There’s cooking dinner for guests, friends who won’t judge you (not long-term anyways), and then there’s cooking dinner for guests, moreover, the guest, President Barack Obama, and the first family, diplomats, and the crème de la crème of America and the honoree’s nation. Talk about a pressure-cooker meal. In search of an elaborate repeat of New York chef Marcus Samuelsson’s regal vegetarian feast honoring Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the first State dinner in November, Obama is relying on hometown favorite, Chicago-based chef Rick Bayless, to deliver for the Obama administration’s second state dinner honoring President Felipe Calderón of Mexico.
Chef Bayless, an award-winning chef, restaurateur, cookbook author, and television personality is setting the Mexican table at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on May 19. Bayless has revolutionized authentic Mexican cuisine in America’s eyes with his restaurants, Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO; prepared food line featuring salsas, chips, and grilling rubs; and cookbooks, including “Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico,” “Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen: Capturing the Vibrant Flavors of a World-Class Cuisine,” “Salsas That Cook,” “Mexican Everyday,” and “Mexico–One Plate at a Time,” which is the namesake of Bayless’s television show on PBS.
Chicago’s elegant Topolobampo, or just “Topolo” for people-in-the-know, is one of America’s only fine-dining Mexican restaurants. Topolo serves Mexican festival food, wild game, and little known regional specialties, often using organic and custom-grown ingredients by local growers according to Bayless’s specifications, which may be one of the reasons why Bayless is a favorite of the Obamas. Another reason why could be because of the chef’s incorporation of family into his work, much like President Obama. Bayless runs his restaurants alongside wife Deann, and co-wrote a cookbook with his 15-year-old daughter, titled “Rick and Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures.” Bayless was even rumored to be the top contender for White House chef shortly after the inauguration.
That job ultimately went to Cristeta Comerford, who, along with deputy White House social security, sampled Bayless’s state dinner menu at Frontera Grill last week. And while it’s not customary to know what’s for dinner a week in advance, Haute Living does have a few juicy tidbits, as reported by The New York Times. While Bayless is not allowed to order his own ingredients, for security reasons, he will have the pleasure of using parsley, chives, lettuce, arugula, and mint from the White House garden. He’ll be cooking up a green-herb ceviche, similar to the one found in his upcoming cookbook “Fiesta at Rick’s,” as well as a 28-ingredient Oaxacan black mole, which has him flying into the district two days early to make. No taste tester needed here, dessert, which is being prepared by the White House pastry chef after consultation with Bayless, will tie-in local strawberries. Bayless has lived in and traveled through Mexico building his regional cooking repertoire, so whatever the menu may be, he is sure to dish multi-layer complexity, perfect balance, and bold, spicy flavors to the epic meal for 200 guests, enough to make any chef cry (it’s not just the onions).
Sans multi-colored donkey piñata, this affair is not some typical backyard fiesta. And though we would give up our designer frocks (okay, maybe not the Naeem Khan’s) to see Secret Service bat a few uninvited guests on the White House lawn, we’ll leave the drama to authentic-style Mexican food with dramatic flair. Just make sure you’re on the official guest list…Chef Bayless packs a fiery punch.