count ‘em) dishes he prepared for last week’s show, is a modern French superstar with restaurants even in Las Vegas. Butit was Bayless who was always steady and consistent and in the finale managed to whip up the following: the first course was a hickory barbecue quail, with a side of watermelon salad; second course a Oaxacan mole served with ahi tuna and plantain tamales; third course a Cochinita Pibil (suckling pig) with sunchoke puree and crispy pigs feet; the final course was an arroz a la tumbada with a tomato-jalapeno broth and chorizo.
Bayless emerged as the winner, and in judge Jay Rayner’s words, he was anointed as “a true master chef of the Americas”. Besides the title, Bayless also picked up a check for $100,000 that went to the Frontera Farmer Foundation, a nonprofit organization started in 2003 that promotes small sustainable farms by providing capital development grants to family farms which serve the Chicago area.
So guess who also happened to be in Chicago, literally two blocks away from the new Top Master Chef’s restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo? Guess who decided to drop in once again at Frontera, momentarily forgetting that this evening was the evening of the finale, but seeing the large crowds of people already swarming for the event? A friend and I were told that they were not taking any names that evening because of the event, in which presumably Bayless and family, plus his staff and supporters would be there to watch the show on Bravo on big TV screens. (The finale, incidentally, was filmed earlier this year in LA.) We literally could not move around the crowded, ornate entryway of Frontera that evening, and we were out of luck for finding a table for the event. It was either standing around without a table, watching a TV screen along with the crowds, or coming back the next night, which is what we did. (Hungry, we made it over to Harry Caray’s steakhouse a block away, where besides having a terrific rib-eye, we had a stuffy waiter named Steve who ignored us.)
Believe it or not, the wait to get in to Frontera Grill the next night was two hours. We weren’t surprised: the news that Bayless had won “Top Chef Masters” the night before was all over in Chicago, and suddenly the restaurants had become the hottest ticket in town. (Frontera is the first and main restaurant; Topolobampo, which incidentally is featuring the winning meal on the menu, is the more upscale cousin located next door.) We spent the wait noshing on fresh tostaditas with salsas and a couple of drinks, a tangy and refreshing agua fresca of papaya and lime and a Mexican mojito.
The wait was actually just under 75 minutes. We were seated in the main dining room, still a fairly small space given how how famous this place is –indeed, probably the finest Mexican restaurant, bar none, in the United States right now. Except we were also looking for the Top Chef Master. Where was Rick? Wasn’t he just here the night before, adored by his fans, and almost in tears as he dedicated his win for his father, who died when he was 20?
But no luck –the new celebrity doesn’t have to hang around his famous kitchens nowadays. But he has left a bold and indelible imprint on Mexican cooking, a flourish that is instantly recognizable because of the affection and care he has for his craft. Nowhere have I ever seen such vibrant colors in Mexican food, flavors sometimes so clean and intense that they tower above all others, especially those who continue to regard Mexican cuisine as just pedestrian, street food, relegated to corporate chain restaurants like El Torito and Chevy’s. Finally, because the food is so close to me personally, the dishes I grew up with, it’s heartening when enough care and authentic ingredients and methods can create something truly transcendent and intensely flavorful. Even the yellowish habanero salsa, which I asked for specifically, was marvelous, though its limey flavor did not disguise the fiery heat of the peppers that quickly floored me.
The following are some pics I will share of our extraordinary Mexican feast: tamales de mole Amarillo (chicken tamales in a yellow mole sauce), elote asado (roasted corn on the cob with seasoned pepper and cotija cheese and crema), falda steak (skirt steak with sweet corn tamales, knob onions, salsa huevona, and fresh corn tortillas), enchiladas de mole poblano (chicken enchiladas with mole poblano sauce), all topped off with a scoop of homemade passion-fruit and buttermilk ice cream with cajeta (goat milk caramel sauce). Did I also mention the fresh hibiscus iced teas (jamaica)? This was even better than the excellent meal I had here at Frontera last spring.
And come September 1, the new Xoco restaurant opens around the corner (Clark and Illinois Aves.), which will dedicated to chocolate, specifically from the Mexican state of Tabasco, and will feature tortas, churros and other quick dishes with Mexican chocolate. We can’t wait to try it next time we’re in Chicago and hankering for some incredible Mexican food.