Rick Bayless' garden
Rick Bayless’ garden

Against the Grain Podcast | April 8, 2024

Against the Grain Bonus EP 2: Rick Bayless, The Farmers’ Chef

We just got back from Luck Reunion, a music festival held on Farm Aid President, Willie Nelson’s ranch every March. There, we talked to farmers, artists and chefs. Specifically, we spoke to superstar Chef Rick Bayless. On a new bonus episode, Chef Bayless recounts his time living in Mexico. There he noticed that if people had a strong local agricultural economy, the food in the restaurants and homes just tasted better. When he moved to Chicago he decided to replicate this model.

In this very short, appetizer episode, Rick talks about how he worked with other chefs and local farmers to organize the first farmers markets in Chicago. More than that, over the last 37 years, his Frontera Farmer Foundation has invested $3.5 million in the city’s local agricultural economy, primarily through small grants to farmers seeking to expand production.

Listen to this Bonus Episode below, and make sure to subscribe in your podcast app of choice!

Bonus Episode 2 Guest
Rick Bayless

Rick Bayless

Chef Rick Bayless

Most people know Chef Rick Bayless from winning the inaugural season of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, beating out the French and Italian with his authentic Mexican cuisine. Others know him from the twelve seasons of his highly rated Public Television series, Mexico–One Plate at a Time, which was broadcast coast to coast and has earned him multiple Daytime Emmy nominations for Best Culinary Host.
While known and lauded internationally for his TV shows, cookbooks, and philanthropy, Rick still spends most of his days in Chicago on Clark Street, continuing to spread the joy and push the boundaries of authentic Mexican cuisine with his restaurants: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, Xoco, and Bar Sótano.

Rick and his wife, Deann, founded the casual Frontera Grill in 1987 and received the James Beard Foundation’s highest award, Outstanding Restaurant, in 2007. The 4-star Toplobampo, which served its first meals in 1991, earned the Beard Foundation’s award for Outstanding Restaurant in 2017 — a unprecedented accomplishment for side-by-side restaurants. At Topolobampo, Rick has also achieved a different feat: earning and maintaining a Michelin star since the guide first came to Chicago 12 years ago.

Excited to share the whole breadth of Mexican Cuisine, Rick brought River North the fast-casual, LEED GOLD-certified Xoco in 2009. This widely popular spot serves wood-oven tortas, steaming caldos, golden churros, and bean-to-cup Mexican hot chocolate. And in 2018, Rick and his daughter Lanie opened Bar Sótano, a speakeasy-style mezcal bar with modern Mexican bar food.
Rick’s quick-service Tortas Frontera/Tortazo changed the face of food service at O’Hare International Airport, while their sister concept Tortazo is quickly multiplying through Chicago and NYC.

Rick and his staff have also dedicated themselves to changing the restaurant industry for the better, establishing the Frontera Farmer Foundation in 2003 to support small Midwestern farms. Each year, grants are awarded to farmers for capital improvements to their family farms, encouraging greater production and profitability. To date, the Foundation has awarded nearly 200 grants totaling nearly $3 million.

Rick has received a great number of James Beard Award nominations in many categories, and he has won seven: Midwest Chef of the Year, National Chef of the Year, Humanitarian of the Year, Who’s Who of American Food and Drink, Best Podcast, plus two for his cookbooks. The Government of Mexico has bestowed on Rick the Mexican Order of the Aztec Eagle–the highest decoration bestowed on foreigners whose work has benefitted Mexico and its people.

And in 2016, he earned the Julia Child Foundation Award, a prestigious honor given to “an individual who has made a profound and significant impact on the way America cooks, eats and drinks.”


Watch Videos Featured in this Episode

Willie Nelson & Family performs Lukas Nelson’s “Just Outside of Austin” at Farm Aid 2023 in Noblesville, Indiana.


Willie Nelson & Family performs “On the Road Again” at Farm Aid 2023 in Noblesville, Indiana.


Learn More About Things Mentioned in this Episode

Red Headed Stranger

“Willie Nelson & Family” documentary on Paramount+

The Luck Reunion

Episode Transcript
Click here to read the full transcript!


KURN: Hello and welcome to Against the Grain, the Farm Aid podcast. I’m Jessica Ilyse Kurn.

FOLEY: And I’m Michael Stewart Foley. This is another special bonus episode like the one we did on Farm Aid Board artist Neil Young in December.

[Willie Nelson & Family performing “Just Outside of Austin” at Farm Aid 2023 in Noblesville, Indiana.]

KURN: They’re so good. Together. That was Lucas Nelson singing just outside of Austin with his dad Farm aid, President Willie Nelson and his brother Micah Nelson at Farm Aid 2023. Last year we started with this performance because in this bonus episode, we’re taking you to the Nelson family ranch in the Texas hill country, which consequently is just outside of Austin.

FOLEY: The backdrop for this festival called, Luck Reunion, is Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch. This 500 acre ranch is centered around the old movie set that Willie used for his 1986 film, Redheaded Stranger. Yeah.

KURN: And Michael, it was my first time there and I have to say the whole setting from the expansive ranch to the movie set was pretty magical and the movie set includes an old bank building, a saloon and a one room chapel with an iconic single steeple.

FOLEY: Yeah. If you’ve seen the recent documentary Willie Nelson and family, which is out now on Paramount Plus, you’ve seen Willie and Sister Bobby performing in that chapel. You can find information on redheaded stranger and the documentary on our website at www.farmaid.org/podcast

KURN: On this particular day in March. The movie set was the central hub for this five stage day long festival. And the evening before a group of chefs headed up by Chef Michel Nischan prepared a spectacular fundraising dinner, which they called the PotLuck. This benefits a couple of nonprofit organizations including Farm Aid.

