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Mexican Food: Border Guard

With a new restaurant, a tequila brand, and a tamale museum in the works, John Sedlar might be Latin cuisine’s ultimate ambassador

johnsedlar
Photograph by Lisa Romerein

May I try?” John Sedlar asks in Spanish. He chooses the largest piña, 100 pounds at least, and steadies it with one foot. In a graceful arc he raises the rounded blade of a long-handled hatchet over his shoulder. Whack. Not even a dent. Unfazed, Sedlar, the chef who owns the elegant restaurant Rivera in downtown L.A., keeps at it, alternating glancing and connecting blows until he finally cracks the base of the agave plant in two. “You’re a man who likes a challenge,” says an onlooker.

Virtually every other restaurant chef in the country is content with tequila purchased from U.S.-based distributors. Not John Sedlar. He is standing on the concrete loading dock of the 7 Leguas distillery in Atotonilco, a town in the Los Altos region of Jalisco, where volcanic soil gets credit for producing some of Mexico’s best agave. Field hands strip the fleshy, needle-tipped leaves, or pencas, from the plant to reveal the piñas, as dense as bowling balls. Here at the distillery they are heaped into an unruly pile, and lithe men in loose pants and shirts, which give them plenty of freedom to swing, are cutting them in two. The sweet smell of baked agave drifts from a bank of clay ovens in which tons of halved piñas are steaming, their hard white flesh slowly rendering its nectar and then sagging into pliable burnt orange sheaths that taste like caramelized pumpkin. A grinder mulches the sinew further and sends its last drops of juice to the fermentation tanks. From there the juice will be distilled and portions of it aged in barrels. Los Altos agave makes some of the finest tequila in the world.

Sedlar is fit—he swims every morning—but at 55 he has a slight paunch. “I got my belly this year,” he says. In a lineup he’d more likely be pegged as a professor than a chef, much less a piña-splitting jimador. Dressed in classic faded jeans, a cotton button-down shirt, and the European cut loafers he wears in the kitchen (he preferred Ferragamos until they abandoned their original rubber soles), Sedlar assumes his default upright Thinker pose: arms folded across his chest, one hand covering his mouth, shoulders slightly hunched, eyes focused and thoughtful. He studies the men with the hatchets as they dispatch each piña with three well-placed strokes. It looks easy. Even if it didn’t, Sedlar would have tried his hand. He’s obsessed with tequila. He wants to experience every step of its preparation.

When Sedlar opened Rivera (his middle name) a few blocks from the Staples Center in February of last year, he was a pioneer. LA Live! was in its infancy, and downtown was still a fine-dining void. La Serenata, two decades old, was the fanciest Mexican restaurant around and not exactly in its prime. The popularity of tequila had yet to be exploited by aficionado-driven boîtes like Copa d’Oro, the Varnish, and Las Perlas. Since Rivera’s opening, Sedlar has been joined by noteworthy company: Rick Bayless’s trendy Red O on Melrose, Richard Sandoval’s homogenized La Sandía at Santa Monica Place, and a new branch of the family-friendly Rosa Mexicano at LA Live! But nobody is drilling into the heart and soul of this cuisine with Sedlar’s fervor. “So much of what John has done over the years has been fueled by his insatiable interest in and curiosity about the history of food and the cultures it comes from,” says Evan Kleiman, the host of KCRW’s Good Food and chef-owner of Angeli Caffe. “He’s a food scholar. That would send some chefs down the rabbit hole of intense technique, but John’s food is very direct. Every restaurant he’s done is like a thesis, and now Rivera is his dissertation—a really delicious one.”

Rivera serves dishes from Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Central and South America, even Moor-influenced Africa. Sedlar assigns different menus to each of his three rooms: Spanish fare in the Sangre room, where 450 bottles of golden extra añejo tequila line the walls in glass, backlit cases; South and Central American dishes in the Samba room adjacent to the bar, where mixologist Julian Cox reigns; and Mexican food at the white marble Playa Bar next to the kitchen—not taquitos and chips, mind you, but a stacked appetizer with caviar, lobster, foie gras, jamón ibérico, shaved truffle, a smoked scallop, and a blue corn chip smaller than a eucharistic wafer. A fourth menu made up of selections from the other three is offered throughout the house. For an exclusive tequila, Sedlar spent two years scouring Mexico before settling on that premium extra añejo in the Sangre room. It has been aged for five years in oak barrels. “It was a fluke production,” he says. “A small batch.” It is available only to those who join Rivera’s tequila club. Pony up $2,500, and two masculine, cube-shaped bottles imported from Paris, each containing 750 milliliters of this fine spirit, will be etched with your name—yours to keep. You will receive a tiny key that fits into the custom wooden tops, which are carved with the facing Rs of the Rivera logo. Enjoy a glass in new Riedel stemware designed especially for tequila and salute the Lakers before walking over to the Staples Center to watch the game.

