With Chicago's Rick Bayless in town for the Inaugural James Beard Foundation Leadership Awards last night at Hearst Tower (and to visit his daughter at NYU), Grub Street couldn't help but pull him to the side and ask the eternal question: Why does Mexican food suck in New York? He didn't disagree — and he offered a few suggestions ... the same suggestions he recently shared with Alex Stupak, in fact. Then he took off to hang with one of his "near and dear" old customers, Michelle Obama, who, he says, couldn't be more different from Oprah.
Can you think of one stellar Mexican stop in New York?
Not really. Not so much. Here's the thing: In Chicago, we are the world capital of artisanal masa, the dough used to make the corn tortillas. There's a dozen places who do it the old way. In New York, there's one place! And it's real small! It's a tenth the size of the smallest one in Chicago. It's called Nixtemal. I was saying to Alex Stupak ... he was buying tortillas from them when Empellón started, and I was like, "You just gotta get over that. You gotta start making them here, so that they have that quality." And shortly after he opened, he switched to that. It's a really big investment, huge, but I see tortillas as a building block for a real Mexican kitchen. I would never open a restaurant unless I could make my own.
So would you open a restaurant here?
I'm such a homebody; I'm pretty much a Chicago guy forever. With L.A., I don't really own that place. I just go there once a month and work with the chefs, so it wasn't like a full commitment. I don't regret it, though. It's fun seeing how our food plays out there. Although, I think, honestly, our food would play better in New York. Over the years, there's been talk of it, so maybe we will open here. I'm not opposed to it, and that one would really be my place; I wouldn't just be lending my name.
Okay, Michelle Obama awaits. Who's more intense to cook for — her or Oprah?
In some ways, I think I'm more invested in Michelle Obama, because she and Barack used to come on dates nights before all this. Oh, they loved to sit and eat slowly and talk, and I really liked that about them. She's very near and dear to my heart. Oprah seems like she actually lives in the firmament some place; it's like she's not a real person. Michelle is just so warm. She gives you a hug. That ain't Oprah!