Top Chef Master Rick Bayless has recipe for success

DAVE CATHEY Modified: August 26, 2009 at 4:29 pm •  Published: August 26, 2009
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 operation
Levita 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 Mexico
Before 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.

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