also met his future wife and collaborator, Deann, in Ann Arbor.
"Let me tell you,” Levita said, "Deann has been his partner all the way in all his ventures.”
Rick and Deann moved to Mexico for field work on his dissertation but came back with a new plan. Levita remembers the day Rick told her he loved Mexico, its people and culture but wanted to share the food.
Hickory House to Frontera Grill
While working in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late 1970s, Rick hosted a 26-part series for PBS called "Cooking Mexican.” The success of the series motivated him to return to Mexico to immerse himself in Mexican cuisine and culinary techniques from 1980-86.
The couple settled in Chicago, close to Deann’s family, seeking to open their own restaurant. He reached out to the person in the restaurant business he trusted most: his mom.
"He didn’t have a lot of backing, so I went up there to help. I was scrubbing floors, you name it. At one point, Rick said, ‘Mother, why don’t you go over there and paint a circle on the wall so we can hang a picture?’ I told him, ‘You know I don’t paint.’ And he said, ‘Well, you do now.’”
The restaurant opened in January 1987, less than a year after the Hickory House shuttered for good.
Later that year, Rick’s cookbook "Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking From the Heart of Mexico,” was published. The floodgates haven’t closed since.
Never far from home
Rick has never pulled up his Oklahoma roots. He’s served here on health initiatives and done guest-chef appearances at the Metro and Coach House restaurants.
"I’ve been lucky enough to meet quite a few ‘celebrity chefs,’ ” Coach House chef Kurt Fleischfresser said. "Rick is in a small group of genuinely great chefs. His passion, personality and generosity exceed all of his peers.”
Bayless visits at least once a year and is typically taken from the airport directly to Johnnie’s Charcoal Broiler. Once he’s had his burger, fries and onion rings, the visit can commence.
Levita has been celebrating her birthday at Chris Lower’s Metro Wine Bar and Bistro for years. But for her 80th birthday in 2006, Rick wanted to do something special.
"He told me, ‘Mom, I know we can’t bring all your friends to Chicago, but I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You make a list of 180 guests, and I’ll bring Frontera to you,” Levita recalled.
Bayless leased the Metro Bistro for the night, brought a sous chef and all the food for a party that lasted six hours.
"I was so touched,” Levita said. "He’s just such a sweet boy.”
Top Chef Master
Levita said she received calls from people she hadn’t heard from in years the night the Bravo program aired. "We thought Rick deserved to win,” she said. "But we’re a little prejudiced.”
As was most every Oklahoman. Business was more brisk than usual for a Wednesday night at Iguana Mexican Grill, 9 NW 9, where chef Ryan Parrott hosted a watch party for the finale. Parrott said he believed Iguana was a natural spot for the occasion.
"This place wouldn’t exist without Rick Bayless,” Parrott said. "I’m so happy he won. Rick has always been an idol of mine. He makes beautiful food, respects the culture of Mexico, and how cool is it that he’s from Oklahoma City?”
How cool, indeed.