A red-dirt colored, two-story building stands on the northeast corner at SW 25 and Western, where one of the most celebrated chefs in the world got the foundation for his culinary training. The intersection was one of the busiest in town when John and Levita Bayless opened the Hickory House there in 1949. "We opened with money in the register and our inventory, that’s it,” Levita Anderson said. "We served three generations of customers in that building.” Their son Rick last week was crowned Top Chef Master on Bravo’s competition between some of the world’s finest chefs. Bayless, 55, has won numerous awards but said the latest was more personal. "If I needed garlic, I had to peel it myself,” he said after the show Aug. 19. "I really had to rely on my own experience and my own creativity to succeed. I haven’t had to do that in a really long time.” Without the Hickory House, there likely would have been no Frontera Grill, Topolobampo or Xoco. No line of Frontera Foods, six cookbooks or six seasons of "Mexico: One Plate at a Time.” By now, Bayless likely would be a professor of linguistic anthropology. His passion for food is only exceeded by his passion to succeed, a trait he says he and his siblings inherited from their mother.
A family operationLevita Bayless raised three wildly successful children. She worked at a bank out of college, was PTA president at Northwest Classen High School in the 1960s, took up golf at age 50 and went on to record three holes-in-one and ran the restaurant for 12 years on her own. Levita says her children got their intellect from their father, who died in 1975. "John was extremely intelligent,” she said. "He had a mind for engineering. Any equipment he couldn’t find, he built.” A Hickory House ad from June 1952 reads: "John, Levita & John Jr. invite you to take home a feast for 2.” The feast included a pound of ribs, a half-pint of beans, potato salad or slaw and sauce for $1.70 — prepared while you wait. Rick Bayless was still about 18 months from birth when that deal was available. John Jr. was a toddler and would never be drawn to the family business or even maintain the name John Jr. His dad called him Skipper, Skip for short. "Skip never cared anything about food,” Levita said. "But Rick just had such a passion for it. I always tell people I’ve got one son who lives to eat and another who eats to live.” Skip Bayless is one of the most successful sportswriters in the country. He’s worked across the country and appears on ESPN’s "First Take” and "1st and Ten.” Rick tested out of his senior year of high school and earned a degree in Spanish cultural studies from the University of Oklahoma by age 20. LuAnn is a national board-certified special-education teacher who has been in the Edmond school system for years, and whispers abound that she might be the best cook in the Bayless brood. "LuAnn makes delicious food,” Levita said. "She’s a better cook than Rick,” said Andy Anderson, Levita’s husband of more than 30 years. "She worked with Rick a year at Frontera, and he tried to get her to stay with him, but she wanted to get back to her teaching.”
Viva MexicoBefore Bayless left high school, he ran the catering arm of the family business. The load was heavy, but the labor served him well. He used those skills while in grad school at the University of Michigan to open a catering business. He 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 GrillWhile 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 homeRick 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 MasterLevita 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.