From Wisconsin Farm to Table

  I can always get people’s attention,” says the chef, “when I say ‘it’s the Obamas’ favorite dish.”

The chef was Rick Bayless, and he was right. He got our attention—and more. The author, public television cooking show host and man behind the wildly popular and much respected Chicago restaurants Frontera Grill and Topolobampo was entertaining guests with a cooking demonstration at a fundraising event for Wisconsin Public Television at Nolen Shores in December. And the disarmingly warm and modest way in which he admitted he can get people’s rapt attention by referencing the First Family’s well-known appreciation for his cooking only enhanced the perception that for all of his superstar status in the food world, Bayless is the genuine article—as is his respect for authentic Mexican food and cooking traditions, and local and sustainable agriculture.

“Now more than ever,” he says, “We need to support local agriculture. It is only through that will we have a strong food community.”

When six years of culinary research in Mexico culminated in the opening of Frontera Grill in 1987, Bayless merged his deep respect for Mexican cooking and local agriculture. “What I have always loved about Mexico (besides the food) has been the people and the culture. I feel no different about Chicago ... this is my community and I need to help nurture it any way I can. The most obvious was through my restaurants. I wanted to know where everything was coming from. We wanted to form relationships with these farmers.”

Like a dozen or so like-minded restaurateurs in the Chicago area, Bayless has looked north for the products that meet his specifications and standards for how they were grown and how they taste.

“We research and investigate all prospects—like I said—we want to have a relationship with these small farms. Some we ask to grow certain items, some we love what they do and buy all that we can and create a dish around what they are selling. We look for any local connection and cook seasonally. Wisconsin growers are a huge part of our Frontera family and have been for twenty years. Of course we look for humane practices, we visit farms with our staff and we play a committed role in this partnership.”

Those partnerships were a necessary prerequisite to Bayless ultimately putting his money where his mouth is (where his food goes?) with the establishment of his Frontera Farmer Foundation—find it at rickbayless.com—established in 2003 to attract support for small Midwestern farms.

“To date we have given away more than half a million dollars to our local farmers. The projects range from using the dollars for more hoop houses to building loading docks to refrigerated trucks. Anything that extends the season for the farmer.”

And anything, he adds, that really help farms become sustainable. The concept of sustainability is integrated into other aspects of Bayless’s business as well; for example, his somewhat bold choice of public television as the venue for his cooking show “MEXICO—One Plate at a Time” over the more high-profile Food Network.

“We chose PBS for the simple fact that we wanted to build a long relationship with our audience. We didn’t want to be on for one or two seasons and fade out. We wanted to create a series that would sustain. PBS also is a great partner for the culture and travel that we wanted to show—we weren’t just about cooking. We wanted folks to feel the love that I feel every time I go to Mexico. And I hope that they do!”

But, back to that former Chicago power couple. “The Obamas like what we do—they like to eat seasonally and are adventurous eaters. We enjoy them very much and are thrilled with their appreciation of Topolobampo. As far as what the president elect does in Washington—a great start would be to plant a garden.”

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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