At Bayless vs. Douglas Chef Challenge, The Audience Wins

Leslie Kelly
Chef Tom Douglas and Rick Bayless challenge

It was billed as a “Chef Challenge,” but this spirited session focusing on cooking with Negra Modelo cerveza was no smackdown between superstar chefs. The crowd that filled the Palace Ballroom on Thursday--a lively bunch that included out-of-town bloggers, as well as local industry and media types--might have been expecting a heated Top Chef-style competition between Tom Douglas and Rick Bayless.

Instead, it was more of a warm-and-fuzzy fest, with jokes and playful barbs and tons of tasty cooking tips, moderated by Thierry Rautureau. (Next time you run into the Chef in the Hat, have him tell you the one about the golden pig!)

We learned that Bayless, the undisputed king of regional Mexican cuisine at his three Chicago restaurants and on long-running series on PBS, fell in love with that country’s cooking traditions during his first trip there at age 14. “I felt like I had come home,” he said.

Bayless shared some valuable lessons he’s learned over the years from home cooks and street vendors, especially in the not-so-touristy interior parts of the country. (Loved the suggestion to blacken tomatoes, garlic and peppers on a piece of foil on a dry skillet. No more burned pans!)

Tommy D treated us to a blast from the past, creating the black bean soup he first created at Café Sport, a deeply flavorful dish that was built on a smoky ham hock simmered in beer-spiked chicken stock. But the genius part came at the end. A crabby salsa finished the dish. Oh my. GOODNESS!

We also learned that beer makes sauteed mushrooms, assorted shellfish and chocolate ice cream taste even better, that it’s not really necessary to soak dried beans, especially if you cook them in beer, and that cinnamon, cloves and black pepper are a magical seasoning combo. (Just don’t use the standard cinnamon sticks from the supermarket, but seek out those from Mexico.)

And while you’re shopping for authentic, exotic ingredients, keep your eyes peeled for dried morita chilies, which add a sweet, smoky quality to sauces.

As the appreciative spectators ate the vibrantly seasoned pork tacos made by Bayless and savored the wonderful black bean soup prepared by the hometown chef, the winner of this Chef Challenge was clear: It was the lucky ducks sitting in the audience.