December 6, 2011
Why Cascabel? By Rick Bayless
In my early twenties, I had an epiphany. I was in graduate school toiling my way toward what I’d hoped would become a professorship in anthropology and linguistics. I thought my complete fascination with the way culture expresses itself through language would never fade, when I suddenly found the kitchen consuming way more of my attention than the library. I was confused and conflicted until I woke up to one important truth: I was learning as much about cultures by recreating their spicing and cooking methods as I had by studying the way they string together words. The kitchen was becoming my unique and comfortable window to culture. And for that, I had a head start: I’d grown up working in my family’s barbeque restaurant in Oklahoma City, and I understood first-hand how food reflects the history and geography of a place. I had seen how food binds people together with a sense of regional pride. Especially barbeque.
But after several years of this culinary cultural exploration, I recognized that I wasn’t attracted to just any culture. I’d done my undergraduate work in Spanish language and literature and Latin American studies, and Mexico felt more like a spiritual and culinary home to me than anywhere else on the planet. More than the barbeque pits I’d grown up with, more than the gastronomic Meccas of France and Italy, China or Japan. I found Mexico’s confluence of cultures—Indigenous, Spanish, African, French, Japanese, Chinese—rich with flavor and fascination. The country’s wildly diverse regional cuisines blended with that legendary hospitality and effervescent spirit of fiesta became my obsession.
So I started down a different career path than I’d ever imagined, that of free-lance culinary anthropologist in Mexico. For five years, I worked on turning my research into a people-and-places-focused cookbook, one that illuminated the real food of Mexico for a popular American audience.
Yet, no matter how clearly I detailed ingredients and procedures, I found my recipes—in fact, the whole medium of recipe writing— imprecise at best. I was worried that they still weren’t tasting how delicious the real food of Mexico can be.
So I opened a restaurant in Chicago, a spot where my wife’s family had roots, even though I’d never owned a restaurant before or even worked in one in Chicago. But I was dead-set on creating a restaurant that showcased the real regional specialties of Mexico, most of which had never been heard of in the United States. There was certainly no culinary school I could attend that would teach me how to translate these dishes from rustic and homey village recipes to restaurant-worthy preparations that an American clientele could understand. That’s what I’d have to do on my own—without losing the heart and soul of the originals.
Twenty–five years ago, when my wife, Deann, and I started serving guests at Frontera, I began my real education about food’s full potential in people’s lives.
From those who passed through our dining room I began to hear stories of how the flavor of a Frontera dish had brought more than momentary pleasure, more than mere entertainment. At one table, I’d hear that the flavor of a mole so reminded one diner of her departed grandmother’s specialty that she’d been swept into a flood of joyous memories. She’d learned the laborious preparation in her grandmother’s kitchen, and mastering the final seasonings made her feel fully Mexican.
At another table, diners talked of sensing a perfect union with terrain and season—with place and time—as they ate dishes made from ripe local produce. They felt satisfied in a different way, they said, than when eating typical grocery-store fruits and vegetables.
There was a guy who chose Frontera as his go-to date restaurant because the food and drinks were so sexy—so gutsy, vibrant and spicy. Nowadays, he and his wife celebrate their wedding anniversary with us.
Thankfully, those comments of deliciousness, connections to place and time, to personal history, to love and life were frequent (and welcome). It was comments from another group of guests, however, that I found enigmatic. Those were the comments of transformation. For some, the dishes they enjoyed seemed to serve as a catalyst for near-magic at the table, for an unforgettable and profound connection between those who’d gathered to share the meal. For others, all it took was a few bites for them to feel they had unexpected intimacy with a culture they’d only known as a casual acquaintance.
Still, for others, the experience was even more personal and transformative. The flavors and textures they encountered opened doors of comprehension and emotion that touched them deeply—on occasion moving them to tears. Food can do that, just as theater, music, literature, sculpture and painting can. At least I believe it can.
In Cascabel, we are casting food as a main character. And by taking this bold step, we are inviting our audience (or are they our guests?) to open themselves up to the ways food can touch us—just as we open ourselves to any character— and to fully experience that potential through taste and texture. As most of us have experienced in our lives, food’s character is multifaceted—sometimes opening doors of understanding to culture, people and place, sometimes offering unexpected exhilaration, hopefully transforming many through its natural beauty.
Can food—does food—have as much potential for emotional impact as other art forms? That is the question Cascabel explores.
Providing the full experience of a meal to our audience in Cascabel—rather than simply having actors perform the experience—offers a few challenges. Typically, when you’re experiencing most any form of art—imagine yourself at a concert or play, in a museum or reading a piece of literature—you’re entire focus is captivated by the musicians or actors, the paintings or words on the page. You’ve opened a door for yourself up to experience feelings, to broaden your horizons, perhaps see life or nature or people in a new light. That’s true In Cascabel, too, though we ask our audience to move their attention to the food itself—to give the dish in front of them the opportunity for its “solo.” As the characters in Cascabel turn their attention to what they’re eating, having their own unique experiences with each dish, we invite our audience to taste and do the same.
It is my hope that this will lead us toward developing a new vocabulary to describe the flavors and textures of food, allowing those descriptions to transcend the physical and mundane. When “tangy” and “soft” become “racy” and “voluptuous,” we’ve taken a step toward thinking of food in other terms.