“We have a different understanding of authenticity now than 30 years ago,” said chef Rick Bayless, who helped spread the gospel of Mexico's moles and regional specialties to a hardshell-taco-adoring America. “Back in those days, when we said ‘authentic,’ what we meant was that I could give you a museum-quality reproduction of a dish and I use the same utensils and the same pan, and I got the ingredients flown in from that country. That's not authentic anymore. Authentic is the stuff that tastes exactly right. Whatever that might mean, and it could be the Korean tacos. They taste right.”
Relying on scholarship and fieldwork, Bayless became a bannerman of authenticity, studying Mexican and pre-Columbian foods with such anthropological rigor that no one could mistake him for a casual interloper. “Earth and fire are two defining smells of real honest-to-god Yucatecan food,” Bayless told me about his first encounter with cochinita pibil. “You can make the food outside of that, but it doesn't have the full soul.” Through eight cookbooks and a PBS docu-series that inspired a generation of Mexican-Americans, Bayless earned his stripes as an ambassador. But in today's climate, where appropriation is a hash-tagged buzzword dominating conversations across pop culture, there is more urgency for Bayless to defend his legacy. That is, should a white chef reared on hickory-smoked barbecue be the figurehead of another culture’s cuisine, and profit from telling its stories?
"It’s kind of interesting because [the chefs] that have Hispanic last names are given a lot more leeway than I am,” Bayless told me. “Because I have a non-Hispanic last name, there’s always people holding my feet to the fire.”
Nine months before we chatted, the chef was caught in the crossfire of a controversial debate: Where does one draw the line between homage and appropriation? Bayless found himself in the limelight not because he had suddenly gone rogue, fiddling with fusion cuisine rather than sticking to his script. Instead, while being interviewed on the Sporkful podcast, the chef of Frontera Grill and Michelin-starred Topolobampo acknowledged he had never considered his advantages as a white person in inking book deals or opening new restaurants. For some, Bayless' befuddlement by the question revealed his bullheadedness, if not further indicating that the platform required for chefs to tell stories is steeped with privilege. For his advocates, this flare-up was a tempest in a teapot, overshadowing the work of a pioneer who put in the time to bring America to its senses.
"I did my background so that I could tell these stories. So it's not just that I was given the privilege to do that," Bayless told me. “It's really only been in the last few years that [these issues] have been raised, and it’s never raised against any American chef going to Europe. If you go to Japan, it’s cool. It is if you go to a place like Thailand, you'll hear people say, 'Oh, he's appropriating.'"
Standing up to that kind of criticism requires a certain finesse. Andy Ricker—another white guy who’s been in the hot seat for cooking Thai—has admitted to being “dismayed” by allegations of appropriation, but has resigned himself to the fact that this fight will follow him for the rest of his career. Bayless seems to have less tolerance for that stigma, going so far as to call out his critics for treating him unfairly as a white chef cooking Mexican food.
“There are a lot of young chefs who are taking Mexican cuisine to a new place,” said Bayless in praise of the Modern-Mexican innovation surfacing in America. “They are helping to wake people up to the fact that Mexican food can be super interesting, and that you don't have to follow down one path to do it." His admiration was clear, though he was careful to draw lines. "Theirs tends to have a smack of their history in the U.S. My food smacks of my history in Mexico," he said. "Mexican food has always had open arms.”
From cracking the code of Oaxacan mole ("the hardest dish in the world to make") to understanding the heart and soul of Mexican cuisine in the Big Merced market, here Bayless breaks down 10 milestone meals that shaped his career.