Chicago-based restaurateur, cookbook author, TV-star and James Beard Award-winning chef Rick Bayless paid a visit to Frontera Fresco yesterday for its grand opening. The ceremony featured speeches, a ribbon cutting, a book signing, raffle prizes and, not to mention, free samples of guacamole and mini-desserts.

Around noon, Bayless walked in amid the crowd of eager, cookbook-clutching fans and TV news reporters, taste-testing soft-serve ice cream behind the counter before making his way to the microphone. Later, Bayless signed copies of his cookbooks, Everyday Mexican and Fiesta at Rick’s, chatting individually with the long line of fans.

Q&A with Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless

Photo by Lily Allen

The much-buzzed-about Norris location of Frontera Fresco, featuring locally-sourced authentic Mexican cuisine with plenty of gluten-free options, opened back in November in response to initiatives to make Norris more of a “destination” and to increase food quality. But it wasn’t official until Bayless himself made an appearance to ring in NU Cuisine’s new focus on sustainable ingredients.

“The key to the university’s strategic plan that we released last year was creating Northwestern experiences…to bring people together,” said Provost Daniel Linzer at the opening. “And there is no better way to bring people together than with great food.”

“This dovetails so nicely with efforts we’ve been making across campus for sustainability and local, organic, seasonal and authentic cuisine,” said nuCuisine Resident District Manager Steve Mangan.

Bayless has made locally-sourced food a priority throughout his career, committing to using local food and produce from farmers within a 100-mile radius of his award-winning Chicago restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. In 2003, Bayless started the Frontera Farmer Foundation to give grants to local farmers for capital improvements on their family farms. Everything served at Frontera Fresco is from farmers supported by the Foundation.

Q&A with Celebrity Chef Rick Bayless

Photo by Lily Allen

At the book-signing, we had the chance to chat with Chef Bayless about local foods, his collegiate days and more. Here’s the scoop!

What is so valuable about locally sourced ingredients? Why should we strive to cook and eat local foods?

What you can get from locally sourced ingredients is a taste of place. And when you go to a regular grocery store and eat stuff from just wherever, it all tastes the same. There’s no sense of real seasonality, and there’s no sense of unique flavors of what can grow really well in our area. So once you get off that grid and into locally sourced ingredients, what you really find is that you suddenly feel sort of rooted in the place that you are. And there’s so much of a sense of disenfranchisement just in our society that food and flavor can be one of the things that can make you feel like you’re in a place.

Any tips for special techniques or ingredients students should know about to make their own authentic Mexican cuisine?

Mexican food is very complex, and I know that what a lot of people think of Mexican food: it’s very simple. Just throw some chiles in it, throw some cilantro in it, and you’ve made [it] Mexican. Well that’s not what they would ever do in Mexico, because they treat the ingredients in a slightly different way. They’re looking for much more complex flavor. So for instance, if you’re going to make a tomato sauce, in Mexico they would […] roast the tomatoes first, so you increase the complexity and bring out their sweetness and add depth to it. Put some chiles in there, but roast the chiles first: dry-roast them until they’re blackened on the outside, then pound them in the mortar. It’s not just about those ingredients, it’s about how you treat those ingredients and what flavors you can create with them.

We focus a whole lot on dried chiles because that’s a big part of Mexican cuisine […] if I was to say what was the main flavor that I associate with Mexican food, it would be the sauces made from dried chiles. So if people want to start exploring that, that’s a really cool thing.

The easiest thing to explore of course is the chipotle, which is the smoked dried jalapeño, and you can find them both dried and in cans […] and those are interesting ways to work in dried-chili flavor to dishes, whether it be a tomato sauce or [smashed up] as a marinade on some chicken that you’re going to grill.

Okay, now the fun questions. Did you have those college “Ramen years” back in the day, or were you always such an avid chef?

I grew up in a restaurant family, and when I was in college, I was one of the managers of our restaurant, so I ate at our restaurant all the time. I would take home leftover food from the restaurant, so that’s what I made. I was not a Ramen person.

Any guilty pleasures?

If somebody makes good doughnuts, that’s my guilty pleasure…not just Dunkin’ Donuts or some crappy thing, no. It’s gotta be a good doughnut, and I will stop everything. I’ve been known to drive a long way just for a good doughnut.

Thanks Chef Bayless!