FOLEY: This year, one of the superstar chefs who prepared the potluck dinner was Rick Bayless. You may know his name. Rick does a lot of things, but he’s perhaps best known as the chef and owner of Frontera Grill in Chicago. Here he is explaining why he was participating in this event here at the Luck Ranch.

BAYLESS: My name is Rick Bayless and I’m the chef and co-owner of a handful of restaurants mostly in Chicago, and I’m here in Luck, Texas at this amazing ranch that is part movie set and part well, today, amazing stages for musicians and we’re doing this big potluck dinner for 300 people tonight. Lots of chefs have come together to make some pretty amazing food all cooked over open fires. There’s no gas hookups anywhere. So, uh it’s, it’s a style of cooking that I’m just absolutely wild about. One of the things that I have really focused on for many years is uh bringing tradition to the dining table. And I know that people are so into what’s the newest, what’s the most innovative and all of that. But the thing that nourishes our souls, I think is something that has been perfected over generations and generations

FOLEY: In talking to Rick. It was hard not to feel a strong connection because the work he does in Chicago that he started so many years ago, aligned so closely with farm aid’s efforts to build a more just food and farm system.

BAYLESS: I am a strong believer in supporting local farms because when I was living in Mexico, I discovered that whatever region I was in, if they had a really strong local agricultural economy, the food was better in the homes and the restaurants. It was always a great correlation like that. When I came back to the States after living in Mexico for five years, I discovered that Chicago really didn’t have a strong agricultural economy. So we set out to change that we had no farmers markets when our restaurant opened 37 years ago. And uh so I banded together with some chefs and we started an independent farmers market so that we could bring some of that local agricultural economy into the city. And we have developed that now into what I would say is one of the biggest farmers’ markets in the country.

KURN: That hard work paid off. The city of Chicago started to get involved and added markets throughout the city. But Rick found that the farmers didn’t have enough capital to keep up with this new customer base.

BAYLESS: And one time one of the farmers um came to visit us with a bag of spinach in January. And I was like, whoa, I mean, I think probably people know you don’t grow spinach in Chicago, in January. So where’d you get this? And he said, well, I have a hoop house and I know just the right variety of spinach to grow. And he said it freezes slightly during the night, but then the sun heats the hoop house during the day and it perks back up. Well, what happened in that sort of slight freezing and then thawing again is that the plants produced so much more sugar because sugar in the leaves will freeze solid.

And so it was the sweetest spinach I’d ever tasted. And I said to him, don’t tell any other chef in town about this spinach. I want all of this and I want twice this much. And he goes, I could never do that. I said, well, put in another hoop house. He said it’d take me five years to save enough money to put in another hoop house. And I said, what if we lend you the money to buy another hoop house and then you could pay me back in spinach next year.

So that started this no interest loan program that we developed for working with our farmers to help to make them more profitable and productive.

KURN: After five years, Rick turned that idea into a nonprofit organization that raises money and gives out grants to farmers for capital improvements.

FOLEY: Yeah, these grants are for things like fixing water systems, for new tractors, delivery vehicles and things like that. The Frontera Farmer Foundation really changed the landscape for agriculture in the Chicago metro area.

BAYLESS: This will be our 20th year with the Frontera Farmer Foundation and we have invested $3.5 million in the local agricultural economy. And we have done that in small grants, almost all of them between 10 and $15,000 because that’s the kind of investment that kick start. So many of these farmers had a number of years and at the same time, keeps them on the land, I will tell you that if you talk to the family, farmers around the Chicago land area, they will speak super highly about the fact that they never would have been able to be as productive as they are without an investment or maybe two or three investments from the Frontera farmer found because we just have their best interest at heart. And of course, in our restaurants, we use their product. We believe very much as farm aid does in paying a livable wage to these farmers through a, a decent price for their stuff. We’re not trying to undercut people and we work very very closely with a number of farms that are just like our family and around the Chicago land area.

FOLEY: It’s hard to fully describe the importance of this kind of work. Rick and his foundation are transforming a local farm and food economy. This moves us away from a dependence on industrial scale agriculture. It also pays farmers a fair price and brings better quality food to all of our tables. If you want to learn more about our time at the luck reunion, see photos and learn more about everything we’ve discussed in this episode including Rick Bayliss Frontera Farmer Foundation. Go to our website www.farmaid.org/podcast.

KURN: Have you been to one of Rick Bayless restaurants? If so, tell us about it by either emailing us at podcast@Farmaid.org or by contacting us on Farm Aid social media. We’re on lots of platforms like Instagram, Facebook and X.

FOLEY: If you haven’t listened to the full episodes of Against The Grain, you can find those on our website or in your favorite podcast app and please don’t forget to subscribe. It helps our podcast out tremendously.

KURN: This bonus episode of Against The Grain was written and produced by us with sound editing by Endhouse Media. Many thanks as always to Micah Nelson for composing and performing our awesome theme music.

FOLEY: Next month, we’ll be back with another full episode. Thank you for listening and thanks to all the farmers and chefs out there doing the good work.

KURN: We’ll leave you now with another 2023 performance from Willie Nelson & Sons. The full video is up on our YouTube and on our website. Here is “On the Road Again” because that’s where you’ll find Willie for much of the rest of the year. Check out his tour dates at Willienelson.com

[Willie Nelson & Family performs “On the Road Again” at Farm Aid 2023 in Noblesville, Indiana.]

Special thanks to our founding partner, Patagonia Workwear.


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