SLENDER CELEBRITY CHEF RICK BAYLESS, the goateed enchilada evangelist who has transformed Mexican street food into fine dining, stands at the back of the Regattabar, near the full-length windows overlooking Harvard Square. Several people encircle him, straining to hear his voice over the din of the cocktail party, which caps the first day of a major food-industry conference being held here.
To the average foodie dropping in on this June evening, Bayless would be the biggest name in the room. He’s got his long-running PBS cooking show, a win on Top Chef Masters, and the standing that comes from owning one of the Obamas’ favorite restaurants in Chicago. But the savviest industry insiders — the power players here from multinational giants like Unilever and McDonald’s — know there is a far more important get: a soft-spoken Harvard professor named Walter Willett.