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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Now we're going to examine one facet of the presidential race that has received little attention. As the old saying goes, "The best way to a man's heart is through his stomach." We figured we could learn more about the candidates by finding out what they like to eat. So we dispatched NPR's Daniel Zwerdling to investigate. Next week, he'll go to Annapolis, Maryland, to cook with one of John McCain's favorite chefs. Today Danny kicks off the series at one of Barack Obama's favorite spots.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: OK, so everybody please close your eyes, because I want you to pretend this is not Sunday morning. It's nighttime. You're sitting on a soft banquette. The room's glowing with candles. There are bold modern paintings on the walls. The waiters mix your margaritas at your table. And this is where the Obamas come for a special night out in Chicago. It's called Topolobampo. It's a Mexican restaurant. It's named for a Mexican port. But the cooking here is totally different than what you find in most Mexican restaurants in the United States. Listen, the waiters bring in the appetizers.

Unidentified Waiter: Excellent. So for the two of you we've Pulpo en su Tinta. Pulpo of course being the grilled baby octopus that's served chilled. It's in the center there. The smaller egg is a poached quail egg, and the larger...

ZWERDLING: At Topolobampo, don't even think about burritos and refried beans. The truth is the food most Americans think of as Mexican is actually Tex-Mex food. It's the rustic cooking that farmers and cowboys ate along the border. When Topolobampo opened almost 20 years ago, it was the first restaurant in the United States that served the kind of gourmet dishes you might find in Mexico City.

Unidentified Waiter: And finally, for yourself here...

ZWERDLING: It's won all kinds of awards.

Unidentified Waiter: ...the nasturtium leaf as well as fuchsia flowers, all tossed in a chamomile dressing, are more commonly known as manzania, very, very common in Mexico, rests over a little bit of smoked chicken…

ZWERDLING: The chef behind all this is Rick Bayless. He's got glasses under a reddish goatee. He's super fit. Bayless has written six cookbooks, and he has a cooking show on TV.

So, the Obamas, they really truly eat here?

Mr. RICK BAYLESS (Chef, Topolobampo): They really do, and have been eating here for years and years.

ZWERDLING: So do they have their usual table, like they walk in and you seat them in that corner over there or...

Mr. BAYLESS: They used to sit in the front part of the room where they were completely on display, and now they have moved toward the back to this table right here.

ZWERDLING: And favorite dishes?

Mr. BAYLESS: I couldn't say that they have any favorite dishes. They just like to explore the whole menu. They're our favorite kind of customer because they say, what's new on the menu? What can we try? And they're very laidback customers. They don't eat quickly. They really enjoy themselves. They stay at the table a long time and just seem to enjoy the flavors.

ZWERDLING: So maybe we should go up to the kitchen, and you can cook, and we'll talk.

Mr. BAYLESS: We're here in our test kitchen. This is where we develop all the recipes for books and TV shows and things like that.

ZWERDLING: So here's what I really want to know. How did a boy from Kansas City like you end up being one of the main people who showed Americans what real Mexican cooking is really about?

Mr. BAYLESS: Could you state that with Oklahoma City in there?

ZWERDLING: Oklahoma City, sorry.

Mr. BAYLESS: You know, I went to Mexico when I was a teenager, and I just fell in love with it. It was like tasting the most mysterious food I had ever tasted. But it didn't taste weird, it tasted deliciously mysterious. And I just came back from there.

ZWERDLING: You mean like yesterday.

Mr. BAYLESS: Yesterday. And it still does all the same things to me that it did to me at 14. It makes my blood course through my body, I find it so exciting. I find the culture so vibrant and quirky and fun. And the flavors just like leap off the plate. When you're walking down the street, you always come across a street stall, and they're gorgeous to look at. Most people think of street food as something that's sort of down and dirty. But in Mexico City, street food has been sort of raised to an art form. They do some of the most beautiful and most complex dishes in the street stalls. And they do them in a way that they're so incredibly satisfying.

ZWERDLING: Bayless says, actually, why don't we cook one of his favorite street foods? Because the dishes he serves downstairs are too elaborate. So over the next few minutes, he's going to teach you to make steak tortillas with grilled onions and guacamole, the way Mexicans really eat them. First, a quick marinade for the skirt steak.

Mr. BAYLESS: I'm going to take a small piece of onion and put it in a food processor here.

(Soundbite of food processor)

Mr. BAYLESS: Some garlic cloves in there as well. And now lime juice, salt, and a touch of cumin are going to be the main flavorings in this marinade for skirt steak.

ZWERDLING: And by the way, do the Obamas ever eat this skirt steak recipe here?

Mr. BAYLESS: The first time that I ever met Michelle, she was eating a skirt steak taco here.

