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'Top Chef Masters': A chat with winner Rick Bayless

August 20, 2009 |  1:10 pm

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The morning after his big win, "Top Chef Masters" champ Rick Bayless talks about his 27-ingredient mole, the Chiarello versus Oseland rivalry, and what viewers didn't see on the show.

What did you think of the final challenge?
I actually thought it sounded too easy. They told us beforehand that there weren’t going to be any twists or turns and I didn’t believe them because they had never done that before. I was sort of waiting for it -- and nothing. And then they gave us an hour to plan our menus and I thought “Wow,” they’re going to give us all this time. That was super cool. They fed us all this amazing food while we were talking about our stories. I really thought, “What are they doing here? Are they fattening us up for the kill here?”  

What did you think of the “Top Chef” kitchens?
I think they were shooting porn movies upstairs, actually. It was like a big airplane hangar kind of place that they built everything. There were two kitchens, one for us, and one for back-up stuff. A huge prop room. An editing suite -- there are 14 cameras shooting, and 100 people on staff. It was like a mini city.  But the point is, occasionally we’d hear these noises from upstairs! And the producers would say, “Oh, I think they’re shooting, um, some kind of battle scene.” And we’d go, “Really?” And later someone told me, “I think they’re shooting porn movies upstairs.” I laughed out loud. All that time instead of going to the green room, we could have just gone upstairs!

Why did you decide to compete in “Top Chef Masters”? What was the big draw?
I wondered that about halfway through the competition too. Really, every year for the last seven or eight years I’ve tried to do something completely out of my comfort zone. Something to keep me on my toes, to keep me alive. I can’t stand it when people make the same food they’ve made since they were 20. I’m the person who says, “Can’t we do it better? Let’s give ourselves a challenge.” When I was invited, I said yes right away. I thought it would be something completely out of my comfort zone but I’m going to give it my all, I’m going to be asked to cook stuff I’ve never cooked. At this point in my life, I’m 55, and what I really want to do is prove to myself that I can still cook at all. I don’t work on the line anymore, but I miss it! I cook all the time at home. I love it! I just want to cook.

What didn’t you realize until you got into the competition?
That it’s not always about cooking. It’s about how fast a thinker you can be. Can you choose a path and never second-guess yourself? Once you do that, you lose. You can always see it, it always comes out wishy-washy. So it’s not necessarily just about cooking. Obviously, you need to do that to win. This competition, more than “Top Chef,” was really about the food. It wasn’t about the drama or the personalities. We wanted to it to be a really fair competition. Someone’s lagging? Help them out. So when they go up to the judges, it’s fair.

Is there a challenge you wish you had gotten to do?
I would have loved the shopping-from-a-single-aisle-in-the-grocery-store one.  Or the dorm room one? I love that stuff. I cook meals in hotel rooms all the time. There were a couple of challenges that I really went outside my comfort zone. When we swapped dishes with another contestant in the finals, I chose to make Michael’s dish not using Mexican flavors but cooked the way I would have done it if I was cooking at home. But then in the middle I realized, ‘Oh, I don’t do this professionally! I think he knows how to coax the flavors out of this stuff way more than I do.’ The judges loved it and I was so taken aback because I thought for sure I was going home that day. It was so outside my comfort zone. After that I stuck with what I knew.

Do you think the judges were versed in Mexican cuisine the way they are in French and Italian? Did it give you an advantage?
No, none of them. But I don’t know if it gave me an advantage. The first quickfire I did, I made a green mole, and we had three food stylist judges and they had no idea what to make of it. They thought it was going to be like a creamy green sauce and it wasn’t. It was made from pumpkin seeds and roasted tomatillos and green chiles and  cilantro and epazote. They thought it was weird! But Gael Greene has been around for a really long time, and has eaten in our restaurant, so that put her in a pretty decent place. James has eaten in our restaurant several times and Saveur does all kinds of stuff on Mexico. I’ve written a lot for that magazine, so he considers himself quite well-versed in ethnic cuisine all over the world. Jay Rayner, I don’t know him. They don’t have Mexican food at all in London.

Ha! That’s right.
In that finale, he said it was the first mole he had ever tasted. [“You took my mole virginity. Thank you for taking it,” is how he put it.] That was a little frightening to me. He loved it, thank god. He really liked my bold flavors from the very beginning.

What did you think of the judges in general?
Oh, we really got to know their quirks. One time I put a banana leaf but I didn’t cut it down as much as I wanted to, but James is quite finicky. He wants everything precise. So he complained about it -- you heard a little on the show, but in real life he complained about it bitterly. He said it just wrecked the dish for him. I used a small banana leaf to decorate one of the dishes in the finale and I said, "I’m trying to redeem myself for the other banana leaf," and everyone laughed. But he really wanted everything to be quite precise. You can tell by the pursed lips.

Did you have any sense you had won?
No. No one knew anything. We all had one dish that we didn’t like. I absolutely thought I would come in third. The fourth course never came together.

