Updated August 19, 2022 at 8:47 a.m. EDT|Published August 15, 2022 at 4:55 p.m. EDT
On Feb. 4, 2011, celebrity chef Rick Bayless was at Chicago O’Hare International Airport to pose with a pair of giant scissors. The award-winning restaurateur, cookbook author and PBS host was attending a ribbon-cutting ceremony for his newest Mexican restaurant, Tortas Frontera. A mariachi band played as travelers grabbed free samples.
Looking back, Bayless never thought it was an accomplishment he’d want to celebrate.
“I never wanted to be in an airport,” he said recently. “It was the city of Chicago — they kept knocking on the door saying, ‘We want you to be at the airport. We want you to be at the airport,’ and I just kept turning them down.”
Chicago persisted. Bayless negotiated. Under the condition that the chef could have complete freedom to choose his suppliers and manage recipes himself, the two parties reached an agreement. Hence the giant scissors. In the time since Tortas Frontera arrived in Terminal 1, the restaurant has added additional O’Hare locations in Terminals 3 and 5, steadily building a reputation as an airport dining option not just tolerated, but sought after.
The restaurant concept centers on the torta, a pressed Mexican sandwich made on a telera roll. 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 finished dishes in to-go boxes and let them sit at room temperature for an hour before tasting them, then tweaked recipes accordingly.
“You’ve got to board your plane. You’ve got to wait 'til after takeoff … you’re probably going to wait until the drink cart has been through,” Bayless said. “So we wanted to make sure that all of our food tasted really good after an hour.”
Bayless says HMSHost, the main airport food-service company, advised him to have a lot of the food premade so it could be served as fast as possible, and warned him that customers wouldn’t buy aromatic or spicy food.
“We gave them food that was made to order, very aromatic and spicy,” Bayless said. “They said, ‘Oh, you’ll be out of business in six months.’ ”
Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post, says Tortas Frontera “was known among political journalists” since she was a campaign reporter who spent her life on the road, sometimes passing through multiple airports a day. Once she tried it and discovered it lived up to the hype, she started tweaking her travel itinerary to connect through O’Hare whenever she could.
“I will always choose the [flight] that transits O’Hare specifically so I can get lunch at Tortas Frontera,” Keyes said in an email. “I used to be as skeptical as anyone that it was even possible for airport food to be worth prioritizing like that.”
“Twenty-plus Chicago layovers later,” he says, “I’m a believer.”
The restaurant critic for Chicago Magazine, John Kessler, says he’s “very pro-Tortas.” José R. Ralat, the taco editor at Texas Monthly and author of “American Tacos: A History and Guide,” said Tortas Frontera comforted him when he was feeling anxious about navigating the gigantic airport. “It’s dependable, good food,” Ralat said. “Who doesn’t want dependable, good food?”
To serve food that lives up to his standards, Bayless says he needs specific ingredients from his preferred vendors 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. Roasted tomatillos with garlic come from a salsa company and go into bases for some of the dishes.
But your salsa guy can’t just swing by the airport for a drop-off.
To meet O’Hare security requirements, Bayless had to get a specialty purveyor licensed to access the airport. He has the other small farmers and producers deliver his order to the licensed purveyor, who then makes one airport delivery. To make things more complicated, deliveries are only allowed at certain times of the day. The extra steps make doing business more expensive than it would be serving the same menu downtown.
Then there’s staffing. Labor shortage or not, Bayless says it’s a hard sell to get someone to work at an airport. Airports are often far from city centers, and can mean long commutes for employees. Unless they want to pay for expensive parking at the actual airport, employees need to take the train to get there.
Plus, “it’s fairly complicated to get hired at the airport,” Bayless said. “You have to go through massive amounts of background checks.”
Once they’re hired, Tortas employees are tasked with executing a labor-intensive menu.
Since the storefronts (a.k.a. “units”) aren’t big enough to do the bulk of the cooking, most of the magic happens in a small prep kitchen customers never see.
“We have two people on staff that do nothing but go back and forth between the kitchen and the units,” Bayless said. “It seems like it’s a crazy way to spend money, but it’s what we have to do because there’s no space in those units.”
For example, cooks in the prep kitchen dredge brined chicken breasts in flour, dip them in seasoned egg yolk and then cover them with panko breadcrumbs. An employee runs the breasts over to the units, where they’re fried for either a signature sandwich or a salad.
The prep kitchen isn’t big enough to store much, so the food is very fresh out of necessity. The cooks can’t make a ton of food ahead of time to make service easier. “There’s a lot of stuff like [guacamole] that just gets made all day long,” Bayless said.
The extra effort has been appreciated. Bayless says the airport restaurant gets just as many — if not more — regulars than his others downtown.
“I feel like at some point people will come up with an epitaph for my tombstone,” he said. “‘He made good food in an airport.’”