Rick Bayless and controversy over “authentic” Mexican food

Rick Bayless

It’s Cinco de Mayo, which is actually almost more of an American holiday than a Mexican one. It technically celebrates a battle than occurred in the Mexican province of Puebla, but became a holiday that Mexican-Americans encouraged to signify pride in their heritage. And just as with Cinco de Mayo, the concept of what is “authentic” Mexican food, vs. Mexican-American food, is also a bit hazy. Ironically, that haziness is proving to be the cause for another battle between Rick Bayless – an American chefs who is most famous for creating “authentic” Mexican food – and the state of California.

In the first of two incidents,  Bayless purportedly “introduced Southern Californians to Mexican food. As ABC news sums it up, there was “ a comment Bayless made (or didn’t make, as Bayless himself maintains) about introducing Southern California diners to “authentic” Mexican cuisine. Long story short: In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning food writer Jonathan Gold, addressing attendees as a fund-raiser for an association of Latino journalists,criticized Bayless for his role in Red O, a restaurant that, as he characterized it, positioned itself as introducing authentic Mexican food to Los Angeles — a city long-influenced by Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and their respective, often overlapping food traditions. Bayless responded to Gold’s comments online,  tweeting directly to Gold that he “[t]hought a Pulitzer meant you checked facts. Sneering at me for something I never said is either mean or sloppy. I’m offended.” 

More recently, however, in San Francisco, in an interview with Zagat, Bayless is quoted as saying, “San Francisco doesn’t really have much of a Mexican food tradition aside from the taquerias in the Mission, which is a fairly limited thing.” This did not go over well in San Franicsco. In a blog written by Gustavo Arellano (author of Taco USA), titled Rick Bayless Insults Yet Another California City’s Mexican Food Traditions, Arellano writes, “Um, excuse me? No tradition? Idiot obviously didn’t read my  Taco USA, let alone ask the Mexicans who’ve lived in the Mission even before Bayless was some Okie manning a barbecue pit whether their traditions are nonexistent. Idiot didn’t even visit San Francisco’s vibrant Yucatecan food scene, beneficiaries of the largest Yucateco community in the United States. And to call the Mission burrito a “fairly limited thing” is akin to calling the 1974 Cadillac Eldorado a fairly short car.”

We love Mexican food in all forms – and think it’s probably a good thing that there really can’t be a fine line between “athentic” and “non-authentic” Mexican food. After all, culture changes (especially those involving food) that are inclusive rather than exclusionary should be welcomed. While this controversy doesn’t change our over-all opinion of Bayless and the wonderful cookbooks he’s written, it does make us wish that he would be a little more thoughtful in his interviews.

Photo courtesy of Facebook



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  • geoff@kupesoftware.com  on  May 5, 2013


    Speaking as a San Franciscan, Bayless has a point. There *are* good Mexican restuarants in San Francisco, but they are overwhelmingly outnumbered by the formula tacquerias. As a former resident of both Texas and Southern California, I was very disappointed by the Mexican food scene here in San Francisco.

    Mind you, one of the reasons why Mexican restaurants are unimpressive here is that the Mexicans are cooking everybody else's food: French, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Spanish, you name it. Mexican sous chefs cook it all.

  • broomist  on  May 6, 2013

    Actually, as a "tour and travel" person based in Chicago, I've taken several groups (at their request) to Bayless restaurants, and been singularly unimpressed. It's just another case of someone's ego (and marketing!) overpowering their actual talents – I applauded Lyle Lovett's opinion of what constitutes "Real Mexican" food (and Bayless' in particular) that he had in an interview some time ago.

  • sir_ken_g  on  May 6, 2013

    I know good food when I taste it. You can't taste "authentic".

  • robm  on  May 9, 2013

    I appreciate Bayless's passion for Mexican food, sharing it myself, and I've eaten at Topolobampo, which has excellent food. But it's certainly inaccurate for Bayless to think he's introducing California to "authentic" Mexican food. California was PART of Mexico before it joined the Union, and Los Angeles and San Francisco were Mexican towns long before that! California's Mexican food is just as "authentic" as any other — from a culinary standpoint California is just another region of Mexico, as is the entire Southwest, which was also part of Mexico. California's cooking shares a lot with the cooking of northwest Mexico, especially Sonora and Baja California. It's not the same as the cooking of Jalisco or Puebla or the D.F., but it's still Mexican and still "authentic." In fact, there is no "authentic" Mexican cuisine. There are only authentic cuisines, because cooking in Mexico is highly regionalized and each state and town has its own specialties and ways of cooking. Which is what makes Mexican cooking one of the great cuisines of the world — it's variety and richness are unending!

  • geoff@kupesoftware.com  on  September 15, 2013

    Just a gringo once again taking credit for the achievements, foods, and culture of native peoples. Get used to it.

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