Rick & Deann Bayless

William Rice / March 2003

Food Arts presents the March 2003 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Rick and Deann Groen Bayless for showing, with verve and class, that restauranteurs can look inward and outward simultaneously to the benefit of customers, staff, the community, and themselves. With seemingly limitless passion and endurance, they have set higher and higher standards for ingredients, cooking skills, and innovation in the kitchen; increased awareness and appreciation of authentic Mexican cooking through cookbooks and TV series; and devoted time as well as money to so many causes that they are firmly entrenched in the first rank of American activist chefs.

The Baylesses' base of operations is a pair of side-by-side Mexican restaurants on Chicago's Clark Street, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo. Frontera, in informal room featuring grilled fare, opened in 1987. At Topolobampo, launched in 1989, both food and customers are more dressed up. Together and separately, they have performed exceptionally well in each of the tasks mentioned above. The chef has excelled as a communicator and educator, producing four PBS television series and companion cookbooks and leading annual visits to Mexico with his staff. He also founded Frontera Foods, a growing line of products, in 1995.

Despite his devotion to authentic Mexican cuisine (a passion that was ignited during a visit to Mexico City as a teen), Rick has praise for the "lighter, fresher" fare that is now coming to the fore in Mexico and for "Tex-Mex" cooking that isn't "drowned" in melted cheese. He credits the success of his cooking in Chicago, which has a large Mexican population and good sources for authentic Mexican ingredients, to "my determination to bring alive the real flavors of Mexico so that they resonate on the plate."

A summary of the awards the Baylesses have won include Best American Chef: Midwest 1991, national Chef of the Year in 1995, and Humanitarian of the Year 1998—all from The James Beard Foundation—as well as Best Cookbook 1996 by the International Association of Culinary Professionals for Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

On the social activist and environmental scene, they have lent time and food to Share Our Strength and Meals on Wheels, among others. Rick has served as chairman of Chefs Collaborative, and Deann has been a moving force within Women Chefs & Restauranteurs.

Rick was once described as someone with "a scholar's mindset and a missionary's zeal." Deann, who possesses two master's degrees and the unshakable loyalty of her serving staff, also fits into the academic mold. Yet the ambience in both restaurants, dressed in colorful Mexican folk art, is consistently upbeat and cheerful.

Now with graduates of the Bayless "academy" running more than half a dozen restaurants and an executive chef in charge of day-to-day cooking in their restaurants, Rick Bayless acknowledges, "We're the old folks. The young chefs are no longer our peers."

"But the passion is still here," Deann adds. "We intend to keep pushing the envelope."