To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Red O, the gorgeous south-of-the-border getaway on Melrose that remains one of the hottest dining tickets in town (seriously, the doorman is still there), chef Rick Bayless and Co. have kicked off Sunday Brunch. (If you’ve been wanting to go but can’t stand the crowds, do brunch–it’s actually peaceful.) While he was in town, I caught up with Bayless (you’d never guess this soft-spoken man is an award-winning chef who’s considered a personal favorite of President Obama) to talk about how LA eaters compare to Chicago foodies and what he thinks about all those naysayers who claim that he doesn’t make “real” Mexican food.
Do people in LA order differently than they do in Chicago?
Absolutely. There’s such a strong California style of Mexican food that people expect here, which is not expected at all in Chicago. It’s kinda funny because in Chicago people wouldn’t look at what most people here consider Mexican food and think it was very Mexican. The menu here doesn’t change as much as it does in Chicago [at Frontera Grill], but the menu is set up the same way. What people order is very different from one city to the next based on what their expectations are of Mexican food.
So do people lean toward the healthier stuff out here in LA?
No, no, no! It’s the other way around, actually! The enchiladas suizas with all the melted cheese on top is our bestseller here in LA. We sell them in Chicago, but it’s nothing like here. In LA, it seems to be the more melted cheese the better.
Does that surprise you at all? Did you have any expectations about how LA diners would order?
I didn’t really have any expectations. I had lived here 30 years ago and I knew that it wouldn’t be exactly the same as in Chicago, but nevertheless we decided to do the same menu [as Frontera Grill] but with local ingredients to this area.
Which goes back to your ethos that it’s all about regional flavors with local ingredients.
Yes, that’s our big thing. That’s what we do in Chicago and now that the kitchen has settled in here, it’s what we’re working toward doing even more in Los Angeles.
Did you spend any time trying out local Mexican restaurants in LA when you first decided to open Red O?
Oh yes. We visited a bunch of Mexican restaurants when we were researching–everything from high to low. We checked out Rivera from John Sedlar who’s much more into what I call high-concept Mexican food. I haven’t tried his new place [Playa], but I really want to. But I’m much more about what I call soul-satisfying flavors. I’m not so much into pulling everything apart for the sake of the presentation, which he does beautifully.
What do you think about some of the backlash you’ve gotten about the food at Red O and those who say that this isn’t real Mexican food or at least the kind of Mexican food that people were expecting in LA?
There’s a group of people out there who think that what we’re doing isn’t Mexican food at all. But I could take you to Mexico City right now and show you that all of this food [we’re serving] is Mexican food. What a lot of people mean when they say that this is not Mexican food is that Mexican food should be cheap, made with poor ingredients and only come out of this one little group of certain dishes. Well, that’s really disrespectful to Mexico and to Mexican chefs who are doing amazing things. And to tell them that all their food really needs to be is tacos and burritos is offensive and borderline stereotyping.
You’ve spent time a lot of time in Mexico, and not just one region, to know what’s going on with the cuisine.
Oh yeah. I’ve been to every single state of Mexico, I’ve cooked all over the country and I go to Mexico City regularly, so I’m exposed to real Mexican food all the time.
So what made you fall in love with Mexican culture in the first place?
When I was a teenager I went to Mexico and I just felt like I had come home. It changed my life and I just wanted to keep going back. I ended up going to school there, living there for five years doing research and traveling around. I’m still there all the time and I post everything on Twitter. If you go to my site, you’ll see a “travel” tab–that’s where I archive all my Twitter posts from each trip and post all my pictures, so you can see everything and use it as your own guide for exploring the country!