photo: Cindy Kurman
Rick Bayless was a happy man on Wednesday night.
Leave it to Rick Bayless—the chef who took Mexican food to new heights through his critically adored restaurants Frontera Grill
—to get himself inducted into a culinary museum that doesn't even exist yet. How's that for pioneering?
Bayless, recipient of prestigious awards from Food & Wine, IACP and a generous handful of James Beards, adds another hefty accolade to his resume: Chicago Culinary Museum and Chefs Hall of Fame Inductee.
In a ceremony held at the Palmer House Hilton on Wednesday, Bayless joined legendary chefs Charlie Trotter and Jimmy Bannos (of Heaven on Seven) as inductees into the Hall.
The ballroom—adorned with heavy drapery, bauble-dripping chandeliers and floor-to-ceiling mirrored panels—was filled with a veritable Who's Who of Chicago's culinary scene: Chef Carrie Nahabedian of Naha was in attendance, along with Ina's proprietor Ina Pinkney, esteemed chef Charlie Trotter, 12-time James Beard Award winner Steve Dolinsky and the Palmer House's Executive Chef, Stephen N. Henry.
The event was catered by culinary schools from throughout the city; banquet tables lined the perimeter of the room, student chefs doling out the goods to Chicago's most discerning palates. The food was, to say the very least, an absolute success. Highlights included chilled mango soup with warm coconut cream, Moroccan lamb stew, tender seared duck atop brioche spears, coconut shrimp and, in this writer's estimation, the hit of the party: poached baby pear filled with blue cheese and candied walnuts.
Between juggling plates of food and sipping on the house cabernet (which wasn't that bad, actually), guests could bid on a variety of items in a silent auction meant to fund the museum's new building. The auction items reflected the moneyed crowd—golf weekends at a variety of country clubs, autographed chef coats and, oddly, a limited-edition bottle of Evian. Starting bid on that baby? $200.
photo: Cindy Kurman
The food, served up by culinary students from throughout the city, was worthy of a Hall of Fame event.
The short ceremony got off to a somber start, when Judith Dunbar Hines, Director of Culinary Arts & Education in the Department of Cultural Affairs, made a plea to the crowd to give money to fund the building of a museum. While the political direction of Hines' speech was necessary (hey, a museum needs a building, right?) it was a bit of a downer at the start of the ceremony. Hines then read a letter from Mayor Richard M. Daley, who was speaking in Denver at the time, to Chef Bayless. Daley commended Bayless on his skills as a chef and noted that his "efforts have helped to affirm Chicago's position as one of the world's premiere dining and hospitality destinations."
Next, John Castro and John Kaufman—president and vice-president of the Museum's Board of Directors—came up to give the requisite "thank yous" for the event; they made great fanfare over thanking the culinary students, noting that these young chefs will be the future of Chicago's culinary scene. This sentiment echoed throughout the evening.
Steve Dolinsky, known to most simply as the "Hungry Hound," introduced Carrie Nahabedian, who lauded the sustainability efforts of Bayless, regaled us with stories of having neighboring restaurants with the celebrity chef, and made sure everyone in the room knew that Deann, Bayless' business partner and wife of 30 years, played no small part in the chef's success.
After Nahabedian's touching speech, Dolinsky took over the mic to introduce the man of the hour—threatening the murmuring crowd, "I will have to shush if I'm led in that direction." Finally catching a silent moment, Dolinsky delivered a stirring accounting of Bayless' achievements, nothing that not long ago, "the word "mole" was still be used primarily to describe a mammal that lived underground or a spy." Making comparisons to Julia Child, Dolinsky continued to state that Bayless was responsible for making Mexican food accessible to the masses (in much the same way Child tackled the French repertoire).
As Bayless took the stage—not in his trademark chef's coat, but in a dapper grey suit and matching celery-green shirt and tie—the crowd went ape. Bayless explained how he came to be a chef, which is a far departure from where he should have ended up as a doctoral student in Anthropological Linguistics. It came with a moment of epiphany, the day he realized that, "I loved garlic more than I loved my studies. I never looked back."
"Food is one of the most important and transformative aspects of any culture and let's face it, we've all gotten far away from our culture," explained Bayless amidst tales of how he's seen the support of local agriculture transform communities. Thanking his wife, Deann, for her enduring support and her ability to survive anything, including "a honeymoon that was 6,000 miles on a bus in Mexico," Bayless wrapped it up with another plea to the crowd to help out with museum funding.
photo: Cindy Kurman
Bayless accepts his towering award.
Charlie Trotter then took the stage to officially present the award. The soft-spoken chef thanked those in attendance, noting that Carrie Nahabedian had been his first chef. "She used to beat me into a pulp," he admitted to adoring laughter. Trotter, who was the first inductee to the Hall of Fame, presented Bayless with a trophy that must have been four feet tall. An awkward five minutes of obligatory press-photo posing went by, before the ceremony culminated with a special performance by Chicago musician Jose Cornier. Cornier, having recently gone through a divorce, was forced to learn how to cook on his own. He learned by watching Bayless on PBS's "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," and decided to thank the chef by writing him a new theme song.