Should Latinos disdain Rick Bayless because he’s white?

If perhaps you missed this controversial blog post on a Chicago Tribune-affiliated blog a few weeks ago, let me tell you about it.

Blogger Teresa Puente’s point was this: Rick Bayless has lately been anointed as the father of modern Mexican cuisine. And that’s a shame, because he’s white. So many other Latino chefs deserve to be recognized, she says. Why doesn’t the media focus on them?

As soon as Puente posted it, criticism flew that she was racist and deserved to be fired. While I think that’s a wee bit of an overstatement — ignorant and angry seem like more fitting words than racist to me — a kernel of her argument is right on. White chefs do dominate American TV. And yes, the media have a tendency to adorn one person as the holy expert on everything, just because it’s easier, and we’re all overworked, and some people have great PR reps who actually call you back by your deadline.

But Rick Bayless deserves his accolades. He is not the new kid on the Mexican block. His first cookbook came out in the 80’s, and actually had penciled drawings of dried chiles in it. And recipes for aguas frescas. Can you imagine what that must have been like back then, when “Mexican food” meant a greasy rolled-up tortilla covered in cheese? Hell, I barely looked at his first cookbook for the first time a few months ago, and it still blew my mind.

Lots of people heap praise on Diana Kennedy, probably the best-known authority on Mexican cooking. I own two of her numerous cookbooks, but haven’t done much beyond flip through the pages. Rick Bayless’ books, on the other hand, I’ve devoured. It’s like he really wants me to succeed and know the cuisine. Sometimes when reading Kennedy, I feel like if I don’t dry and grind my own corn for tortillas, I suck as a cook.

Anyway, I’m all for empowering Latinas, and newspapers creating platforms for people to subscribe to blogs with names like Chicanísima. (The blog is part of a community site owned by the Tribune Company, comprising bloggers from all over the city.) But I think Puente just set us back a few steps by embodying the stereotype of the angry minority woman throwing out baseless accusations. Wish she would have done her research before posting.

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7 Responses to “Should Latinos disdain Rick Bayless because he’s white?”
  1. Alice

    Here, here. He is serious about what he does, does his research, knows his Spanish, and writes some mean recipes — how dare this woman pull the race card on expertise.

  2. Daniel H.

    Interesting. Thanks, by the way, for the ideas for improving my own kitchen. (We’re making molletes.)


  3. Ana Tamez Kendrick

    She full of it. I watched Top Chef Masters, which apparently she didn’t, because if she had, she would have seen that Douglas Rodriguez was on it, along with Wilo Benet. Not “Mexican” cooks, but Latino. Rodriguez is proud to make “tortilla-less latino” fare. Am I supposed to be ashamed that I eat tortillas?
    It’s acredit to Rick Bayless that he’s been able to elevate the stature of Mexican when most Hispanics (like me) only know crappy Tex-Mex food and don’t have much respect for it. I’d dying to try Topolobampo or Frontera to see what authentic Mexican SHOULD taste like. Lesley’s right — he’s been working a lot of years to perfect his recipes because he respects the cuisine. This chick is sad if she wants to deny anyone authentic Mexican food, and a chance to appreciate it as much as he does, just because it’s made by a white guy from Oklahoma City.

  4. The Onocoffee

    I like and respect Rick Bayless tremendously. Like you, I’ve engaged his cookbooks numerous times exploring Mexican cuisine, but to say that Rick Bayless is the “Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine” seems, to me, a bit far-reaching.

    Forget the fact that Bayless is white, the important fact is that he’s not in Mexico – he’s in Chicago. And while Chicago enjoys a tremendous Mexican community and a tradition of good Mexican food, how can we say that any chef from outside of Mexico is the “Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine”?

    And what is “Modern Mexican Cuisine”? Can it really be Bayless’ take on traditional Mexican fare? Or does “Modern Mexican” take the form of Bruno Oteiza and Mikel Alonso from Biko in Mexico City’s Polanco, or Enrique Olvera’s Pujol?

  5. Lesley

    Onocofffee: Point well taken. I probably overstated on calling him the “Father of Modern Mexican Cuisine.” What I meant to say was that he’s lately become America’s ambassador to authentic Mexican food. A lot of people look to him to educate them about what Mexican food actually is, since it’s been shrouded in Tex-Mex for so long.

    Of course, the term “modern Mexican cuisine” means something different in Mexico City than it does in the U.S. In D.F., I would definitely say places like Biko, Jaso and Pujol are leading the way in changing people’s perceptions about what Mexican food really is, and what it can be. What these restaurants prepare, of course, is totally different than what you’d find in Rick Bayless’ cookbooks.

  6. The Onocoffee


    Agreed. While I enjoyed eating at Biko, I find immense pleasure eating at places like tacos El Vip Sito, El Bajio or that mom and pop with the bucket of chicharrones on a brilliantly corn-tasting tortilla.

    I thank Bayless for acting as a gateway towards discovering traditional and authentic Mexican fare.

  7. Iliana

    I love this blog post…I live in Chicago, and personally know Teresa Puente as a former student of hers. Mike Doyle calling her a racist, seemed like a cheap excuse for blog post. I believe her post was misinterpreted, or maybe she could have got her point across differently. As Mexican-American I can not understand why the face of mexican food –respectfully, is Rick Bayless. Also, I can appreciate Bayless for putting more of the diverse and traditional food that Mexico has to offer other then tacos. I’ve eaten at his restaurants, all great, and his love for Mexican cuisine is genuine, Teresa mentions this too. I interpreted her blog as a pointed message to Latinos.

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