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Chef Rick Bayless: The Culinary Preservation Award 2014

Photo: Matthew Gilson

Chef Rick Bayless wins The 2014 Culinary Preservation Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.

By now Rick Bayless has secured his place as America's éminence grise and proselytizing food nerd, Mexican Division: He's serious, curious, warm, tireless, inventive, and rock-steady, and he's done more to beat the drum for authentic Mexican cooking than any other American restaurateur. This year, Bayless' Chicago restaurant Topolobampo developed three historical menus that were nothing less than profound.

I was lucky enough to be in Chicago when the first menu—"Mexico City, 1491" debuted. It included a "ceviche" of snapper cured in hibiscus and pineapple vinegar (because pre-Columbian Mexican food had neither limes nor cilantro), and a plate of red venison in an ancho-cacao sauce with a pumpkinseed "risotto" (because there was no rice then, either).

"When you think about Mexican food without onions and garlic, without any dairy, no wheat products, and no pork or chicken," Bayless says, "things really start to change. Instead you're thinking about beans and squash, wild game and fish. For us, that was the biggest revelation. The cuisine was much earthier-tasting. We found ourselves thickening with pumpkinseeds, which have an earthier flavor."

Eating this food was like listening to music written in an unfamiliar key. Before you could enjoy, you had to understand: This was a cuisine of absences, in which most of the ingredients that we think of as "Mexican" were redacted. It was not only earthy, but ghostly. Once your palate understood, though, deliciousness set in.

Important to note: This was not academic, period-piece cookery. "I think the culinary historians I've met are some of the worst cooks in the world," Bayless laughs. "They're so concerned with what people were eating that they don't translate it into good cooking techniques." Instead, Bayless celebrates old foods with modern methods, a what-might-have-been scenario: "If the Spaniards had never settled in Mexico and the continent remained isolated, yet modernity had set in—this is what the cuisine would have been like."

The second dinner focused on Spanish-influenced 1671, and the third was inspired by the first Mexican cookbook, published in 1831 (Bayless has a first-edition copy). There will be a fourth, final menu, based on an early 20th-century cookbook that surveyed Mexican food as a unified cuisine with regional variations. Visit rickbayless.com for dates.