Chef Rick Bayless (’75, M.A.) is every bit as infatuated with Mexican cuisine today as he was in 1987 when he opened Frontera Grill in Chicago and released his first book,Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. “I can look at something I discovered 30 years ago and understand it now in such an intimate way that I could never have done at the very beginning,” he says. “That sense of deepening discovery is what keeps me going every day.”

A recent winner of Bravo’s television program Top Chef: Masters and an unquestioned legend of Chicago’s now vibrant food scene, Bayless is as big a celebrity chef as anyone in the United States. It’s hard to imagine North Clark Street without his trio of restaurants or store shelves without his salsas, but he didn’t begin his career looking to be famous. Or even to cook.

“I was really interested in the relationship between language and culture,” he says of his college years spent studying Spanish and Latin American culture. After living in Mexico with his family as a teenager, Bayless became an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma. He spent two summers in an applied linguistics program and learned how to enter communities that lacked a written language, learn and interpret their spoken words, and ultimately understand that culture through their stories.

He followed the program’s director to LSA’s Department of Linguistics, where he began several years of doctoral work. But he found more than just scholarly interests awaiting him in Ann Arbor.

“I fell in with this group of students . . . we didn’t have any money at all, but we were all super into food,” Bayless recalls. “I didn’t even understand how unique the food community of Ann Arbor was then, but it was centered around the farmers’ market.” He and his friends would buy their fresh ingredients in Kerrytown and at Eastern Market in Detroit, meeting and interacting with farmers, a practice reminiscent of the everyday life he’d experienced in Mexico.

These linguistics students prepared food together regularly, exploring different cuisines from a myriad of cultures. Bayless started catering. He taught local cooking classes. Then he had an epiphany: “I was at least as interested in the relationship between culture and food as I was culture and language.”

That’s when the future James Beard National Chef of the Year stopped work on his dissertation and immersed himself in the food of Mexico.

Throughout the early 1980s, Bayless lived and traveled in Mexico with his wife, Deann Bayless (’71, ’78 M.U.S.), utilizing his academic experience to construct Authentic Mexican. Each recipe was studied using the same research methodology he learned at Michigan: He prepared each dish with three different families or cooks to grasp every nuance, every approach, every ingredient. The result was more than a cookbook; it became a comprehensive look at the cuisine of Mexico as an expression of regional culture as well as an influential guide to a burgeoning American food scene that was slowly awakening from a decade or two of hibernation.

Upon returning to the United States, Bayless found himself in the midst of a dormant food culture dominated by commoditized products and corporate wholesalers—a stark contrast to his childhood.

“I’m a child of the ’60s. I made my first compost pile when I was 16. I made salt-rising bread,” he recalls. “I went with my father to the market in Oklahoma City . . . and the farmers would bring their stuff and we’d buy from the farmers,” Bayless remembers. “And then, that all went away and it just went to a commercial commodity market. We never had face-to-face contact with the people who were growing our food anymore. And I had a sense of loss about that.”

A do-it-yourselfer raised in a family of restaurateurs living amongst small farmers in Oklahoma, he couldn’t abide the lack of local food he found as he began his culinary career.

So Bayless set out to do things differently. He describes his first experience as a chef engaging Chicago-area farmers: “One of the things I wanted to do was put something local on our menu. . . . We opened in March, and May is when we have our short, local strawberry season . . . so I went down to the commercial market. . . . And they all said, ‘No one would carry those. They’re terrible.’ Well, they’re terrible only if you’re thinking of them as a commodity. They’re phenomenal if you’re thinking of them as flavor.”

Literally laughed out of the market by wholesalers, Rick and Deann drove twice per week to farmer stands outside the city to acquire those local berries for desserts. Beyond the superior flavor, the chef regained a connection to farmers in a way he hadn’t experienced since childhood. And he became increasingly grateful for it.

When Bayless talks about food, he looks and sounds as much like a professor of art history as he does a master of the culinary arts. His conference room at Frontera doubles as a library, its 10-foot walls lined with volumes on every conceivable culinary topic, ranging from French sauces to chocolate to Mexican culture to gardening. And, indeed, he broaches the subject of food as any intellectual might—that is, from every conceivable angle: flavor, art, community engagement, eco-friendliness.

Thus it’s perhaps unsurprising that his consistently calm demeanor elevates to a passionate tone when discussing the interrelated nature of his customers, his farmers, and his food.

“I have always seen restaurants—and I guess it’s because I grew up in a family-style restaurant—as creating community,” he says in describing his family’s approach to business. Along with those childhood trips meeting farmers, the notion of community has shaped his work.

“I’m an accidental organic farming champion,” he notes. “What I learned was that the people that cared most about what they were growing also cared most about the earth. . . . [Farmers] taught me about the interconnectedness of what I do as a living.” His holistic view of soil’s role in the food he serves his customers has led him to value sustainability. “If it’s local and sustainable, it’s part of that sense of community. It’s not just in putting money in the pocket of the farmer, but it’s protecting our environment that allows us all to thrive.”

Committed past the point of mere rhetoric or marketing, Bayless has maintained a laser-like focus: 25 years since he first ferreted out local strawberries, he has continued to push the boundaries of how local, sustainable food can be used. “The thing about food is that the more you’re around it, the deeper you can go,” he says.

During the late summer, 100 percent of his tomatoes and tomatillos are Chicago-raised. Even Tortas Frontera, his O’Hare Airport-based eatery, lists from where the food is sourced. His Frontera Farmer Foundation raised $180,000 last summer in support of local farms, and he’s a board member at the local Green City Market, the lone Chicago-area market dedicated solely to local, sustainable foods.

“With the strength of our local agricultural system, our food is different, and it allows a uniquely Chicago perspective on traditional Mexican flavor,” he says. So he strives to employ it often, noting that what he serves isn’t always what one might find in Oaxaca or the Yucatan. Rather, he asks himself, “How do you get local flavor on the plate without messing with the traditional soul that you find in Mexican kitchens?”

Bayless grows some of those Mexican-inspired ingredients on Frontera’s eco-friendly rooftop garden and at his own home. The only common ingredient that doesn’t occasionally come from Chicago-area farmers is dried chiles because, as he says, “the flavors just can’t be duplicated, and . . . we’re into making delicious food.”

In contrast to the many celebrity chefs leaving their hometowns, opening restaurants in Vegas or eating strange foods on cable television for shock value, Bayless’ three primary restaurants and offices are on a single block, and he’s entering the eighth season ofMexico—One Plate at a Time, airing locally in Chicago or on various PBS stations and often costarring his daughter.

When he does leave Chicago, it’s usually to visit other countries to study new cuisine and other cultures, and to enhance the culinary creativity on display at his restaurants.

“You can learn things that reflect back into your food, other techniques, and other ingredients that will open your mind to different flavor possibilities,” he observes. “Anything is open to us as long as it has the spirit of the Mexican kitchen.”

The Frontera Grill (far right, top center, and top left) was chef Rick Bayless’ first foray into serving Mexican cuisine, but other ventures quickly followed. His sandwich shop, XOCO, serves dishes like the Top Chef Torta (bottom center) to diners on the go, and his Frontera line of sauces, salsas, chips, and mixes (bottom left) is now carried across the United States. Photos: Huge Galdones