On a sunny March afternoon in downtown L.A., John Sedlar, immaculate in chef's whites, holding an enormous cup of Starbucks coffee, is giving a lesson on the traditional foods of Mexico.
But the chef isn't giving a tour of the kitchen at Rivera, his 4-year-old, pan-Latin restaurant near Staples Center, or at Playa, the restaurant he closed last month after a two-year run. Instead, Sedlar is touring the cavernous, temporary space on South Grand Avenue that currently houses Museum Tamal, the Hispanic food exhibition he's been working on for much of the last two decades.
To understand how John Rivera Sedlar, now 58, thinks about food, it helps to consider the conceit of the museum. Not just because opening a museum has been the chef's longtime dream but also because, increasingly, it parallels Sedlar's cooking.
Sedlar's cooking can seem like a collection of food stories, his menus a series of art installations, his restaurants as much exhibitions as places to eat dinner.
This is particularly true now, as he and business partner Bill Chait dismantle the plates and pamphlets, the cocktail lists and the Chinese-Mexican menu with which Sedlar experimented at Playa. They're being relocated to Rivera, where they'll probably pop up in some eventual reincarnation.
As for the Playa space, on Beverly Boulevard, Chait plans to reopen a different restaurant there, under a different chef, in May. Sedlar says he'll still oversee the elaborate garden on the roof, which he named Cielo Verde, but he won't have any part in the new restaurant other than retaining partial ownership — and maybe supplying it with produce.
"John is becoming the king of the garden," Chait says, and it's easy to imagine Sedlar as the Chauncey Gardiner of the Los Angeles restaurant scene, dispensing wisdom and watercress from a Mid-City rooftop.
The museum, for the record, "really has nothing to do with tamales," Sedlar says, circling tables laden with historical kitchen gadgets and old photographs.
Instead, the tamales are "a good metaphor." For what? Tamales are "a metaphor for the Latin community," Sedlar explains. All Latin cultures have variations of the traditional wrapped dish, which "goes in your mouth and straight to your soul."
On an easel inside the temporary Museum Tamal space, there's a huge rendering of a proposed permanent museum, done by architect Zoltan Pali — 60,000 square feet of metal and light, like a honeycomb built of cornhusks, glass and steel. Sedlar and his partners envision building it somewhere downtown, ideally not too far from the Convention Center.
The invisible planned museum has evolved over the years to include two restaurants, a theater, a TV studio, a kitchen stadium, gardens and a greenhouse.
The temporary museum, which Sedlar also calls MT26 (the number refers to the number of Latin culinary regions Sedlar has identified), opened for private guests and school tours six months ago. It will be open to the public in 2014.
"We don't collect original artwork; that's not our mission. We collect food stories," says the chef. He points to the gorgeous photographs on the walls. Tortillas pressed with ink-stained corncobs. Huitlacoche, or corn fungus. Iguana, which was used not only in cooking but also as a fashion statement: Women used to wear the live animals, curled head to tail, as hats.
"They taste like chicken, you know," Sedlar says, deadpan.
Sedlar grew up in New Mexico, the son of an Anglo who worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory ("I have my father's Geiger counter") and a Latina whose family has lived in New Mexico for generations (his middle name, Rivera, comes from his mother's side of the family).
Sedlar ate and cooked Mexican food at home, and still remembers the epiphany he had eating at his first French restaurant: "I was 18 or 19 and I thought, 'WOW, this is not my mother's cooking. I want to do this. I want to do this forever.' "
In 1973, Sedlar moved to Los Angeles, where he cooked under Jean Bertranou at l'Ermitage, perhaps L.A.'s best French restaurant of its day. The chef traces much of his aesthetic thinking about food to his time there. "Bertranou would take a potato and shape it into a pear, or he would take salmon and sea bass and weave them like a pot holder. There was a story to each dish. His china had a story."
Seven years after coming to L.A., Sedlar opened St. Estephe, his first restaurant, in a Manhattan Beach shopping mall, combining classical French with the Southwest food of his childhood. There he served chile rellenos with goat cheese, blue corn tortillas with caviar, lamb with chiles piquins. He began his art-on-a-plate experiments, painting landscapes with sauces. It was Sedlar's first exhibit, a temporary installation in the form of salmon.