What happened with the addition of your sous chef?
I thought, "Great! Another pair of hands. Now we can do even more cool stuff." What I didn’t realize is he didn’t know how to play the game. I had honed my game-playing skills over the competition. He didn’t realize how fast the time flies and you always have to keep your eyes on the clock. In some ways, he threw me off my game. We never talked about how to plate that last dish. It was the worst of the collaborative effort. There’s that one shot of the two of us standing at the oven and I was totally dejected. I thought, "This right here in front of me is what’s losing me the competition."

But it worked out!
But you didn’t hear the judges! They really, really were disappointed in that dish. You just got an inking of it. Actually, they took out the worst comments for all of us. They were always nice to us, but they didn’t mince words, let me tell you.

How long were those judge panels?
It was a lot of conversation! What you don’t know is every one of them took at least two hours of us standing in front of them. We were grilled about the dishes. It was really intense. And bizarre. We really felt like we were in the back of the principal’s office.  After every challenge. I was really, really ready to come in third for the finale. We had decided it.

We? You, Michael and Hubert?
When we sat around that table I was really down. We had decided Hubert was going to come in first, Michael was going to come in second and I was last. We were there waiting for the decision for an hour and a half.

What’s up with the Oseland versus Chiarello rivalry? Is it real? Those low scores week after week sure were.
I have no idea. We were sequestered from the judges at all times. But Michael did get it into his head that Oseland didn’t like his food. I don’t know why in the world Oseland wouldn’t like it because it’s gutsy, it’s honest, it’s good food. He always made good food. But I don’t understand what Oseland could have had against him. Michael to some people, you know, he kind of puffs up sometimes, but we get along great. I like him very, very much. The camaraderie amongst all of us.

I think he lost some fans during the whole Dale incident.
When that side of Michael came out? None of us had ever seen it. We thought, "What is going on with Michael today?" He had never acted like that around the rest of us. Super nice guy, very helpful. Very competitive, but we all are. We would never have gotten to the top if we weren’t. But yeah, I don’t know where the Oseland thing comes from at all. He did give him a low score, and I was shocked at the score he gave him.

I was hoping you could enlighten me. Oseland said Michael could have seasoned his polenta more delicately. True?
Everyone had a misstep. His polenta was really salty. Strangely salty. But it was always Michael’s problem that at the end of every challenge he would misjudge his final minutes. He would always have a dish go out that was missing a garnish or a final seasoning, something like that. He would always start plating a minute after the rest of us and he’d go, "God, what happened to the last couple of minutes there?" But he never learned. It wasn’t that he wasn’t ready, he just didn’t plan accordingly. My guess is that he just threw a last-minute handful of salt in the polenta, and it was intense, and he just threw too much in. I tasted it, and it was really salty.

Hopeful twitterers want to know: Any plans to open a place in L.A.?
I love L.A., I love to travel, but I couldn’t have a restaurant that wasn’t here in Chicago. I just couldn’t make the commute. There is some great stuff going on in L.A. and I can’t wait to come back out there. Susan Feniger just opened the Street, Ludo’s got Ludo Bites, I love Mozza. I can’t wait to come back. 

You think you’ll post a recipe for your now-famous black mole any time soon?
Yeah … good luck. That’s super hard. I won’t do it because it’s so hard to describe. It’s one of the few recipes that you actually have to have someone teach you. It doesn’t work in print. You have to toast everything to this level of darkness where it looks like it’s burnt but it’s not. And that’s the trick to it. It literally took me 20 years to perfect the recipe for myself. To say, I can do it as well as the cooks in Oaxaca. 

I take it Whole Foods didn’t have all of those ingredients either.
Yeah, you didn’t see all of us negotiating in our cars during the finale with producers for ingredients. I wanted a suckling pig, Hubert wanted truffles, Michael wanted rabbit liver. But for the mole, we were allowed to bring a box of our own ingredients for the whole competition. So mine was pretty ragged by the end, but I had enough left that I could make the mole.  (Michael had four boxes, most of the stuff had his Napa Style label on it. We were ragging on him the whole time for it. They edited it all out.) The big thing for me was getting through that mole with no recipe -- it was my greatest sense of achievement throughout the whole show.

It did earn a chorus of guttural noises from the judges.
Was that not the funniest thing? That was one of my favorite moments. Jay said they should do it, and I thought they’d just laugh it off, but they all did it!

I see you had a viewing party last night to celebrate -- what was the menu?
Interestingly enough, we had tongue tacos, which are what got me to the finals. We also made little sopes with plantains and chorizo -- one of my favorite combinations in the world -- and little Mexico City-style quesadillas. A ceviche in the Acapulco style, excuse me, the Veracruz style. I’m a little bleary right now. There was a lot of beer and a lot of margaritas.

Read Bayless’ own account of the finale on his blog.

-- Denise Martin

Photo credit: NBC Universal

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