A Chef's Lifetime Latin Culinary Journey
From Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Rivera Restaurant
Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, John Rivera Sedlar literally had his first taste of Latin cooking in the kitchens of his mother, aunts, and beloved Grandma Eloisa. "My favorite time of year," Sedlar remembers, "was before Christmas, when they would gather together in my aunts' kitchen in Abiquiu, the village where Georgia O'Keeffe lived, to make huge mountains of bizcochitos, empanaditas, and tamales. If I close my eyes, I can still smell those fragrant aromas and taste those sweet, spicy, earthy foods."
Sedlar's knowledge of global Latin food traditions expanded during the three years his family spent living in Sevilla and Zaragoza, Spain, when he was 8, 9, and 10 years old. "Our cook there made us tortilla española, the thick flat potato omelet that's a specialty in tapas bars and home kitchens alike. I tasted authentic cheeses, and snails in garlic sauce. We visited the Plaza de Toros, the bullring, to watch the bullfights every Sunday afternoon, then went to nearby bodegas to eat grilled meats and spicy chorizos. My family literally ate its way through the country."
That quest for something more led John Rivera Sedlar to leave his successful restaurant job to apprentice himself to the legendary chef Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage in Los Angeles. "I went back to the basics," he says, "and learned every aspect of classical French cuisine. Chef Bertranou taught me what it really means to be a chef, from the mastery of basic techniques to a respect for and understanding of ingredients to how a chef goes about conceiving and creating new dishes. It was the best education I could have ever had."
Sedlar first gained national attention from food lovers and journalists alike in the early 1980s when he combined his classical training with memories of his New Mexico childhood to create at his restaurant Saint-Estephe in the L.A.-area coastal town of Manhattan Beach what he called Modern Southwest Cuisine, a description that also became the title of Sedlar's first book. He continued to create beautiful, delicious, innovative food at his next restaurants, first Bikini and then Abiquiu, both in Santa Monica.
As Sedlar's profile as a chef continued to grow, so did his passionate interest in the Latin culinary traditions that were such a prominent element of his cuisine. "More and more," he recalls, "I began to think there were so many wonderful foods and drinks and cooking techniques just waiting to be discovered throughout the Spanish-speaking world. And just as I left my first success as a chef to study under Jean Bertranou, I came to the realization that the time was right for me to change course again, and this time to learn from all the madres, abuelas, and tias in the kitchens of Mexico, South America, the Caribbean, and Spain."
Thus began for John Rivera Sedlar a 14-year-long odyssey that would take him to places as diverse as Macchu Pichu, Cuzco, Rio de Janiero, Santiago, Cataluña, and San Juan, Puerto Rico, to eat with, create food alongside, and learn from authentic cooks wherever his travels took him. He also participated regularly in culinary symposia, where he shared his findings with other food scholars. As a spokesperson for Patron Tequila, Sedlar also learned in depth the complexities of Mexico's singular renowned spirit. And, when time and travels allowed, Sedlar catered private parties and events for prestigious individuals and organizations in Southern California, across the United States, and as far away as Moscow and Tokyo.Sedlar's ever-deepening knowledge of and love for Latin food history and traditions also led him to develop a concept for a one-of-a-kind institution: Museum Tamal. Still in development and already backed by an impressive roster of creative contributors and patrons, the museum will be the first ever devoted exclusively to the history and culture of food in the Latin world. "Museum Tamal became my greatest passion," says Sedlar, "and, to my surprise, that passion led me back to the restaurant world."More than a year ago, while sharing his passion for Latin food traditions with business friends Bill Chait and Eddie Sotto, John Rivera Sedlar began to imagine a restaurant that would celebrate Latin food in all its diverse variety. "Bill and Eddie immediately got it," Sedlar says, "and together we very quickly evolved a vision for a fun, approachable, casual restaurant where guests could explore the world of Latin food and drink."
That vision became Rivera, which not only takes its name from Sedlar's Hispanic family name but also evokes the waters that flow through space and time to interlink the culinary traditions of Spanish-speaking Europe. North America, and South America. "I feel I've come full circle," says John Rivera Sedlar. "I'm happy to be back in the kitchen, cooking and sharing the food that I love."
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