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National Restaurant Association - Celeb chef Bayless: Heart of sustainability is community

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Celeb chef Bayless: Heart of sustainability is community

For Rick Bayless, the story of his journey toward food sustainability is a personal one that has passed the test of time, more relevant today than it was some 26 years ago.

The celebrity chef, owner of such Chicago stalwarts as Frontera Grill, Topolobampo and Xoco Mexican restaurants, recently recounted at the NRA Show his start in the industry and how the origins of food would become important to his success as a restaurateur.

“When I started back in 1987, I had just moved here from living in Mexico … and we had just opened Frontera [Grill] in Chicago,” he said.

“We didn’t use the word sustainability at all back then, but something was amiss to me because almost all of the top chefs here were not relating anything at all that they did to the local community. They were saying things like they got their ingredients from the most far-flung places you could imagine and that your experience at their restaurants was going to be a rarified one because they had gone to such extremes to get those things. In Mexico, it was completely the opposite. They talked about how food related directly to the people in the towns and what types of dishes had developed there from that food.”

Bayless told a group of attendees at a May 19 NRA Show education session on sustainability and the food chain that after growing up around his father’s barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City and his time in Mexico, the foundation of his own cooking style was immersed in local flavors and foods and he could not find any of that in Chicago in the 1980s.

“I grew up [around] a barbecue restaurant in Oklahoma City that was all about local flavor and local ingredients,” he said. “When I was a kid, I’d go to the commercial market, but it was really a very large farmer’s market. But here, I couldn’t find anything local. “Over about the next five years, I began to understand there were things people could grow for us and we could begin to develop some kind of Chicago flavor. But it was going to be an uphill battle.”

Over the years, he said, working with small, local farmers and producers led him to discover that they didn’t have enough resources to produce the amount of food he needed to supply his restaurants. He realized there was something he could do about it.

“Eventually, a fellow came to us with this amazing spinach,” he recalled. “It happened to be Feb. 15, and he had this spinach in Chicago. Those of you who have spent any time in Chicago in the winter know that this is not the time to expect any kind of spinach. He discovered a type he could grow in an unheated hoop house and he was going to grow this stuff if we wanted it. I said not only did we want it, but we wanted as much of it as he could get us. Suddenly I had this unique flavor. It was sweeter than normal spinach and it was so much a flavor I associate with here. This fellow said he couldn’t grow much of it because he didn’t have enough money to build another hoop house. We decided to invest in it for him and he paid us back in spinach the next year.”

To Bayless, that was the beginning of creating a community.

“For us, that developed into a no-interest loan program that we ran for a few years where we had a few thousand dollars our farmers could borrow and they could pay us back in product in a year if it was something that we needed,” he said. “We eventually turned it into something called the Frontera Farmers Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides small capital improvement grants to local family farms.”

Over the last 10 years, the foundation has given out $1.2 million in small grants, he said, and as a result, a “really strong, local agriculture, like the one I’d experienced in Mexico” has gotten off the ground.

“To me, it’s about bringing community together. I look at what we do in our restaurants as being something bigger than just providing nutrition for people. Clearly, we all have to eat to live, but we don’t have to eat out to live.”
Bayless said people dine out to feel certain experiences that are bigger and better than just what is on the plate.

“We take our role as community catalysts very strongly here, and by helping to develop this system of local agriculture, we fell like were able to bring sustainability to our community in the sense that, yes, we used less petroleum to bring the things in and yes, more organic stuff was available. But sustainability in the way we think of it has more to do with bring the community together. Once we invested in the local agriculture we had more product, and more product meant more farmers’ markets. I think we can all agree that today, the local farmers’ market has taken the place of the old town square, where we used to rub shoulders with people you didn’t always see, but shared topics of conversation with,” he said.

He added that the farmers’ market also became the place where “we connect with people who give us the things we need to stay alive and once you’ve made that connection, with those people who supply your food, you begin to ask different questions about bigger issues you might be scared about. The issues we ask about become very different when you’re having a conversation with someone who is directly supplying food for you.”

Bayless noted that being a restaurateur is also being a community catalyst – and a story teller.

“Those of us who have independent restaurants – really anyone, whether you’re an independent restaurateur or part of a chain – you have the opportunity to tell stories,” he said. “When a restaurateur grabs hold of the role of storyteller and starts telling about where the food is coming from and how you can connect with people in your community who have supplied some of it, suddenly the restaurateur takes on a role that is, to me, sort of the a ground level of real sustainability.”

Still, Bayless said, his restaurants’ sustainability program “is incredibly deep and complicated. We’re a green-certified restaurant and have a LEED certified build-out at one of our restaurants. We take it all very seriously. For me, all of these things are an expression of who we think we are as a restaurant.”

Pictured, top left: Rick Bayless at home in Chicago

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