Omi

What’s one question you’re tired of answering?

“So, how’d you get involved in Mexican food?” I am probably asked that five or six times a week, at least. The crazy thing is anyone can go on my website and read the answer to all of that so the fact that people always feel like they need to be asking that question is kind of funny to me.

Do you ever take a step back to look at the empire you’ve built and think, “This is pretty awesome”?

I don’t. I’m never that person because the thing is I’ll look at a book and say, “That passage is really beautifully written,” but then, “Oh, there’s a problem in that recipe.” I’ll walk through the aisles of the grocery store and pause to think, “Wow, we need to work on the recipe for this product,” or, “We can make that product better.”

So you’re always working.

It’s not working, it’s that I’m always imagining someway to make everything better. I really love doing that. Everyday I wake up and think, “How can we make everything better? How can we make the world a better place? How can we create a more harmonious team in the restaurant?” So that’s what I’m going for. With books it’s a really odd thing because once you ship it off that final time you can’t go back, there’s nothing else you can do with it after that. You have to be really ready to release it and know that there are going to be problems and that maybe in a week you’re going to figure out a better way to make that dish or whatever it may be but you have to say, “This represents who I am at this time of my life.”

What is the hardest part of fame?

Now that everybody has a camera with them at all times anyone can say, “Oh, just a quick picture!” which happens 15, 20 times a day right in the middle of my work. Imagine if each time you were trying to work you were interrupted two or three times to stop, get up, take a picture and thank them for coming. Then when you go back to what you were doing it’s like, “Wait a second, where was my train of thought?”  That’s the biggest struggle in my life. I’m very grateful for all my fans but sometimes I just want to go into a room by myself! [Laughs]

Can you walk through a grocery store without being noticed?

I go in the middle of the morning on Mondays because it’s the least busy time, but it’s still difficult. I’ve had people literally pick stuff up and look at what I’ve got in my bag! I know a lot of actors and they don’t have that. I was talking to Joan Allen, who is here at Steppenwolf, the last time she was at my house and she never gets bothered. People don’t even say hello to her! I think it’s because you have no idea who she is, she is always playing somebody else. I’m on TV all of the time and now more than ever because all of our older shows are in syndication and I play myself. It’s in my kitchen, in my backyard and I’m talking directly to the camera. It became aware to me a long time ago that my show is usually played on Saturday mornings and a lot of people actually watch it from their bedroom so not only have they invited me into their home but they actually invited me into their bedroom. Sometimes w​hen people want to meet me in the restaurant they will come up and just [start touching me]. Now personally I don’t know them, but they seem to be very intimate with me​! I would say that is the hardest part of it all, I am constantly [dealing with that].

Anything keeping you up at night these days?

As the enterprise grows there are plateaus that you hit. You say, “Okay, we can’t manage this place with 25 employees,” and then you have to increase it to 50 for whatever reason. Going from Frontera to Topolobampo years ago everything was unstable. We lost some staff, they couldn’t deal with the change so then you learn how to have the right people in place. Right now we have two businesses here side by side that I’m involved in, the restaurants and the food companies, and we’re working to bring all of those teams together in a new way. They’ve always been run fairly separately and shared some things like finance but running them together is what keeps me up at night. We’re in new territory and we’re struggling with the ability to do that in a harmonious way. It’s always with growth that I find that I stay up at night. It’s a struggle.

Is there anything you do on your days off that fans would be surprised to find out?

I’m really into home cooking and I love to have people over. A lot of times people think that I come home and order out but that’s not me, I love to cook. It’s just casual food but I don’t get to cook in my house that often so when I get a chance to play by myself in the kitchen at home I love that. I’m super into yoga. I do yoga everyday and I have for 20 years. I used to have this regime for seven or eight years where I was weight training three days a week, practicing yoga three days a week and resting one day. Then a year and a half ago my sister was diagnosed with cancer and I decided I was going to practice yoga everyday for her so for one full year I didn’t miss a single day.

Favorite form of yoga to practice?

I do all kinds. It used to be Anusara and then it drifted. I switch back and forth between Vinyasa and Hatha, which is more like Bikram where they don’t flow you at all and it’s just straight holding poses … I do almost all of my practice at home and if you don’t know the YogaGlo website, you have to go there.

What led you to become a yogi?