ZWERDLING: Next, Bayless slices some onion and big, thick rings, and he brushes them with oil.

Mr. BAYLESS: I'm going to put those on the grill over here.

ZWERDLING: Then he cuts some tomatillos in half, and he puts them on the grill. Have you ever used tomatillos? They look like tomatoes, but they're green and sort of sticky. It used to be hard to find them in the States, but the Hispanic population has grown so much...

Mr. BAYLESS: Now you can find tomatillos in practically any grocery store anywhere in the country.

ZWERDLING: When the tomatillos are soft, he's going to mush them with the avocados to make the guacamole.

Mr. BAYLESS: It adds a slight smokiness to the guacamole which I think is super delicious.

ZWERDLING: So what makes the Mexican cooking that you brought back to the United States so different than the places that are, you know, in every neighborhood in America, the swamps of refried beans and sour cream and melted cheese?

Mr. BAYLESS: Well, I love that food too. And when I go back to Oklahoma City to visit my family, we always go eat Tex-Mex food, and I love it. The reason our food is so different is that all that fat that you get from the sour cream and the cheese and the really fatty beans really dulls flavors. And the...

ZWERDLING: Dulls?

Mr. BAYLESS: It dulls flavors. And the food in Mexico is much leaner than all of that Mexican-American food. The hallmark of real Mexican food is freshness. And when you go into the Mexican markets, you see these mounds and mounds of tomatillos and tomatoes and onions and garlic and all kinds of greens, and they're very ripe. They're to be used that day.

ZWERDLING: OK. What are you going to do next?

Mr. BAYLESS: OK. Scoop out the avocado from the skin.

ZWERDLING: And then Bayless mashes the avocado with the tomatillo sauce he made in the blender. But he says don't mash too much.

Mr. BAYLESS: I like guacamole to be coarse.

ZWERDLING: Rick Bayless almost became an academic instead of a chef. He went to Mexico to do the research for his Ph.D.

So I'm picturing you there in Mexico studying anthropology and linguistics, sitting down to a meal in a little cafe and suddenly thinking I should do this for a living.

Mr. BAYLESS: That actually happened in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was in graduate school. And I walked into one of my classes, and I had been cooking for a catering party, and I smelled of garlic from head to toe. And somebody looked up and said, wow, that's some garlic smell. And I realized that the garlic smell was what got me out of bed in the morning, not what we were studying in the class. And I left that class, and I never really looked back. OK, I've got to go over and check the onions. And right next to me here I'm going to put the steaks on the grill as well.

(Soundbite of sizzling)

ZWERDLING: What were you studying in that class?

Mr. BAYLESS: It was this really arcane thing about Mexican history reported by the Spaniards during the first 50 years of their conquest.

ZWERDLING: But you know what's really puzzling? It's like Americans totally fell in love with French cooking, and French cooking became a huge deal in the United States. Italian cooking, a huge deal in the United States. Right across the border, they have this incredible cuisine. You know, why didn't Americans fall in love with that sooner?

Mr. BAYLESS: Well, I think you're getting into very deep sociological waters here, but I do feel like that the U.S. has always felt beholden to everything European and that we were these poor stepchildren across the Atlantic, and they had all the culture. We don't have any of those feelings toward Mexico. And in fact, people are incredibly surprised, I think, when they go to Mexico and they find that there are even markets there. I mean, they consider it to be such a poor country, such a cultureless type of place that they can't imagine that it could really have anything to offer to us, let alone teach to us.

We're about ready here. I'm going to - OK, let's pull that skirt steak off. I'm cheating.

ZWERDLING: That is delicious. This is my last Obama question. If he becomes president, will you become the White House chef?

Mr. BAYLESS: I'm not sure that that would ever happen, but I would love to be involved with the Obamas in some way. I think we could kind of spice up some of that steak there, you know.

ZWERDLING: Rick Bayless brings out some plates and a basket of hot homemade tortillas.

Mr. BAYLESS: Put a little of the meat and the onions...

ZWERDLING: We pile on thick slices of that skirt steak and onions.

Mr. BAYLESS: That roasted tomatillo guacamole...

ZWERDLING: And then we spoon mounds of fabulous, chunky, smoky guacamole...

Mr. BAYLESS: Squeeze on a little bit of lime.

ZWERDLING: Over everything.

Mr. BAYLESS: That's what it's all about.

ZWERDLING: Oh, by the way, Liane, I packed a doggie bag for you so you could enjoy these tacos too. But I ate them on the plane.

HANSEN: Well, thanks a lot, pal. That's NPR's Daniel Zwerdling. You can watch Rick Bayless make this dish at npr.org. You can also print out the recipe. Next week our intrepid reporter cooks with the chef at one of John McCain's favorite restaurants. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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