(Editor's note: This is a longer version of a story that appeared in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday features section.)
Deann Groen Bayless has spent nearly three decades in the Chicago restaurant business and says she has never felt dismissed or disrespected for being a woman. She offers three reasons: an ability to align herself with "good people" who respect her, being confident in what she does and just not worrying about it.
"You know how when you're fearful of something, you can attract it?" Bayless adds. "I still get, 'Are you the wife?' I say, 'Yeah.' It just doesn't bug me."
She is married to Rick Bayless, one of the most famous and telegenic chefs in the U.S. But the 64-year-old is much more than this. Married in 1979, they have been a professional team for much of the time since. They are founding partners in the iconic Frontera Grill, which opened in 1987, and two other Chicago restaurants, Topolobampo and Xoco, as well as the Frontera Foods company, which produces a line of grocery products and operates two quick-service restaurants.
Bayless' name is on all eight of her husband's cookbooks for her editorial contributions, and she's the producer of his long-running PBS series, "Mexico: One Plate at a Time." She has mentored many restaurateurs, notably through leadership roles with the national organization Women Chefs & Restaurateurs. She's administrator of the Frontera Farmer Foundation, which assists small, sustainable farms in the Chicago area. And she's a mom: The couple's daughter, Lanie, 22, is an event planner in New York City.
Living and working mostly out of the spotlight suits her. "I have no desire to say, 'Me too. Me too. I'm important too.' It's just not in my personality," she says.
Our recent conversation has been edited for space.
Q: Am I right in assuming you are the organizational glue that holds all of this together?
A: Yes, that's pretty much it.
Our personalities absolutely just blend. (Rick) is the creative force. I love the creative force. I love being part of it. I love being drawn with it. I love contributing my ideas to it. But … I'm a producer type. I plan things, organize things, schedule things. I'm really good at big-picture thinking. We've always worked together. We consult each other on each area of business, but we respect each other's talents.
The other thing is, the money is under my jurisdiction. And creative types can spend a lot of money. It's the joke now they have to get it past Deann. I'm all for spending money and making things better all the time, but I do have my limits. That's a good balance too.
Q: Your official biography says you took an "unexpected turn into the world of good food." Your undergraduate degree was in English language and literature at Wheaton College, and you have graduate degrees in English and theater from the University of Michigan. Where were you expecting life to take you?
A: I had a teaching certificate, so I taught English in a school for American kids in Taiwan at the height of the Vietnam War. It was a really interesting (time) to be there. I had finished my master's and then gone to Asia. My sister and her husband were Protestant missionaries, and this school was run by Protestant missionaries and the military. (I) worked in this school for one year.
I fell in love with Ann Arbor (Mich.), where I did my graduate year. I ended up as an administrative assistant in a church. I did that for five or six years, and that's where I got really interested in theater and the theatrical aspects of worship. I decided to go back and study theater because I didn't know much about it. Shortly after that was when personal computers were just starting to open up, and people were using them in their businesses, and I discovered I had a marketable skill. I was a technical writer. I did that for a few years. … Rick and I had known each other, but that's when we started dating. We knew each other through this church. That's when we started dating and got married.
Q: Any advice for women in the restaurant industry?
A: You can be nurturing; you can be strong at the same time. You can be a leader. You don't have to take the traditional male model and use it. You can do it all through your own personalities, whatever they may be. And, also, one of the obviously big problems for women is, what about children in this picture? There are as many solutions as there are people. Just be creative about it.
Q: Is there anything you do that might surprise people?
A: I like to watch "Friends." The reruns. I love it. I usually fall asleep watching it on my iPad. It's silly and sweet and fun. It makes me laugh.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I'm now (into) strong woman historical mysteries. It's a genre. I have dubbed it that. I love Jacqueline Winspear, and I love Tasha Alexander, but then I pepper it with other stuff too. I love Alexander McCall Smith and both his Africa series and his Scotland series. I love characters. I love to get involved in stories.
Q: It sounds as if reading is what you do to find inspiration.
A: Yep, I read a lot when I'm looking for (inspiration). But I'm really interested in spirituality, not religion. I grew up in a very religious family. I know the Protestant world backward and forward. I went to Protestant grade school, high school and college.
Q: What spiritual themes interest you?
A: I've read a lot of Buddhism, and I still read a lot of Christian stuff. I'm interested in this whole thing of meditation and being focused, being open to the moment and to the connection to the greater universe, God, whatever word you want to give it.
Q: Do you find it translates to life, to work?
A: Yes, totally. I feel it's all a whole. It's a big circle. This is the other thing I'm a real big believer in. If you get something good, then you just give back.
Q: How did you know Rick and the culinary world were for you?
A: I loved food. More than just loving food I loved entertaining. I lived in Ann Arbor all through my 20s and became known for my dinner parties. I didn't know how little I knew but I just knew I loved it. I was brazen. I just did it. I don't know how good the food was but I loved setting a beautiful table and having everyone come. I was throwing a party for a friend's 30th birthday, someone in our circle of friends. Somebody else had said they could pay for it because he had a good job. He said he'd buy the ingredients and I said I would throw the party. I had a very ambitious plan and thank God my roommate was there and knew a little bit about cooking because I wouldn't have gotten to the end of it. I didn't know what I didn't know, basically. So we cooked together all day and threw this great party. Rick came to that party because he was sort of tangentially in the same group of people. He was very impressed, he says.
