He noted that it was special because he was born there.
When he exited the metro many years ago at the ripe age of 19, he made sure to pack his love of local with him.
“I grew up in a barbecue restaurant.
That’s sort of near and dear to my heart,” said Bayless of his parents’ since-closed Hickory House in southwest OKC.
After the whirlwind of higher ed, he headed south of the border and became impassioned with Mexican culture and cuisine.
“The food in Mexico is not so far from barbecue, in the sense that they focus so much on live-fire cooking,” he said, adding that one of the most integral aspects of barbecue is the sauce, the trick to which strikes “a balance between salty, sweet and acidic.”
With Mexican food, that balance remains, but “they take the sweet out of that equation,” he said.
The connection of the two food genres compelled Bayless to explore the similarities by way of the kitchen.
“I could relate so quickly to so much of the food. And I fell in love with that,” he said. “It wasn’t hard for me to start exploring it, because I had a way in.”
While Bayless considers both barbecue and Mexican to be rustic styles of cuisine, he added that “it’s not about fancy presentations. It’s a whole lot about delicious food that’s simply presented to you.”
Whenever Bayless returns to his hometown, it’s neither Mexican nor barbecue he craves.
“I love to come here and eat Vietnamese food,” he said. “[Golden Phoenix] was amazingly good. I have to say that it’s as good as, if not better than, anything we have in Chicago.”
He’s also passionate about sustainable cuisine, which grew into Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit developed by Bayless and a few other chefs on a Hawaiian beach after attending an industry conference. The initiative celebrates environmentally sound agricultural practices, and encourages communities to make educated decisions on purchasing produce.
Now 59, Bayless probably never imagined the adventures he’d have when he left Oklahoma City. In 2010, he became one of only two chefs asked to prepare food at The White House, for a presidential dinner honoring Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón.
In that kitchen, Bayless said making Mexico’s traditional, sauce-based dish of mole proved one of his career’s most laborious experiences, because of security measures and safety regulations in place. It took him eight hours to get the dish just right.
“We [were] plating our food right underneath that really historic, beautiful painting of Lincoln sort of leaning on the desk,” he said. “And it just gave me shivers to think, ‘Here I am.’” His awe subsided when his anxiety surfaced “because mole is the most staining thing in the whole wide world,” he said, adding he worried that if anybody dropped a pot of it, he “could be the one responsible for marring that incredibly famous and priceless painting.”
Luckily, no catastrophe occurred, and Calderón told Bayless it was one of the best black moles he’d eaten.
Such a spicy career is marked by awards, from champion of Bravo’s debut season of Top Chef Masters to repeated recognition from New York’s esteemed James Beard Foundation.
“Winning Best Restaurant at the Beard Awards is like winning Best Picture at the Oscars,” he said. “There’s nowhere else you can go after that.”
That hasn’t stopped him from forging ahead with the ninth season of his PBS series, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, slated to begin shooting this month. The season will focus solely on Oaxaca, Mexico.
“Oaxaca is the epicenter for great food in Mexico,” Bayless said. “It’s going to be absolutely the best series of shows we’ve ever done.”
Of his most recent cookbook, last fall’s Frontera: Margaritas, Guacamoles, and Snacks, he joked, “Who needs anything else? Those are two of the main food groups, right?” Although he doesn’t have a set date for his next cookbook, his 10th, he’s already started working on it.
“After 25 years, I finally decided to actually write stuff about what we do [in our restaurant],” Bayless said. “It’ll be fun.”