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Chef Wed Aug 26 2009
What can't Chicago's macchiato-mustachioed molé-master conquer? Last week, fending off fierce competition from Californians Hubert Keller and and Michael Chiarello in what looked like quite possibly the best meal on earth (recipes online, cooking ability tragically not included), Rick Bayless proved himself a standout not only among Chicago gourmands and élotes vendors everywhere, but the nation's top cooking talent. With dishes like the tongue tacos that got him through the first round (a quickfire challenge creation that's become a hot menu item at Frontera) to a concentrated conchinita pibil that made me want to lick my TV, Bayless has, hopefully, proven his worth even to critics who doubt his ability to convincingly rep traditional Mexican cuisine to the masses--to say nothing of his many supporters. Suffice to say, I'm sold.
But what really makes Bayless, as last week's episode and this week's news so nicely illustrate, is where he's coming from. No, not the immaculate kitchen and backyard patio you can see Rick and co. puttering around in on his PBS show, though the digs are enviable. It's rather his pure love of the food, and more importantly the culture that surrounds it, that makes him a true treasure. Creating a meal, as in last week's finale, around the flavors, experiences and memories that have informed what must be a convoluted and passionate relationship between chef and food, is a gauntlet that should be laid down more often--and a challenge that makes legions of bbq pits, state fair pie competitions, dinner table traditions and family-worn recipes all over America ring true as great gourmet traditions. The spice is in the story, in so many cases, and as much as food is tied to identity and culture, we seem to do our best to bury those connections. In a nutritional climate that rewards us more for making negative choices in the supermarket and restaurant (NOT to use butter, NOT to buy CAFO-raised meats, NOT to submit to the tyranny of hydrogenated oils, NOT to indulge in artichokes shipped in from California in a Chicago winter), it's comforting to see positive associations with food and eating writ large on American TV and computer screens. Top Chef is hardly out to save the world, and perhaps not even out to save gourmet cooking, but unintended consequences aren't always a bad thing either.
With the support of Bayless and other local kitchen heavies Paul Kahan and Ina Pinkney, the Green Chicago Restaurant Co-Op recently announced a new "Guaranteed Green" initiative to "help Chicago-area diners identify and support local restaurants that take significant steps toward protecting the environment." More positive associations--and the first honors were doled out this week to Uncommon Ground. We can only hope more restaurants soon follow. Shouldering responsibility for reinventing a food culture around positive decisions for both our supply-chain and selves only results in better products for the plate and planet. And if it means more Rick sightings around town, so much the merrier.