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Rick Bayless Talks Herbs, Spices, Chiles and Mezcal

A man talking in a conference room.
Rick Bayless talks incorporating Mexican flavors in cocktails at this year's Tales of the Cocktail. Photo by Jennifer Mitchell Photography.

Rick Bayless — restaurateur, entrepreneur, farmer’s advocate, thespian, viable candidate for the most interesting man in the world — is a veritable walking encyclopedia of Mexican cuisine. The chef behind Chicago’s James Beard Award-winning Frontera Grill is not only enamored with the history and culture of Mexican cooking; he also shares that passion by penning cookbooks, hosting educational television programs, teaching cooking classes and leading tours through Mexico. Bayless has made such a lasting impact on the way Mexican cuisine is understood and perceived in the United States, he was named to the Order of the Aztec Eagle in 2012 by the Mexican government.

Bayless has shared his knowledge and love for Mexican culture and cuisine with countless restaurant guests, fellow chefs and home cooks. Recently, he joined us at Tales of the Cocktail to share that education with bartenders, too. In the Mexican Flavors Beyond Frontiers seminar, Bayless joined mezcal expert Ivan Saldana and the Bon Vivants’ Scott Baird to talk all things spices, chiles, herbs and more. We caught up with Bayless after the seminar for a rundown of the Mexican ingredients that bartenders should familiarize themselves with, plus a few of his favorite spots in Mexico City. Read on for the highlight reel:

On borrowing herbs from Mexican cuisine

“In the herb section [of our seminar], we focused on three herbs used extensively in the Mexican kitchen, though they're not so well-known in the United States. One of them is called oja santa, and it has a sort of sarsaparilla flavor to it. Really pleasant. Then there's avocado leaf, which has an anise like flavor. Finally, epazote, which is a strong and sort of bitter herb, and of course bitterness is one of the things everyone's exploring these days, so I thought it'd be fun to throw that one out there. We tasted all of them individually, and Scott Baird had made a vermouth with them and made a beautiful martini. He added some other ingredients to it, like Mexican wine, which has a certain minerality to it. It turned out quite an amazing vermouth.”

On a few of his favorite chiles

“Guero chile is a very light skinned chile, a relative of our hot banana pepper. We did that one in the raw state, and then we did poblano chile in a flame-roasted state so it adds smokiness. For our third fresh chile we did habanero, which is the most floral and tropical of the lot, so we talked about how when you're working with all these different fresh chiles, you have the choice to infuse them in the raw state, you have the choice to blend them, you have the choice to roast them, and in each case, you'll get a very different kind of flavor.

"We worked with the ancho chile, which has a sort of dried tomato-like flavor to it, a certain sweetness to it. We did the pasilla chile, which is a long, skinny, black chile with flavors of bitter chocolate and tobacco. And we did guajillo chile, which is a smooth-skinned chile that has a tremendous amount of brightness and acidity to it, and flavors that would remind you a bit of cherry notes — if you were to mix cherries and sundried tomatoes together, it would give you something similar to that.”

On taming the heat of habanero

“Habanero, if you use it right, you won't get the heat of it, you'll just get the tropical qualities of it, and you do that by making a slit in the side of the chile but not breaking any cell walls of the veins. Then you'll get all the flavor but no heat.”

On using raw or roasted chiles in infusions

“If you use a chile in a raw state, it will give you the grassiest and brightest quality, and sometimes you want that in your drink. Sometimes you want a mellower flavor, which you'll get by roasting.”

On the difference between raw and dried chiles

“The one thing that people don't really understand about Mexican cuisine is that it's really a dry chile cuisine. I've had people come up to me after seminars and things, and say, well, we never use dry chiles because we can get the fresh ones. That would be like saying, I never use raisins because I can buy grapes. You use raisins for one thing and grapes for another. They have very different uses and very different flavors.”

On achiote

“A lot of people don't understand its flavor, so I made a puree out of just achiote seeds so that people could taste what the real thing is. Even though it's got an earthy quality to it, it also has a sort of citrus quality, and it has natural saltiness to it. So you get all these really wonderful aromas and flavors out of it. The most interesting thing is, it's the most gorgeous color. Since time immemorial it's been used as a coloring agent. American-style orange cheese, nine times out of ten is colored with achiote. When you look at margarine, nine times out of ten, it's colored with achiote. It has this really beautiful, yellow-orangey color. Bartenders can work with that, they can work with infusing the seeds into things for just the color but not much flavor; you could use the puree in the base of a drink to give it not only the color but this really beautiful cross between earthiness and citrus. It's got a lot of potential.”

On what to ask about the cacao you’re using

“People in the United States are not very familiar with cocoa nibs. We've heard of it, but the first thing I say is, ‘ok, where did the cocoa nibs come from? What variety of cacao is it? Were they fermented or not fermented, and if they were fermented, how much were they fermented?’ There are a lot of questions you can ask about the cacao before you use it in a drink.”

On guests geeking out with bartenders

“It's all because there are so many great bartenders who are so enthusiastic, and smart, and training themselves. Those of us in this as a profession, we can get really geeky about stuff, and I love having those kinds of conversations too, but I have to say, there's a whole lot of our clientele that wants to get geeky about it too, and they want to learn all about it.”

On the agave renaissance

“We opened Frontera 30 years ago, and back in those days, people considered Cuervo Gold to be the top-shelf tequila. We could only get Hornitas as a 100% agave spirit back then, that was the only one we could really get that was 100% agave. Now, the variety of incredible agave-based spirits we have is phenomenal.

"I lived for a long time in the south of Mexico, where everyone just drinks mezcal, it's the beverage. I'd lived in a small town that had a communal still, we'd harvest the agave and make the year's supply of mezcal for two to three families, it was a four to five day process we'd go through. To me, that was life was all about. In the States, hardly anybody had heard anything about mezcal, and if they had, it wasn't a good thing they'd heard about it.

"We just opened a restaurant three months ago with a bar that is all mezcal-focused. We have 120 varieties of mezcal on our backbar right now. So yes, our customers have changed a lot. Hopefully we have led them down the path of becoming more adventurous. I'm just thrilled to be living through this period where we're now open to all these different spirits, all these different agave spirits. Now the geeks have moved on to sotol and raicilla and things like that.”

On how bartenders can educate themselves about Mexican cuisine and culture

“Obviously the best place to do it is in Mexico, and right now Mexico City is so hot. There are amazing bars. I was there with my nephew; it was his 21st birthday, and I wanted him to spend the whole day with mezcal. We went to a place called Alipus Endemico, and it's just such a phenomenal place to taste all these different mezcals. In the States, we would get mostly mezcal from Oaxaca; now we're starting to get some that are from other places. This place is filled with mezcals from everywhere in Mexico. They have wonderful tastings so you could say, I want to taste five things from five states and five different agave species. They're all so incredibly different.

"I would suggest that, and most people who visit Mexico City interested in food and beverage are going to be staying in the hip area, which would be Roma. There's a really good small market there called Medellin. It's a really wonderful market because it's small and it's not too crowded. You can experience all of these things that I've talked about and you can see how they're grown. That area of town tends to be pretty international, so even a lot of the vendors will speak English, and you can have conversations with people about different flavoring and let your imagination run wild. There's also a whole lot of Caribbean stuff in that market, so you can learn some things about Caribbean ingredients as well. One of the most incredible stalls of Yucatan ingredients anywhere in Mexico City is in that market. That's where I'd send people to explore a lot of these things, but of course, there are also good Mexican grocery stores nearly everywhere in the United States these days.”

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