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Event Mon Jul 21 2014
I was using Rick Bayless' restroom, I mused, staring up at the ceiling window that was projecting a heavenly beacon of light upon my less-than-angelic duties. I could barely distinguish Rick's faint murmurs through the orange walls, something about how Spaniards added hard-boiled eggs on top their gazpacho. This was Rick, the host of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," the winner of "Top Chef Masters," the almost executive chef of Barack Obama, the guy whose chips and salsa you purchase en masse at Whole Foods. The white chef who cooks like a 80-year-old Mexican woman from some Yucatan village. And I was using his bathroom in the middle of his garden party.
Despite my general disdain for the concept of "celebrity chef," Bayless is an exception. That guy is good. Unlike many chefs, his extraordinary palette doesn't use profligate amounts of butter, salt, and sugar to delight to the senses. His food is the Mexican counterpart of Thai food -- curiously spiced, exceptionally balanced, and traditionally flavored. Bayless' empire speaks to his culinary prowess and business acumen, but behind all the demos and appearances and cookbooks, there is a vibrant streak of genuine passion. Only inherent love for his craft explains why he hasn't completely burnt out yet.
Rick's garden party benefited the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which has provided grants for sustainable, family-scale farms since 2003. The feast began with the unveiling of an enormous pig, disinterred from a backyard fire pit, where it had been roasting for nearly 12 hours. The guests divided into groups which rotated through four different demonstrations, including two booze-related presentations, a gazpacho demo helmed by Rick, and a garden tour from master gardener Bill Shores.
Bayless' garden resembled a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Hundreds of colorful plants, flowers, and herbs created a vibrant landscape -- Swiss chard overlooking a koi pond, stout little cacti peeking over the doorframe, wild arugula bursting through vines of butternut squash. Guests were urged to sample any edible plants, and a plump raspberry within my gaze fell to its demise.
While guests downed (I mean, downed) glasses of rich, plum-colored wine and strawberry mint cocktails (crafted by chief mixologist Jay Schroeder), they also learned basic Mexican cookery from Bayless and his staff. Rinse raw onions before eating them, and mix both raw and char-grilled vegetables to extrude maximum flavor. Puree fruits to add texture to drinks. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. The base of a great cocktail is not the alcohol, but the natural and fresh flavors that go into it. The difference between barbacoa and carnitas is that the latter is cooked in fat whereas the former roasts in its own juices.
There was also a DIY guacamole and ceviche bar, which I briefly visited before the spicy aroma of pit-roasted pork lured me to the dinner table. Accompanied by black beans and various greens, habanero-laced chunks of barbacoa oozed their juices onto freshly pressed tortillas, topped with salsa, cilantro, and pickled onions. Despite my notable capsaicin tolerance, the barbacoa was much spicier than I anticipated, leaving a fiery aftertaste that burned so good.
Later, I snuck a peek of the prep kitchen beneath the main kitchen, down a narrow winding staircase, past shelves of woven baskets and Mexican ingredients. Downstairs, I saw the cooks stir molten chocolate, puree raspberries, fill colorful ceramic bowls with spicy seeds and nuts. Back upstairs, I admired the Mexican artwork in his house, from colorful calaveras to Diego Rivera-esque paintings.
Toward the end of the party, I stood with Rick on his patio, overlooking his enormous garden. I'm standing dangerously close to a tiki torch, but appear stoic. He doesn't know who I am, and probably doesn't care, but for a moment, we exchange a smile. Not a photo-op smile, not a you-paid-me-lots-of-money-and-ill-smile-at-you smile, but a happy contented smile. That was easily the highlight of my evening.