In chapter five of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” Gustavo Arellano details an unfortunate brush with Chef Rick Bayless, a chef who has been attributed with boosting the popularity of “real” Mexican food in the U.S. During a keynote address at a fundraiser for CCNMA: Latino Journalists of California, Pulitzer-winning food critic Jonathan Gold had some strong words about Bayless.
Apparently, Bayless had claimed that he was bringing “authentic” Mexican food to Los Angeles by opening one of his restaurants, “Red O” there. Gold went on to praise cuisine that—while with no official ties to Mexico—was created by Mexican people living in California.
Arellano then goes on to detail the ensuing fallout of his mentioning this in an article (which included a response by Bayless himself, who denies that he said he was going to introduce Southern California to authentic Mexican cuisine) and an interesting interview someone had drawn his attention to:
A source directed me to an interview Bayless gave to KNBC-TV, in which he explicitly says he helped open Red O because the expert was intrigued by “how the true flavors of Mexico, from central and southern Mexico, would play in Southern California.” I updated the post—all of this on a Sunday afternoon, when few are reading—and it became a national story for a couple of days.
Bayless’ response in that interview, namely his choice to refer to central and southern Mexican food as the “true” flavors of Mexico, speaks volumes on how he views Mexico and Mexicans. As a journalism major, it’s not surprising to me at all that the story became a national topic for some time. Bayless must feel he has a strong sense of authority on this topic to essentially characterize northern Mexican food as inauthentic, as though any one individual has the final say on who or what is authentically Mexican, much less someone who is not Mexican.
While Bayless can say that he never outright says his food is authentic while food made by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who live in California is not, this quote exposes his true thoughts and outlook on Mexico, Mexicans, and Mexican-Americans. Bayless seems to consider himself an expert, but is it even possible to become an expert on a culture you have not lived? Bayless talks about how he has been treated with suspicion by Mexicans, and how “authenticity” in food is not something so easily defined. It’s clear that Bayless sees himself as some sort of gatekeeper when it comes to Mexican food. Who designated him into this position? I’m not sure.