(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.