Twenty years ago a friend of mine started doing yoga really intensely and went for teacher training. She kept saying, “You’re going to love it if you get started with it, you’re going to love it,” so she did a few practices with me to help me to understand what it was and then I bought some tapes. Yes, tapes! This is how long ago it was, they were actual videotapes. It was a lot of Rodney Yee stuff in the old days so I did those then I started going to classes and doing private sessions. Yoga is the perfect thing for me because my world is so busy and my schedule is so jammed and my work is so physical. I like the physicality of yoga but I also like that it’s so meditative, that’s what I go for.

Do you and your brother, sports broadcaster Skip Bayless, ever talk sports?

No. He is completely not into food, knows nothing about food and I know absolutely nothing about sports. I don’t follow any sports. Not even in a sports town like Chicago. I would find the time if it was of any interest to me but I’m not a team type of person. I love staying active but just not with team sports like that.

Who is one person you’d like to cook for that you haven’t had the chance to cook for yet?

That’s a really hard question! I’ve had the opportunity to cook for a lot of people.

Musicians, actors, grandparents?

That’s very interesting because my father and all of my grandparents died when I was really young so they never got a chance to see all of this. When you said that all of a sudden my heart just leapt in a funny way because, oh my God would it be fun to cook for them! My father was a restaurant guy, he wasn’t trained but he married into a restaurant family and then went off and did his own barbecue restaurant. Much of what is the foundation of the way that we run this place was learned from my father’s restaurant. It was open for 37 years so there’s something about longevity in a restaurant that I learned from him. I’ve always wanted to be able to go back because my grandmother was an amazing influence on my life and my cooking. I’ve always said that I have no idea if she was a good cook or not because whatever she brought to the table she would just say, “You’ve got to taste this! This is so amazing,” and she’d put it down on the table and you’d taste it and be like, “Of course this is amazing! Grandma’s is always so amazing!”

What is the best piece of knowledge she instilled in you about cooking?

She always told me it was about love. It was about bringing people together and getting them excited about the food, sharing that part of the meal and then no matter what you put on the table it was going to be phenomenal because you had already gotten everybody together with a positive attitude. She was always that way. She was one that never complained about anything even though she had a super hard life. She got married when she was 16, had three kids before she was 20 during the Great Depression and was trying to figure out how to bring them up and put food on the table. So I would love to cook for those two, my father and my grandma.

Were they your biggest influences?

There was not just one person I could say influenced who I am now. It was just a little bit from this person, a little bit from that person and I tried to keep my eyes and ears open. In yoga they talk a lot about having a guru or a teacher. In the Anusara world, the guy who started it all of a sudden just completely fell apart and that was everyone’s guru, that was their teacher and they had been grateful to him for all of this time so then no one knew what to do. That is why I don’t like gurus because, you know what? Everyone’s feet are made of clay, no one is perfect. I think if you put too much emphasis on having an idol or main mentor then when that person goes through a hard time you don’t know what to do. I would rather respect all of these different people. We all have struggles but that doesn’t mean they haven’t contributed to my life.

“MexicoOne Plate at a Time” is a hit among foodies. Has there been an episode that sticks out as one you really enjoyed filming?

I filmed a show for this current season on Day of the Dead in Oaxaca with a family whose mother was a really close friend of mine and had died two years prior. For Day of the Dead, which I think is one of the most beautiful and meaningful holidays, you usually let the person that has passed rest for a year and then the second year you come back and make an altar for them. That second year was when I was there filming so we got the chance to dedicate a show to my friend. It’s a stunning show and it was really hard to do because Day of the Dead in Mexico is the most sacred day of the year. It’s sort of like our Thanksgiving where the whole family comes together but there’s not traditional food for Day of the Dead because you make the food that is the favorite of a family member that has passed away. That is how you remember them, by sharing a meal and you put the food on the altar. The belief is the spirit of that person comes back and consumes the spirit of that dish. It’s very much a time where you think about where you came from, where you’re going and reflect on how important family is to you. To have gotten a chance to do that with this family that I’ve known for a very long time after a very hard transition for them was very special.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

This is going to sound really geeky but I’m really into musical theater and I think Norbert Leo Butz is the most talented person on Broadway right now. The last time he was on Broadway he was doing this sort of ill-fated show called “Catch Me If You Can” and he played the second lead and he did such an amazing, crazy song and dance—and he’s not a dancer—that he won a Tony for. Everything I’ve ever seen him in I thought he was absolutely brilliant and then I recently heard a long-format interview with him and I thought, “This guy is super cool!” He didn’t come up through theater or through music, he was just this guy that had a rock band and it all came natural to him.

What would you guys be drinking?

We’d be drinking manhattans. And hopefully in Manhattan!

KIRSTEN MICCOLI PHOTOGRAPHY

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Omi