Sedlar opened his second restaurant, Bikini, in 1992 in Santa Monica. It was a shorter exhibit where he further developed the kind of pan-Latin fusion that eventually would be fully realized at Rivera. He started playing with stencils, drawing pictures and writing with ground spices, a technique he came to call Spiceology. "At Bikini, when the riots were going on, we started writing social comments on the plates."
Bikini evolved into Abiquiu, a more casual restaurant in the same space, named after the New Mexico ranch of Sedlar's childhood. Then Abiquiu closed in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake, and Sedlar disappeared from the restaurant scene.
For the next 15 or so years, he consulted and traveled, peripatetic years during which his idea for a museum slowly evolved. He became a spokesman for Patrón tequila, educating the public about the spirit years before it became trendy and leading trips to Mexico's agave fields — he now leases fields in Jalisco, the agave still two years away from harvesting — hopscotching across borders, a traveling museum docent in search of a permanent home.
And then, in 2009, he was back, opening the sleek metal-and-glass doors of Rivera, serving tortillas florales and avocado butter, duck enchiladas, kurobuta pork chops sauced with mole, tamales paired with short ribs, chile rellenos with a fleeing border family and the word "caution" stenciled in spices on a white plate like a stretched canvas.
From the start, Rivera operated more like a test kitchen than a standard restaurant, its menus and concepts evolving or rotating, its three separate dining rooms like distinct gallery spaces. Designer Eddie Sotto, who had worked at Walt Disney Imagineering, built Sedlar a performance space, fashioning the rooms into different locations for the chef's various menus, each themed according to different parts of the Latin culinary world. "We curate it, we research it, we look at the utensils, the story, the printed graphics. Even the plasma screen [on the restaurant wall] is an art installation," Sedlar says.
"John has a lot of contemporary artist predilections," says Chait, who met Sedlar in the early 1990s through restaurateur Mauro Vincenti. Chait partnered with Sedlar in both Rivera and Playa, although he's not involved in Sedlar's Museum Tamal project. "He views food through a historical lens. The museum is an outgrowth of that."
As Sedlar worked on his actual museum — the photographs in plastic, the ideas in his head — he curated Rivera as if it were his own ad hoc Guggenheim. Conquistador helmets became lanterns. Filmed bullfights played out on the walls.
Menus became like temporary exhibits: For a month in 2011, Sedlar cooked his 1986 menu from St. Estephe, a re-created mash-up of nouvelle cuisine and Southwest cooking. In the spring of 2012, Sedlar presented the menu he'd cooked 20 years earlier for Soviet military dignitaries: He and a few other chefs had been invited to Moscow for the first post-Soviet May Day parade. "The End of Communism" menu featured blini with cabbage and caviar, venison borscht and salmon "Stroganoff Romanoff" — with a cabbage tamal. Sedlar spent many of those nights not in the kitchen but amusing guests with stories of chef Kerry Simon, who was also on the trip, trying to smuggle contraband out of Russia.
Sedlar's temporary exhibits weren't limited to Rivera. He launched an elaborate "Mexi-China" menu at Playa, showcasing the Cantonese cooking of Chinese immigrants to Baja in the last century. Potstickers puerco pibil. Dim sum tamales. Pastrami tacos. (Proving that history is sometimes what you make of it. Why not? They were glorious.) He invited guest chefs to do their own retrospectives, bringing Sabina Bandera up from Ensenada for a few nights to make her legendary sea urchin tostadas, normally only served from Bandera's outdoor cart, for Playa's happy crowd.
Now that Playa has closed, Sedlar says his actual museum will be his primary focus, although he's already thinking of new ideas for Rivera.
The line between Sedlar's real museum and the one in his kitchen is, after all, a fluid one. He wants to play with spicier foods, pushing the envelop of the Mexi-China menu. He wants a dim sum cart. And he's been thinking about France again. He's planning a spring trip to Paris, he says, to find out if French food is still "relevant."
Expect a new exhibition. Bistronomie, perhaps, with tamales.