While all of Chicago was focused on its hockey team hoisting the Stanley Cup, one of Chicago's most celebrated chefs was focused on feeding a lucky group from his hometown to raise money for Oklahoma communities still recovering from a furious and deadly storm season.
On Monday, Oklahoma City native chef Rick Bayless joined the OK Chefs Relief effort by opening three pop-up restaurants to more than 1,000 people and raised at least $40,000, though final numbers won't be available until at least Thursday.
In coming home, Bayless not only helped raise money for fellow Oklahomans in dire need, but galvanized the local chefs' community and got a day named for him in the process.
Bayless was quick to tell anyone who would listen how this event ranked at the very top of events he's ever been associated with.
“You have a team of chef pros in this town that are second to none,” he told the crowd in The Tasting Room.
The message was clear: Oklahoma City's dining community is buoyed by chefs and hospitality professionals who are to be congratulated for their achievement and celebrated for their talent, dedication and ambitious creativity.
Bayless and the local chefs received a standing ovation from both rooms at the Will Rogers Theatre complex, and rightly so. June 24, 2013, was not only Rick Bayless Day, but the day Oklahoma hospitality graduated.
The first pop-up was a downtown event based on Bayless' Xoco concept, an homage to Mexican street food. Chefs Jonathon Stranger, Russ Johnson, Josh Valentine, Marc Dunham, Kyle Mills, Chris Becker and many other local chefs joined Bayless on the east pavilion of Leadership Square to serve three kinds of tacos to about 800 people for a minimum donation of $10 per person.
Chef Kathryn Mathis of Big Truck Tacos was integral in helping the team source ingredients for the Bayless-inspired concepts.
The second and third pop-ups were shepherded by chef Kurt Fleischfresser and his team from The Coach House Apprenticeship Program, and the Tasting Room. Chefs David Henry and Matt Johnson rode herd with help from chefs Kamala Gamble and Barbara Mock.
Forty guests paid $500 a person to join Bayless for a Topolobampo-style service in The Tasting Room, where he demonstrated how to prepare guacamole and margaritas. Guests in this pop-up also received a signed copy of Bayless' book “Frontera Margarita, Guacamoles and Snacks” and a five-course dinner.
The third pop-up, based on his flagship Frontera Grill, seated 240 guests, who paid $60 a person for a family-style dinner by Bayless in the Will Rogers Theatre auditorium. Bayless addressed the crowd before each course to rousing applause. If you weren't sure whether people still watched public television, one need look no further than this event.
The food was a series of dishes based on the authentic, interior Mexican food for which Bayless has become known. It was Oaxacan black mole that earned him the title of the first “Top Chef Master,” and it was Puebla-style mole he served Monday night.
Dessert included a chocolate pastry made with mesquite seeds, a tres leches cake from chefs Gamble and Mock, and two other nutty pastries from Bayless. The meal was part education and all delicious. The number of smiling guests was outnumbered only by the dollars they donated to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma to deliver for storm recovery.
Behind the scenes
There is no way the English language has the words nor The Oklahoman has the ink available for me to explain what an extraordinary effort it took to produce this event in a couple of weeks. Kurt Fleischfresser might have been the second- or even third-hardest working Fleischfresser at this event. His daughter, Allie, juggled a list second only to Santa's in length to pull off the OK Chefs Relief's latest magic trick. Kurt's son, Kyle, managed beverage service, which is a heckuva lot more than shaking cocktails when it comes to an enormous charity event.
Angel Stork and Ben Miller made sure guests not only had stellar service but plenty to see and listen to as the pop-ups progressed. Christie Luna of Glazer's worked the bar at no charge for the Tasting Room portion. Every server was working for charity, every bartender was pouring for free.
Sous chefs and student chefs stepped up and donated their sweat and precious weekend time to make sure the event came off. Tracy Zeeck of Bumbershoot Public Relations did the work of 10 people and kept her sense of humor to the end.
It was the sort of effort that reminds us how things can be when we all work together toward a common goal.
The man of the hour
After the applause died down and as dessert neared, Ward 6 City Councilwoman Meg Salyer presented Bayless a proclamation from the mayor's office that the day was Rick's. An emotional Bayless thanked his wife, Deann, and chef Jim Ortiz who accompanied him and were integral in the success of the event. He also took one more opportunity to shine a light on the professionalism and talent of Oklahoma City's dining community.
But Oklahoma City's chefs were only able to shine before such a large and enthusiastic audience because of the accomplishments of Bayless, whose road to celebrity is paved with accomplishments.
He is the author of eight cookbooks, with a ninth nearly completed, and the star of the long-running PBS series “Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” His Frontera products are international successes. The three restaurants he based the pop-ups on are among the most successful, not only in Chicago but across the country.
And the foundation for his success in the restaurant business was laid on the northeast corner of SW 25th and Western Avenue, where his parents owned and operated the Hickory House from 1949 to 1986. He grew up in the restaurant and was forever digging into the mise en place to present what would affectionately be called one of “little Ricky's creations.”
“I learned at an early age that no matter what I put together would be saved by covering with cheese and running it under the broiler,” he said. “Ironically, people in this country think of Mexican food as food that's buried under melted cheese, but the truth is in Mexico, there is almost nothing covered in melted cheese.”
His interest in Mexico started at an early age, ultimately inspiring him to book a family vacation to Mexico when he was barely a teenager. After graduation from Northwest Classen High School and the University of Oklahoma by age 20, Bayless was off to the University of Michigan to work on a doctorate in anthropological linguistics.
Bayless has said growing up in a family that took pride in being the gatekeeper of a regional cuisine like barbecue helped him gain appreciation for cultures defined by their food. And he found that in spades while living in Mexico for five years as a newlywed with Deann.
Sprinkle in the determination and dedication to doing things correctly he clearly gets from his mother, and you've got the formula for a celebrity chef.
Bayless arrived Sunday to join the OK Chefs Relief effort, breaking away early from a trip to the “Food and Wine” Classic in Aspen, Colo., and met chefs at both The Tasting Room and The Francis Tuttle School of Culinary Arts.
“The school of Francis Tuttle is among the most spectacular I've ever seen,” he said while we walked through the halls. “I just came from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) and it's quite a bit older, but they did just do some remodeling and upgrading but nothing like this.”
Bayless said Sunday he was inspired to come to the aid of the tornado-stricken communities by the first OK Chefs Relief effort over the Memorial Day weekend.
“As soon as I heard about the first event, I wanted to do something to help,” Bayless said.
And help he did. Bayless' celebrity and meticulous approach inspired his fans to donate enough to help the OK Chefs Relief fund to balloon to a total nearing $125,000.
Celebrity chefs Danny Bowien and Bayless have come home to inspire generosity and culinary artistry in the wake of deadly and devastating tornadoes. The chefs here have responded with an effort that someday will be looked upon not only as an inspiring act of charity but the foundation upon which Oklahoma City's culinary personality was formed.
Congratulations to those who were involved directly and those involved in maintaining a high level of food service in the market that made OK Chefs Relief possible.
As soon as I heard about the first event, I wanted to do something to help.”
Chef Rick Bayless,