Five things I learned from Chef Rick Bayless at Macy’s latest cooking class

With Chef Rick Bayless at Macy’s kids cooking class
Photo credit: Brittany Sepulveda

Whenever you get an invitation to attend a Macy’s Culinary Council cooking class, you’d better say yes! Especially if the class is scheduled during Macy’s Flower Show and involves Chef Rick Bayless, a culinary expert with a deep understanding of Mexican cuisine and a passion for storytelling. As a big fan of Chef Bayless, I was excited to get the invitation to attend his latest kids cooking class – and equally excited to get the chance to interview him for my blog. I could not have asked for a better time and place: with Easter right around the corner, Macy’s on State Street was in bloom (literally!), and the explosion of floral colors and scents was truly intoxicating ๐Ÿ™‚

Macy’s Flower Show is held at Macyโ€™s marquee stores in New York, Chicago and San Francisco every year to celebrate the arrival of spring. Each store is transformed so as to recreate a marvelous spring story, and no detail is spared in the process: plants are brought in from all around the world, colors are matched to perfection, and special ornaments (such as birds and butterflies) add a touch of realism.

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To me, hosting a cooking class right before Easter Sunday was an inspired move: not only was this a fitting complement to Macy’s Flower Show, but it was also a pre-Easter treat for kids and parents alike – and what a treat that was! With a chef of Rick Bayless’s caliber, a cooking class can only be a one-of-a-kind experience.

Here are five things I learned during the cooking class and my exclusive interview with Chef Bayless:

1. You can add bacon to guacamole

How to make guacamole was the first thing Chef Bayless taught during the cooking class: from how to choose and prep an avocado to how to add extra ingredients to make this dish your own, the demonstration was full of tips and tricks – and a lot of fun! I was familiar with guac ingredients such as lime, cilantro, onions and tomatoes, but didn’t know that you could also use bacon (for meatiness) and cheese (to make a nice contrast with the bacon) to create additional layers of flavor. I’ll definitely use bacon next time I make guacamole – and I promise to report back!

2. Chicken tinga poblana tastes amazing!

This dish made in the Puebla region of Mexico (and demonstrated by Chef Bayless during the kids cooking class) features pulled rotisserie chicken and cubed potatoes smothered in a rich sauce made with chorizo, onions, pureed fire roasted tomatoes and chipotle chiles in adobo. It is served on a warm tortilla with chopped cilantro, crumbled cheese and avocado on top, and its smoked spiciness is truly a work of wonder. Rich and filling thanks to the meat and potatoes, delightfully assertive in its fiery delivery of flavor, chicken tinga poblana definitely keeps you coming back for more. I loved the tenderness of the chicken and the perfectly balanced sauce, refreshed and elevated by the addition of the avocado and cilantro. What a great example of the unassuming sophistication of Mexican cuisine!

3. Do you want to really understand Mexican cuisine? Thorough knowledge takes time…

Chef Bayless is renowned for his anthropological approach, which involves thorough research and a respectful understanding of regional differences and flavor combinations of Mexican cuisine. This approach takes time, however – it took Chef Bayless “ten years of loving exploration” to do the research for his first book, Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico. As he admits, “If you don’t have the time to do it you basically can’t go very deep, because whatever field you explore you cannot go deep fast. It’s always going to take some time.”

4. …but you can still attain it. How? Go on a culinary tour!

According to Chef Bayless, one sure way to explore and to understand Mexican cuisine faster is through recipes “which give you the real flavor of Mexico and hopefully resonate with you in a certain way.” Still, probably one of the best ways to explore is to go on a culinary tour to a city like Mexico City, “one of the most complex and exciting cities in the world.” You can go on a street food tour, for example, where you are introduced to local food offerings by a professional guide, who has the required knowledge to make the entire journey through flavors meaningful. “That would be my number #1 recommendation. I think on these tours you can learn an awful lot about the real culture of Mexico, and then your appreciation would be much deeper,” says Chef Bayless.

5. “Food is never just flavors on a plate”

Chef Bayless is renowned for taking his restaurant management staff to Mexico to learn about various dishes and the stories behind them, and then go back to the US to share their findings with the rest of the staff, and ultimately with the customers. “To me, it’s all about the story,” says Chef Bayless. “In our fine dining restaurant, Topolobampo, we have one menu that always tells one complete story. It’s seven courses long and each dish adds to that story, and by the time you finish your meal you know the whole story. We also produce a little booklet that goes with it so you can take the story home with you and you can remember what you tasted and what you learned about the dishes.” According to Chef Bayless, the complex story behind a dish enriches one’s dining experience and makes the culinary experience complete. “It is a story about history and geography and culture and availability of ingredients and social class – you can tell all those stories from just what is put in front of you. And once you understand it in those terms, you really understand what that dish means.”

I had an amazing time at Macy’s kids cooking class last weekend: I learned about authentic Mexican cuisine, experienced one amazing dish, and had an enriching dialogue with Chef Rick Bayless. It was fun to see how the children reacted to his instructions, how they responded to his questions – and how many different versions of guacamole they made 😉 All in all, this was a great way to spend Saturday afternoon away from the effervescence of pre-Easter shopping, enjoying delicious food and meaningful conversations one bite/word at a time. Such a worthwhile experience ๐Ÿ™‚

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