While Rick Bayless has made a name for himself exploring the regional traditions of Mexican cuisine through his mini Chicago-restaurant empire, award-winning cookbooks, and TV program Mexico—One Plate At A Time, it’s easy to gloss over a fundamental strand of his decorated culinary history: his bonafide BBQ roots.
Much of what inspired the celebrity chef’s path in the first place was his experience working at the Hickory House, his family-run ‘cue joint in Oklahoma City. Named after the type of wood that was primarily used, the restaurant was originally equipped with an indoor brick pit. In a Saveur article, Bayless writes: “At that time, the blood pulsing through my veins must have been replaced at least partly by barbecue sauce.”
At Hickory House, Bayless’ family smoked pork ribs and loins, hot links, and chicken, a process that introduced him to the wonders of working with live fire. “It’s like our primal instinct to eat food that’s been cooked [this way],” says Bayless.
Since his days behind the counter, the BBQ climate has changed drastically for a variety of reasons: increased coverage from national outlets, a shift in perception from the chef-world (thanks in no small part to Aaron Franklin’s James Beard Award), as well as a host of TV programs that seek to dovetail ‘cue culture with bro culture. Bayless isn’t happy about that last part, nor is he tied up to some false belief of the ‘good ‘ol BBQ days’ that are steeped in nostalgia.
“I think some of the people in the movement are resisting change, and it wants to grow.” It might not surprise you, then, that the chef name-drops a New York City establishment as an exemplary model of contemporary barbecue culture.
We caught up with Bayless and talk shop about what lies ahead for this time-honored tradition, as well a word for chefs who use the term barbecue too liberally.
On Oklahoma’s BBQ scene in relation to other traditions.
I would never go so far as to say it’s experiencing an identity crisis, but to say that legitimate barbecue is only in Texas is just not fair. Just because someone named those [places] as the leaders, it doesn’t mean the other traditions are not valuable. The BBQ world is like the mole world in Mexico—it can change by the town, and it doesn’t mean any one is worse than the other.
On BBQ crossover into the restaurant world, and chefs who use the word too freely.
I think barbecue is a cuisine that demands as much background and knowledge and experience as, say, making Mexican food does. To me, you can turn out good food, but putting the moniker of barbecue on something if someone doesn’t have that background and tradition…I think you have to be careful about that. It’s really difficult to learn. It takes a lot of practice and experience. When I hear big chefs are going to “barbecue,” I roll my eyes. You could do something smoked or on a grill, but that’s not barbecue. It only counts when you’ve also done all the apprenticeship.
“When I hear big chefs are going to ‘barbecue,’ I roll my eyes. You could do something smoked or on a grill, but that’s not barbecue.”
On the problems of nostalgia, and the process of evolution.
I was talking to Billy [Durney] over at Hometown [in NYC]. Now there’s a guy who’s done all of his homework. And he’s practiced. Even though he’s not a CIA grad, what he’s turning out is to me the future of modern BBQ. The history of barbecue is sort of in the same vein as Mexican food. What I grew up on in BBQ, or what my chef contemporaries in Mexico grew up on, it’s kind of heavier, traditional fare. It’s fairly limited in the scope of ingredients that are used. It stymies the development of the cuisine. Because all cuisine has to constantly be re-created. In the last 10 years or so, you get all these people that have this deep knowledge of it. And now they’re cooking in a way that seems appropriate for this moment, not bound by the traditional adage that says we can’t do it any other way. So if they want to put a shaved endive salad on the menu up against their three-day simmering barbecue sauce, then it tastes right to me.
“I’m not happy about TV BBQ. They make it seem like frat-boy food, that it’s all about drinking and smelling smokey.”
My parents had a BBQ restaurant for 37 years. I loved the business. I would spend every weekend in that restaurant starting from the age of seven. I’m completely steeped in that world. Once a year, I make the menu from my parents’ restaurant, but it’s total nostalgia; it’s a tribute to my parents. But for me that is not the definition of a living cuisine. At Hometown, I don’t leave feeling that way. There’s brightness and lightness and varied textures. That’s the thing we’re looking for in the future of barbecue.
There are some slow types who think that will be heresy, but I don’t believe that at all; you don’t have to look backwards all the time.
If we could get more cooks to take it seriously, to work with live fire, and smoke the meats the right way, like Aaron [Franklin] does in Austin, then we would start to see the whole notion of barbecue really take off.
On why he only uses a wood-burning grill.
The first piece of equipment I bought was a wood-burning grill. I refuse to cook over charcoal. I really learned the satisfaction of bringing that slow cooking together with the gentle smokiness. A lot of people don’t appreciate the smoke. They’re too aggressive with it. It’s either: I’m going to roast tomatoes, but not enough, because they hew to French tradition; or they throw off shackles off and say “I’m going to burn this stuff!” It shouldn’t overwhelm.
“I was talking to Billy over at Hometown [in NYC]. Now there’s a guy who’s done all of his homework. Even though he’s not a CIA grad, what he’s turning out is to me the future of modern BBQ.”
On the false perceptions that TV BBQ shows portray.
I’m not happy about TV BBQ. They make it seem like frat-boy food, that it’s all about drinking and smelling smokey. It can be something that is more serious than that. I have cooked for all my life, and I can say that drunk cooks don’t make the best food. So when you talk about it like that, you’re trying to create a certain culture around it. But it makes really good TV. That’s why they go for it. I’m using “serious cooking” to mean more careful and precise cooking; but it doesn’t make as good TV as people burning and dropping stuff.
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