Fans flock to celebrity chef

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Posted by on December 14, 2008 at 23:38:33:

Fans flock to celebrity chef's Madison appearance
Susan Troller � 12/14/2008 11:48 am

It's hard work being a celebrity chef, but Chicago superstar Rick Bayless makes both parts of his job -- celebrity and chef -- look almost effortless.

Bayless, whose highly regarded Windy City restaurants, Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, are said to be the favorite dining spots of President-elect Barack Obama, was in Madison Saturday.

He greeted throngs of fans and helped raise money for Wisconsin Public Television at a book signing at a grocery store and a chi-chi, invitation-only evening reception at Nolan Shores where he entertained more than a hundred guests with a cooking demonstration and lively commentary about the culinary life.

As he showed his technique for roasting chiles, he said there were several dishes he was identifying as the president-elect's top choice.

"I say, 'Oh, yeah, that's Barack's favorite.' I'm getting quite a bit of mileage out of that these days," he joked.

The acclaimed Chicago chef is the author of six cookbooks and the star of the public television show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, which airs locally on WHA-TV on Saturday and Sunday.

Beginning shortly before 2 p.m. on Saturday, a constant stream of fans at Metcalfe's Sentry at Hilldale queued up to get Bayless's autograph on both new and well-used cookbooks. For over an hour and a half, the chef steadily signed books as more than 150 star-struck home cooks praised his restaurants, and raved about the meals they had made following his recipes. Proceeds from the book sales and a pledge drive led by Bayless earlier in the day raised over $10,000 for public television here.

Clearly an accomplished multi-tasker, Bayless remained engaged and enthusiastic as he discussed culinary questions and deftly chatted with fans about the pleasures of cooking and eating, rarely wavering as he wrote.

At the evening reception, hosts Tim Metcalfe of Sentry and Rich Lepping, president of the board of the Friends of Wisconsin Public Television, thanked Bayless for his efforts on behalf of public TV here, and described a dinner at Topolobampo where they first met the star chef two years ago.

"We had this fantastic meal, and asked our server if we could meet Rick. The answer wasn't 'Oh, let me check,' it was simply a yes. Twenty minutes later, he was at our table. He is just so impressive," Metcalfe said.

Beverly Armstrong, a retired interior designer who was at Saturday evening's reception, said she and her husband have made a point for years of eating at either Frontera Grill or Topolobampo every time they are in Chicago. On Saturday night, she brought her well-used copy of Bayless's first cookbook, published in 1987, to the reception to get his autograph.

When she showed her copy of "Authentic Mexican: Regional Cooking from the Heart of Mexico" to Bayless, complete with the extra notations and reminders about technique or ingredients that are the hallmark of a serious cook, she said he seemed genuinely pleased.

"He is the nicest man and so real," she said. She said she had talked with him about a complex recipe for making a mole sauce that was a failure when she first attempted it. Based on her description, Bayless knew where she had gone wrong.

"He told me I had cooked the chiles too long. It's a thrill to talk with him," she said.

Bill Warner, a Belleville area farmer from Snug Haven Farm, was also at Saturday's evening reception and is an equally devoted Bayless fan.

Warner and his wife, Judy Hageman, are producers of premium quality produce, including spinach they supply to Bayless and his Chicago dining rooms year-round.

"Rick does so much for farmers," Warner said. "Both he and Tory Miller (of Madison's L'Etoile) are just unbelievably supportive. They've both brought their own staff people to actually work at our farm."

Warner went on to say that Bayless and his wife, Deann, have set up the Frontera Farmer Foundation out of their concern for struggling farmers. The Foundation's purpose is to recognize the importance of local producers to the success and vitality of the Chicago culinary culture, and support the skilled farmers who make it possible. It provides capital grants to farmers who need them.

"Great food, like all art, enhances and reflects a community's vital growth and solidarity, yet history bears witness that great cuisines spring only from healthy local agriculture," Bayless wrote on his Web site (

"Obviously, he completely gets the link between farms and fine food." Warner added.

(The Capital Times)

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