Celebrity Chef Celebrates 30 Years In Chicago

CHICAGO (CBS) — For Chef Rick Bayless, it all started with his love affair with Mexico.

“My wife and I lived there for five years. We spent those years traveling every state in Mexico to write a book on regional Mexican cooking,” he said.

In the Spring of 1987, he and his wife opened Frontera Grill on Clark, an homage of sorts to his time south of the border. WBBM’s Lisa Fielding reports.

“I had always had a job in a restaurant, I had opened my own little catering business, but what I was really interested in was the relationship between Mexican culture and it’s food so I decided to go down that path.” he said.

Frontera made its debut in Chicago’s River North. Bayless said the neighborhood is nothing like it was back then.

“River North is now a hot spot, lots of clubs, lots of nightclub but it was not that way when we moved in 1987. It was a pretty sleazy neighborhood. It was where we could afford and put down roots,” he said. “Over the years, we’ve had an amazing change in the restaurant world in Chicago and I’m so honored to be part of this development.”

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Chef Rick Bayless now owns Frontera, Topolobampo, Xoco, Leña Brava and Cruz Blanca Brewery & Taquería (WBBM/Shannon Blum)

Five more Chicago area restaurants, 9 cookbooks and 11 seasons later of his TV show “Mexico-One Plate at at Time,” Bayless is celebrating 30 years of his cooking empire.

“I just remember being so exhausted when I opened Frontera 30 years ago. On our days off, I would sleep all day long,” he laughed. “And I thought I can’t even manage one restaurant, I couldn’t imagine any more.”

The key to his longevity?

“We change our menus in all of our restaurants every four weeks. That keeps us fresh. That sense of respect for our staff, creating a strong family atmosphere, changing the menus constantly, working with local farms it’s what’s kept us in business for 30 years.”

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Chef Rick Bayless celebrates the 30-year anniversary of Frontera. (Credit: Frontera)

Bayless said he’s most proud of his partnership with local farmers and his good food movement that began more than 20 years ago.

“When we started, there was not a single farmer’s market in Chicago. Nobody could buy from local farmers and there were only three chef-owned restaurants in Chicago. Now, most of the restaurants are chef-owned and everybody buys fresh, seasonable, sustainably raised from our local farmers and it’s a glorious place to work right now.”

The Frontera Farmer Foundation is an organization that promotes family farming and sustainable food systems.

“When we started there were no farmers we could buy from. I started looking around for farms and a lot of them didn’t have what they needed to be productive and profitable. We started investing in their farms, and they paid us back in product. We eventually made it into a 501C3 non for profit. Instead of no interest loans, we give them grants and then we buy their products,” he said. “Over the last dozen years, we’ve invested 2 million dollars in local farms through the Frontera Farmer Foundation.” Bayless said.

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Bayless is celebrating 30 years of his cooking empire with a party at the Art Institute of Chicago (WBBM/Lisa Fielding)

Bayless is throwing a big party on Sunday at the Art Institute’s Modern Wing to celebrate three decades in Chicago.

“It celebrates how far we’ve come in good food in Chicago,” he said.

The event is a joint effort of the Frontera Farmer Foundation and FamilyFarmed, a nonprofit that works with farm and food entrepreneurs to build the market for healthy, local and sustainable food. The event is the night before Chicago hosts the annual James Beard Foundation Awards Gala.

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