Everyone’s Favorite Airport Restaurant Lives in Chicago O’Hare

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On February 4, 2011, celebrity chef Rick Bayless was at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to pose with a pair of giant scissors. The award-winning restaurateur, cookbook author and PBS host attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for his new Mexican restaurant, Tortas Frontera. A mariachi band played while travelers collected free samples.

Looking back, Bayless never thought it was an accomplishment he wanted to celebrate.

“I never wanted to be in an airport,” he recently said. “It was the city of Chicago – they kept knocking on the door saying, ‘We want you at the airport. We want you at the airport,” and I kept turning them down.

Chicago persisted. Bayless negotiated. Provided that the chef can have complete freedom to choose his suppliers and manage the recipes himself, the two parties have reached an agreement. Hence the giant scissors. Since Tortas Frontera’s arrival in Terminal 1, the restaurant has added additional O’Hare locations in Terminals 3 and 5, gradually building a reputation as an airport dining option that is not just tolerated, but sought after.

The concept of the restaurant centers around the torta, a Mexican pressed sandwich made on a roll of telera. It also serves salads, guacamole, soups, cocktails, micheladas, aguas frescas, wine, and locally made alfajores, a dulce de leche sandwich cookie.

The menu was designed with travelers in mind. In the research and development phase, Bayless put the finished dishes in take-out boxes and let them sit at room temperature for an hour before tasting them, then modified the recipes accordingly.

“You have to board your plane. You have to wait until after takeoff… you’ll probably wait until the drinks cart has passed,” Bayless said. “So we wanted to make sure that all of our dishes tasted really good after an hour.”

Bayless says HMSHost, the airport’s main catering company, advised it to prepare much of the food so that it could be served as quickly as possible, and warned that customers would not buy aromatic or spicy food.

“We gave them made-to-order food that was very aromatic and spicy,” Bayless said. “They said, ‘Oh, you’ll be bankrupt in six months.’ ”

Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for the Washington Post, said Tortas Frontera “was known to political reporters” because she was a campaign reporter who spent her life on the road, sometimes passing through several airports a day. . Once she tried it and found it lived up to the hype, she began tweaking her travel itinerary to connect through O’Hare whenever she could.

Scott’s Cheap Flights founder Scott Keyes still does.

“I will always choose the [flight] which passes through O’Hare More precisely so I can have lunch at Tortas Frontera,” Keyes said in an email. “I was as skeptical as anyone that it was even possible that airport food was worth prioritizing like that.”

“Over twenty stopovers in Chicago later,” he says, “I’m a believer.”

The food critic of Chicago Magazine, John Kesler, says he is “very pro-Tortas”. Jose R. Ralat, taco editor at Texas Monthly and author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide,” said Tortas Frontera comforted him when he felt anxious about navigating the gigantic airport. “It’s good reliable food,” Ralat said. “Who doesn’t want good reliable food?”

How airplane food moves from the kitchen to your flight

To serve food that lives up to its standards, Bayless says it needs specific ingredients from its preferred suppliers in addition to what’s available through HMSHost. That means bread from Fausto’s and smoked pork and chorizo ​​from Gunthorp Farms, which has worked with the chef for 20 years. Garlic roasted tomatillos come from a salsa company and go into the base of some dishes.

But your salsa guy can’t just drop by the airport.

To meet O’Hare’s security requirements, Bayless had to obtain a specialist vendor authorized access to the airport. He asks other small farmers and producers to deliver his order to the approved supplier, who then makes a delivery to the airport. To complicate matters, deliveries are only allowed at certain times of the day. The extra steps make business more expensive than serving the same menu downtown.

Then there is the staff. Labor shortage or not, Bayless says it’s hard to find someone to work at an airport. Airports are often far from city centers and can represent long journeys for employees. Unless they want to pay for expensive parking at the airport itself, employees have to take the train to get there.

Plus, “it’s pretty complicated to get hired at the airport,” Bayless said. “You have to go through massive amounts of background checks.”

Once hired, Tortas employees are tasked with running a labor-intensive menu.

Since display cases (aka “units”) aren’t big enough to do the bulk of the cooking, most of the magic happens in a small prep kitchen that customers never see.

“We have two people on staff who just go back and forth between the kitchen and the units,” Bayless said. “It seems like a crazy way to spend money, but that’s what we have to do because there’s no room in these units.”

For example, cooks in the prep kitchen dredge brined chicken breasts in flour, dip them in seasoned egg yolk, then coat them in panko breadcrumbs. An employee directs the breasts to the units, where they are fried for a signature sandwich or salad.

The prep kitchen is not big enough to store much so the food is very fresh out of necessity. Cooks can’t prep a ton of food in advance to make serving easier. “There are a lot of things like [guacamole] it’s done throughout the day,” Bayless said.

The extra effort was appreciated. Bayless says the restaurant at the airport gets as many – if not more – regulars than its downtown restaurants.

“I feel like at some point people will find an epitaph for my tombstone,” he said. “’He made good food at an airport.’”

About Jonathan Bell

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