In this interview with Seafood Watch, Rick Bayless, the pre-eminent exponent of regional Mexican cuisine in the United States, talks about his deep commitment to sustainable seafood and environmentally sound farming practices.
Is this a traditional recipe or one that you developed?
It's kind of a mixture of the two. A very classic combination in Mexico is chorizo and potato. I decided at one point that I wanted to do a really cool taco filling and thought it would be good if we added bits of seafood because I love scallops with chorizo!
How has your time in Mexico impacted your perspective on seasonal food?
In the States we've gotten so many generations away from a sense of seasonality in our food that we're having to work really hard to get back to it. The one thing you find in any developing country is that they've never gotten away from it, so they're much closer to the source of their food. That's one of the things that attracts me so much to Mexico and many developing countries—there's that greater sense of working with the rhythms of nature and the seasons and what the local landscape can produce.
Talk some more about this idea of local landscapes and ingredients.
I think that as human beings, we've really evolved to be in sync with our environment, and that means with the seasons, wherever we are. It means being in sync with the climate wherever we are, and the greatest expression of that is in local agriculture.
I think that trying to wipe that all out and make all Americans eat the same food whether you're in Maine or Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been one of the biggest missteps in the development of our culture. People need to feel connected to the place where they are. Without that, they're disenfranchised. And I certainly think that when we're talking about seafood, we want to have some sense of where the seafood has come from.
Are you able to do that at your restaurants?
We have a really amazing source for local, farm—raised trout-one of the best sources in the country. So of course we feature that. We've got some Lake Superior Walleye which is close to local for us. And then for the rest of what we get, we try to go as close to the source as we possibly can.
We try to say that our "family," if you will, extends beyond just the Chicagoland area, directly to certain fisherman. We have a guy who brings in stuff for us from Alaska, and he can tell us exactly who's caught everything in our restaurant. We like being connected because even though there are some things we can't get locally, like ocean fish, coffee, chocolate and salt, we know exactly where those things are coming from and we can put a face with the product.
How would you convince people that it's worth the effort to find local produce and sustainable seafood?
Usually all it takes is coaxing them into the farmer's market and suddenly they realize just how lively and wonderful the food can be.
And you have to say the same kind of thing about seafood. If you get some scallops that are wet-packed in tripolyphosphate, and they were cultured someplace in China and then frozen and shipped, they basically don't taste like anything. And then you taste something that's hand-harvested—that's fresh or has been frozen and then carefully defrosted—you taste it and go "oh my gosh, it's just so full of flavor!"
In 2003 you started a nonprofit organization called the Frontera Farmer Foundation. Can you tell me about it?
I think that one of the things that we have to rebuild in our country is the system of small family farms, because so much of that has been obliterated by large agri-businesses. Many small family farms don't make enough to reinvest in their businesses...to really make a viable living.
The Frontera Farmer Foundation offers capital improvement grants to these small family farms in the Midwest to help make them more profitable. If you think you need a new tractor, or some new planting equipment, or a new watering system or a greenhouse, and that would help push you over into that really profitable range, then you can come to the Frontera Farmer Foundation. We just announced our latest group of grant recipients, and this year we've given away 18 grants totaling $186,000.