We started talking and one thing led to another. I remember the first meal I cooked for him. It was in the same apartment. I remember really clearly — and this is so dated. Remember the time when you made avocado salad in (an) avocado shell? You took the avocado out, chopped it up and mixed it with something, in this case it was grapefruit, dressed it with something, put it back in and served it? I remember that so clearly. He came, he was catering and he had been cooking all his life. He was a professional, for sure, back then.
Q: Were you daunted by that?
A: No. He was very low-key around me as I was cooking. So I said, "I think we're getting close," and all of a sudden he goes, "Have you done this and done this and done this?" He started like this little bee around me. Suddenly, the coffee was ready, all I had to do was just flip the switch. The next course was all set and ready to go. That's when I thought, "Oh, I'm out of my league here," but I didn't care. I quickly found out there's a huge difference between liking to cook, liking to entertain, and being a professional. It was a huge lesson but it never really bothered me that I didn't know. It's a great time of life, your 20s, you know? You're really kind of invincible.
Q: What was the first lesson you learned as a food pro?
A: When we started dating, I starting helped him with his catering, just as his assistant. We'd go into people's homes and make their dinner. (One time) he was making a stuffed bird wrapped in a pastry and it was in the oven. It was getting close to the time to serve and he opened it up and it was all cracked down the top. He was horrified, of course, but he was totally cool. He took it out, flipped it over and it was beautiful underneath. He acted like nothing happened. That's when I saw the ability to think on your feet and react very quickly. That's a lot of what it is in this business. You've got to have a plan, you've got to be organized but you've got to be able to swap plans at a moment's notice.
Q: Do you do much cooking at home now?
A: I personally don't. We love to entertain, both of us. Rick cooks and I set the table and I do the flowers and all that. I love doing that. I'll help him and I'll be his prep cook if he needs it but he's so fast and such a good cook.
If we're home on a Sunday or Monday, every other time we try to have someone over. We used to have our family dinner every Monday night. When our daughter left for college we were really lonely. So we thought, "OK, we'll turn it into a friends' dinner." We like to make relatively simple food, not like we make (at the restaurants). So we do that a lot. We love being with people around the table.
Q: Do you eat Mexican at home?
A: Not usually Mexican. Rick will go all over the board, because if he's bought a new cookbook he likes to cook a dinner out of it to really get a sense of it. So, sometimes it's Middle Eastern, sometimes it's French, sometimes it's Japanese, sometimes it's Thai. He got into this kick a few months ago where he wanted to make tofu so we were eating a lot of things with tofu. … Usually we don't eat Mexican at home but now we're working on a new book, so he's testing ideas at home.
Q: You told the Tribune in 1996 that to tell someone she is "managing (a restaurant) like a mother is the best thing you can say to someone. It means you listen to your employees, and you will have a very strong, loyal staff." Do you still agree?
A: Absolutely. I have always had that sense of wanting to nurture people, wanting to look for the best in people and wanting to bring it out. Rick's that way, too, so it's not that we have a fighting match in style at all. He's a little more straightforward (with people). I've always been the kind of person who can also see both sides of an issue.
We run this whole place on the sense that people want to do a good job. If we train them, they can do a good job, and if they can't do a good job, it might not be the right place for them but there may be another place for them in the organization where they can do a good job. Everybody is valuable and we have to see them that way.
Q: Do you see your daughter, Lanie, working in the restaurant at some point?
A: There's a possibility. It all depends on the path her life takes. She's not ready yet and I'm totally supportive of that, as much as I'd love to have her here and be a part of this. She needs to establish herself. She needs to get some years of work under her belt and build her own confidence.
Q: If Lanie goes into the restaurant business, what would be your advice?
A: You only do it if you love it, that's the biggest advice. And it's clear to me she loves it.
Q: Your name is on all of Rick's cookbooks. How do you divvy up the work?
A: He comes up with all of the ideas. He's actually the writer, I'm the editor. ... and once he's got a firm concept in his head we'll start brainstorming. We'll create a table of contents and then we'll talk about what speed he wants to work at, which chapters he wants to start with, and then I'll create a schedule and he'll start doing them and then send them to me and they go to testing and then I put the edits in after testing. Once he's written the first round I pretty much take over from there and finish everything. But he's the idea man. And I'll offer all my feedback. I taste and do all the testing and think with him. I can offer some things at that level.
Q: In his 1996 book, "Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen," your husband described you this way: "All who know Deann understand what an incredibly lucky man I am. Not only are we soul mates, sharing a passionate respect for Mexico, but she brings to our collaborations a steady, farsighted and quick understanding of everything from financial management to the flavor of a well-made mole."
A: That's a good line. The thing I love about my life is it's is very varied. When I was young, I had a wonderful family and very generous, loving parents but I did not want to be my mother for love nor money. She was a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs in the '50s and my father walked to the train, got on the train, went downtown, came home and sat down to dinner. And I just didn't want that life for myself.
I like to be busy, I like to do things. Even when I was pregnant, I worked every day until probably two days before I gave birth and then I came back to work three days afterward. I wanted to be here to make decisions, to help think and all that kind of stuff. I don't like just chilling. I like to be doing things, I like to be making a difference.
"As much as weather permits, from early spring if I can through late fall, I sit in our garden, which is amazing. I read. I drink my coffee. I rest my mind. I meditate. I read spiritual reading. I read silly books, anything, just to be calm. If I don't have 15 minutes, I get grumpy, so even when I have to leave early, I get up extra-early so I have at least 15 minutes to sit, just being."