Rick Bayless and Julia Child go way back.
Back to before he became an ambassador of Mexican cuisine; before he opened a string of successful restaurants in Chicago; before he got to cook on TV with the late Child and (off-camera, elsewhere) broke into tears when the significance of the moment hit him; before anyone had even heard of Rick Bayless; before he was even a teenager.
The chef, cookbook author and public television host first “met” Child on the black-and-white television set in his family’s Oklahoma kitchen, where at the tender age of 10 he was entranced by her seminal series, “The French Chef.”
Those memories are especially dear now that Bayless has been awarded the second annual Julia Child Award by the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. The foundation, created by Child in 1995 and launched in 2004, the year she died, uses the award to honor someone “who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.” Last year’s inaugural award went to Jacques Pépin, Child’s friend and frequent collaborator.
Bayless, 62, will be in Washington on Oct. 27 to accept the award at a gala that will kick off Food History Weekend at the National Museum of American History. The recognition comes with a $50,000 grant, which Bayless is donating to the Frontera Farmer Foundation, the nonprofit group he founded in 2003 that provides grants to small Midwestern farms that serve the Chicago area.
Shortly after the announcement of his award, we spoke with Bayless about Child, food television and interest in the cuisines of other cultures. Edited excerpts:
Q: What are your earliest memories of Julia Child?
A: I used to watch every single one of her shows. I wrote all those recipes down, and then I started cooking them. It was a point in my life where I was able to see something much broader than what I saw in my family’s kitchen. My brother is a big sports guy, and he played every sport in junior high and high school. And so when a new season would start, my parents would have to buy him all this new equipment. And I was not a sports guy at all, and I was always really miffed that he got all this stuff and I got nothing. And so I went to my parents at the beginning of football season one year, and I said: “You have to buy him all of that equipment. All I want is one thing. I want ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’ “ I still remember it was $12.95, and I convinced them to buy that big volume for me when I was 12 years old. I read every page of it, cooked meals from it.
Q: What made her a good teacher?
A: There’s one really strong reason, I think, and it’s endless curiosity. Anyone who is really curious always loves sharing the knowledge that they gleaned because they think everyone else is going to be curious, too. And I think it was that endless, endless curiosity that she had that made her not only just such a dynamic and wonderful personality but such a good writer, because she would just follow her own curiosity, and that would lead her into good stuff that she would share with us. And through her work it would become something that enriched all of us.
Q: In today’s crowded food media environment, what role can public television still play?
A: It seems to me right now our food television thing is super-voyeuristic and a lot of times looked on as a sport more than a craft. At least the knowledge of food is out there, and people are way more adventurous than they were 30 years ago, when we opened our first restaurant. Interestingly enough, public television - though public television doesn’t want to admit it or support it - has one of the greatest assets that anybody could ever have, and that’s all their cooking shows. And people that go to public television, whether they’re viewers or people proposing culinary shows for public television, they’re all the people that are sort of serious. I mean, they want to teach, they want to really share real knowledge, and it seems like this amazing thing that public television shows on cooking still are leading the pack. And I don’t say that just because I’m on it.
Q: How does it make you feel that people are interested in more, for lack of a better word, authentic foreign cuisine?
A: It makes me feel really great, because I think that food can be a way of really understanding another culture. You can come up against sort of institutionalized racism in your everyday life all the time, but when you get to know somebody of another culture, then you suddenly have a different perspective on that culture. And if you get to know them through their food or through sharing a meal with them, it’s very clear that you have a relationship with them that is much more complex. So for me, any time that I can sense people becoming more open to another cuisine, I know that is the step to becoming more open to people of that culture.
Q: Does it tickle you or sort of freak you out when people compare your influence on teaching people about Mexican food to Julia’s with French food?
A: I think that Julia was the most amazing translator, and she was able to translate what could have seemed like foreign recipes into something that just made you go, “Oh, okay, I get that,” and you understood it, and it wasn’t foreign. It was just cool and good. And she was not only teaching us French cooking, but she was teaching us how to cook. For someone to compare me to her in that light, I will say, is a huge compliment. Because I love translating Mexican culture into vernacular that our customers in our restaurants can understand, that people that read my cookbooks, watch my shows can understand. That’s my goal.
Q: How do you hope food history remembers Rick Bayless?
A: I guess it would be around sharing things with folks that really enhance their lives. We clearly in the United States have gone through a complete transition in what we eat. I don’t mean that just so much in the basic food, but in the way we think of flavor. The cuisine that I work in is so flavorful, and what we can learn from Mexican cooks is just extraordinary: the way that they layer flavor, the way they combine flavors, the way they get the most out of them. And if I have been able to share a little bit of that with a whole lot of people in such a way that it has made their lives more joyful, that would be the best legacy that I could think of.