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Rick Bayless, Under Fire

Rick Bayless, Under Fire

Christopher Borrelli | Chicago Tribune

Rick Bayless moves without a word from the kitchen of his new restaurant to the counter. He stands before a torta resting in a shallow pool of tomato broth. He leans in, grabs the two halves of the sandwich that has been placed standing on end, and presses on the thick pieces of bread, pushing the carnitas and black beans and pickled onions together. He does this to concentrate the flavors, and he does this because it’s a torta and if you order a sandwich and the filling has toppled out and the bread slid from its foundation, you wouldn’t think highly of your torta. He does this gently and though he does it without a word, he does it with more intensity and irritation than he has all afternoon. You would have to watch closely, for many hours, before noticing the slightest sign of a fissure in his bright, energetic composure. Nonetheless, it is happening.

Rick Bayless is starting to fray.

“No, no,” he says to himself, pressing another torta together.

Things are unraveling.

It is 2:35 p.m. on a Thursday. The line at his new restaurant, Xoco, which is committed to Mexican street food, is out of the door and down Illinois Street. At 3 p.m., the menu will switch from tortas and Mexican snacks to caldos, or soups, which means the assembly line of cooks behind the counter needs to prepare for the switch, which means doing things they don’t have time to do because the line is not easing. Which means tortas are starting to come out wrong, and the floor behind the counter is getting dirty. Despite their ubiquitous mutter of “Behind you,” cooks are banging into one another. A chef from Bayless’ Frontera Grill, next door, wants to assure him that new pans were ordered. A television crew from WGN stops by. A reporter from Univision wants to talk. Then a photographer from Zagat.

He looks dizzy.

So, without a word, Bayless wipes his hands on his apron and abandons his post alongside his cooks, most of whom are not that used to having the boss, let alone a celebrity chef who draws intent stares from customers, cooking alongside them all day.

Bayless walks with his head down through a side door connecting Xoco with Frontera Grill, his first restaurant, which opened in 1987 and eventually spun off a line of jarred salsas, a cookbook empire, a PBS series, etc. There, his wife, Deann, is sitting at the bar with his longtime manager, Jen Fite. He says they are stopping. For maybe 15 minutes. Just to reboot. “It’s tenuous over there!” he says in a harsh whisper. Heads crane in his direction. Then, softer, he says: “This is the first time since opening we started serving crap! I’m letting crap clear that counter. Because we cannot keep up.”