Rivera’s bar, the province of Julian Cox, one of L.A.’s premier mixologists, offers no big-name tequilas, only connoisseur brands like Tres Sietes, Ocho, and Los Azulejos. Sedlar is growing rows of agave in Los Altos, and in a few years, when the crop is ready for harvest, he will make a new tequila from scratch. Until then he is working with the Morales distillery in nearby Arandas to create a blanco, a reposado, and an añejo that he will bottle under his newly registered label, J. Rivera Sedlar. Toward the end of next year the brand will be sold at Rivera as well as at Playa Rivera, Sedlar’s boppier bar-centric newcomer due to open on Beverly Boulevard in January. In addition, he will offer it to retail stores nationwide. “We’re considering all the elements: floral, terroir, fruit, and wood,” Sedlar says of the flavor profile he’s looking for. “There are ways to notch up or ratchet down these aspects. I’m looking for something very full flavored and grab-you-by-the-throat.”

*****

For all his attention to tequila, Sedlar is foremost a chef. After a year in the kitchen of the legendary Jean Bertranou at L.A.’s L’Ermitage, he caught the nation’s attention at Saint Estephe, a restaurant he opened in a Manhattan Beach strip mall. It was the 1980s, and regional cuisine was newly in vogue. Sedlar had grown up in New Mexico, where his great-grandparents’ ranch in Abiquiu was the center of extended family gatherings. “Happy, robust women filled the kitchen as they rolled tortillas, steamed tamales, and fried sopaipillas for lunch and dinner,” he wrote in Modern Southwest Cuisine, his first cookbook, published in 1986. “These are my earliest memories of good eating.” At Saint Estephe, Sedlar claimed the Southwest as his own, merging the heat-licked flavors and earthy staples of his childhood with the refined ingredients of nouvelle French: Anaheim peppers stuffed with duxelles, caviar and smoked salmon delivered on blue corn tortillas, fish served in woven strips as a nod to Navajo rug designs. Cook’s Magazine ranked him among the country’s top 50 chefs. Gourmet pronounced him the “father of modern Southwest cuisine.” “John Sedlar is one of America’s treasures,” declared Craig Claiborne. “A genius in the kitchen.”

His subsequent restaurants in Santa Monica—Bikini and its brief reincarnation as Abiquiu—became known for their splashy plates, some with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, others with silver-embossed snakes. An Abiquiu spin-off in San Francisco lasted only a year. By then it was the mid-’90s, the Northridge earthquake had hit, and a mild recession was taking a toll on business. “Bikini was too big, too complicated, too much design,” says Bill Chait, one of Sedlar’s partners in Rivera. “Restaurants like that exhaust you, especially when you’re a single person like John, trying to do it all yourself.” Sedlar decided to quit. “I’d been working for 22 years by then,” he says. “The restaurant business consumes your entire life. You have limited human experiences; you miss family events. The time had come to think about new projects.”

Although he refers to the following 14 years as his retirement, Sedlar never stopped working. He started a company that made chiles rellenos, tamales, and sauces and sold them in grocery stores; he created the opening menu for Encounter, the space-age restaurant at LAX designed by Eddie Sotto, who would later mastermind the look of Rivera and become another of Sedlar’s partners; he catered for studio heads, billionaires, the Natural History Museum, and the Playboy Mansion. He also traveled, tasted, cooked, and reflected. “I went to Spain to eat molecular gastronomy [at Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli],” he says, “and to Rio to try to understand the complex Portuguese-African food. To Peru. I talked to people, went to markets, stole menus, bought books. There was a lot of reading and information collecting.”

For eight of those years Sedlar was the spokesman for Patrón tequila. He put together lavish weekend seminars for food and beverage professionals, many at the Patrón distillery in Jalisco. In addition to talking about tequila, he cooked feasts with local chefs showcasing sophisticated Mexican dishes and ingredients. Sedlar also orchestrated a series of fund-raisers for the Mission San Juan Capistrano in California, where his immersion in Latin cuisine deepened. He explained the history of the food he served, much as he had for Patrón, and was asked to help with related exhibitions in the mission gallery. His 2003 show, Comidas Prehispanicas, featured photographs of ingredients once popular in pre-Columbian kitchens: fragile turtle eggs, ants with abdomens engorged with honey, an iguana with its front paws bound behind its back with red thread, trussed up to be sold live at the market. He began cultivating the idea of starting a museum devoted to the history of Latin cuisine.

