Rick Bayless Serves Street Food At The White House

The chef and owner of the Frontera Grill in Chicago will be the guest chef at Wednesday's White House state dinner honoring Mexico and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Host Scott Simon talks with Rick Bayless about the menu, which will feature foods inspired by cuisine from the streets of Mexico.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Next week, the Obama White House will host its second state dinner. And this time, in honor of Mexico's President Felipe Calderon, the chef will be Chicago's Rick Bayless, winner of America's Top Chef, multiple James Beard Awards, and a man who through his restaurant, books and appearances has transformed Mexican food into a four-star cuisine.

Chef Bayless joins us now from Los Angeles. Rick, thanks very much for being with us.

Chef RICK BAYLESS (Owner, Frontera Grill, Chicago): It's a pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: The Obamas know your place, don't they?

Chef BAYLESS: They do. They were regular customers before they moved to Washington.

SIMON: So, how did this come about? You get a phone call one day saying, could you make dinner for 200 people at the White House, and one of them is the president of Mexico?

Chef BAYLESS: Yes, actually we did. That's the way...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chef BAYLESS: ...it was done. And it was a pretty astonishing moment for me.

SIMON: New York Times says there's going to be a mole to beat the band on the menu. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Chef BAYLESS: Well, it's an interesting thing to me because obviously most people in the United States think - still think of Mexican food so much in terms of the simple street foods like tacos and such. And I certainly wanted to feature something that I consider to be Mexico's greatest dish. So, yes, I'm going to be making a mole and I think it's got 27, 28 different ingredients in it.

SIMON: I guess a lot of people know that we're friends.

Chef BAYLESS: Yes.

SIMON: And you believe in locally grown ingredients, including from your own garden.

Chef BAYLESS: That's exactly right.

SIMON: Can you schlep anything from your garden to the White House?

Chef BAYLESS: Oh, no. That's the hardest part. There's no ingredient that we're going to be bringing from home. The biggest challenge for me is to actually create the food that we do in our restaurants in the White House kitchen. I think there will probably be aromas in that kitchen that have never been there before.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, and that's the point of it. Isn't it, come to think of it?

Chef BAYLESS: I'm hoping so.

SIMON: Have you seen the kitchen?

Chef BAYLESS: I've never seen the kitchen before and it's going to be really a remarkable...

SIMON: Didn't you watch "West Wing?"

Chef BAYLESS: I - you know, I never watched "West Wing."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chef BAYLESS: And I don't know if it would have even been an accurate description of what it is. But I have to say that I've seen pictures of it and I know that it's very well equipped. And we have talked with Cris Comerford, the chef there, and she has assured us that we'll have everything that we need to create our moles and ceviches and all that sort of stuff. So, I feel like that I'm in really, really good hands.

SIMON: Rick, isn't it true in the White House kitchen there always has to be a taster on duty to taste the stuff before it goes out?

Chef BAYLESS: I'll tell you afterwards. I have never cooked there before, so I don't really know.

SIMON: Seems to me I read that. And I raise the issue now because if there's one job in the executive branch for which I am qualified, it would be to be your taster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Chef BAYLESS: I would certainly welcome that. Well, we'll have to put your name on the list.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Rick Bayless is chef of the Frontera Grill at Topolobampo in Chicago, and creator of Frontera gourmet foods. Thanks so much, Rick.

Chef BAYLESS: Oh, it's a pleasure to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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