Several years ago, Sedlar began to miss cooking in a restaurant kitchen. “You have to have a weird mind to want to be in a heated, crowded room where your body is literally cooking,” he says. “But I like it when it’s noisy and chaotic and everything is flowing and running like a machine. It could all collapse in a minute but never does.” He, Sotto, and Chait, who now owns Test Kitchen, the pop-up phenomenon on West Pico where cutting-edge chefs (including Sedlar) cook to sold-out crowds, considered a series of locations for a new restaurant: a tiny setup on La Cienega, the original Mortons site on Melrose, a new project called LA Live! After years of discussion, they finally agreed on a narrow, 150-foot-long ground-floor space in a building on Flower Street. “To get a kitchen with one whole wall of Pacific-facing skies is priceless,” Sedlar says of Rivera’s unusually bright workspace. “You can really see the food, the true color of everything. I said, ‘OK, I can be very happy here.’?”

*****

Sedlar’s restaurant is both an acknowledgment of his roots (his mother’s maiden name is Rivera) and an embrace of everything he has learned about food since the family gatherings at the Abiquiu ranch. Sedlar reveres tradition. He uses five types of corn, including hominy for the nixtamal—the precursor of masa, which is used to make the tortillas—and red Martian kernels for a salsa. He dyes husks with hibiscus flowers and fashions them into serving cups, using a diversified arsenal of chiles, from jalapeños to gueros, habaneros to pasillas, to precisely calibrate heat and flavor. He counsels his Latino cooks to guard their cuisine, to not let it get co-opted by “entrepreneurs.” One Saturday morning not long ago, he assembled his staff for a tutorial on new menus. Several experts were on hand, including Norman Kolpas, a writer and culinary historian. Kolpas traced the evolution of Latin cuisine from the Carthaginians, who were fond of snails, to Columbus, whose ships were loaded with barrels of white gazpacho for the trip to the New World, where the discovery of tomatoes and peppers would turn the soup red. He also spoke of the influences of Japanese fishermen on Peruvian crudo, of African slaves on Brazilian food, and of French settlers on Mexican fare. Despite his devotion to authenticity, Sedlar is not bound by it. Sixteenth-century Brazilians probably weren’t crowning their feijoada, a soulful black bean stew, with caipirinha foam.

Nor does he let expertise inhibit his bone-dry humor. He can be earnest; he is known for dusting spices through stencils and crowning dishes with cumin-laced messages such as “kindness is not a form of weakness.” But he also likes to joke about the aromatics of escamoles (ant larvae) and how they “fluff” when sautéed. At the Rivera bar, the Donaji, a mescal libation rimmed with chapulin salt, provides another opening. “It’s made with fried crickets,” he’ll say pleasantly. “Have you tried them?”

He is passionate about how recipes have developed over centuries of exploring, trading, conquering, and settling. He has printed a phone number on his menus so diners can call from their tables to hear him describe the provenance of caracoles (snails) in vinho verde, Peruvian quechua (sweetbreads), and Venezuelan arepas (corn cakes). But if all that threatens to kill the buzz of a good night out, he says, let it go. “It’s just a restaurant. You don’t have to agonize. Come and enjoy it.”

It is, after all, Sedlar’s profound talent as a chef that matters. The reception for Rivera has been remarkable. The Los Angeles Times gave the restaurant three-and-a-half stars. This magazine’s restaurant columnist, Patric Kuh, awarded an unprecedented four stars. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Gold of the L.A. Weekly wrote, “This is a restaurant Los Angeles has needed for a very long time.”

Diners have changed dramatically since Sedlar went on his 14-year sabbatical. “I was shocked to see how the guest had evolved,” he says on a recent weekend night as Rivera fills with a handsome, animated crowd. “Before they would say, ‘Too spicy, too aromatic, too strong flavored.’ Now people finally want flavor. They know a lot about food. They’ve traveled the world, and they want to be challenged.”

Unlike many popular chefs, Sedlar is not a schmooze-the-room guy. During the peak of service, he positions himself in the kitchen between the spice station and the line, watching his cooks. In his chef’s jacket, open at the collar, and his trademark khaki slacks and loafers, he stands in his Thinker pose. He is a graceful and confident man with perfect skin and neatly combed silver hair. Occasionally he exchanges a laugh with his executive chef. “I like to be in the background,” Sedlar says. “I’d rather look over the shoulder of the fish chef and taste the pastry and wander over to make sure there are no shells in the oysters.”

Around the corner from Rivera, in a vacant space, are boxes packed with the photos of the turtle eggs, the ants with their bellies full of honey, the iguana bound with red thread. Other boxes contain Sedlar’s Day of the Dead collection and elaborate tin-framed portraits of Latin American nuns who cooked at the missions. He has applied for nonprofit status for what he calls his “Tamale Museum.”

“Now’s the time,” Sedlar says. “The museum has momentum. The food has momentum. I have momentum.”                                         

Margot Dougherty is a contributing writer for Los Angeles magazine. Her article about actress Mila Kunis appeared in the September 2009 issue.