In the first part of our interview with John Sedlar, the chef considered the relative absence of Latino chefs in this town, as well as the nature of his new menu (well, menus; there are three) at Rivera. In part two, Sedlar — who is from Santa Fe, New Mexico; Rivera is both a family name and the chef's middle name — continues the conversation. Turn the page for the second part of the interview, and check back later for Sedlar's recipe for Scallops Arabesque.
Squid Ink: Your new menu is like a narrative, like a flow chart. Is there a particular order?
John Sedlar: Yes. And it starts with the oldest dish, with Spain, and it goes from Spain to South America. You cross the Atlantic, the horse latitudes. It's a region in the middle of the Atlantic, near the doldrums, where the galleons would come to a stop; there was no wind, and they would languish and eventually the sailors would throw the horses overboard. They were just too heavy, they were holding the boats down. The horses would swim and eventually they would drown, or they'd catch a bit of wind and the horses would follow, whinnying, and supposedly when future sailors would come through those latitudes, they would hear the ghosts of those horses, and so they became the horse latitudes.
And then you come to the New World, to Samba [one of Rivera's menus] and taste some of the iconic dishes of Latin America, the Caribbean, Costa Rica, Central America, Brazil and the favelas. It's very interesting as a chef, because it's a chronological story. It's a geographical story also, and as I introduced the menus, one at a time, then in the kitchen I'd smell different seasonings, different continents, and it would be unnatural to be smelling Arabic spices and then Mexican tortillas and Spanish chorizo, it was just too weird. It was too much of the world in one kitchen.
So then once you leave South America you come to Mexico. We have a lot of seafood-inspired dishes. I've been going to Tijuana a lot. I was first invited by [Street Gourmet's] Bill Esparza; he asked me down. I went on two trips down there. 24 restaurants, 36 hours.
SI: Oh my god.
JS: And everybody crawled back, they crawled. So I got very inspired.
SI: Well, you either get inspired or you die.
JS: It was very good research. There's a whole different food culture there than in Southern California. The seafood is very different, it's very briny. And for 20 years I've been trying to take a yellow Guero chile and make a relleno out of it. I buy it several times a year, I roast it, I fry it, I stuff it, and it's always just too hot. It just blows your head off, you can't eat it. There, because of the Japanese [influence], they enrobe it with tempura. And I tried it, and it was just enough to offset the torturous level of heat that you get. It's bearable.
So the whole idea is that these are roots, this is our DNA. I always tell my cooks, Where's the food from? What's the story of the dish? Just don't put food on the plate to have another chicken or another fish. It has to have a story; it has to fit into the big story. So what does it all mean? Is this our heritage, is this the culinary heritage of our city? All the food that we eat today really comes from somewhere in that story. Later of course we had a lot of Asian influences, Eastern European influences, but basically that was the foundation of California cooking. It's a mammoth amount of food to put out of our little kitchen.
SI: In a way it's kind of ironic. You've been working on your Museum Tamal for a long time, and now you've built a museum out of your kitchen.
SI: Is the new restaurant you're opening soon (R26) a spillover from this, or did it just happen?
JS: The new restaurant? I've always wanted that space, and I just thought it was very comfortable. I think it would make a great Western restaurant. And it came up on the market. It's looking to be a baby Rivera, a small, sort of casual restaurant, faster in. We're still exploring it. We're having a muralist [come in] who's going to do a big piece on the wall.
SI: When are you thinking it will open?
JS: November. Nice kitchen. Neal Fraser built a very nice, long kitchen. And so I have all the equipment. I'll probably buy a great sorbet machine. One last thing I didn't get here, so I want to get it there.
SI: Are you having fun?
JS: It's really great, it's really fun. It's quite a history lesson.
SI: Do you still have crickets on the menu?
JS: We do. We have that on the Donaji cocktail.
SI: Because the UN came out with a study recently about how eating bugs could help solve world hunger. Less carbon footprint with a cricket than a cow.
JS: Really? That's very interesting. There's a restaurant in Mexico City called Pujol that has a photo of a volcano in the background and people collecting the insects. It's on the cover of their menu. Smart idea, eating insects.
SI: I'm still staring at your helmet lamp. It's fantastic. Do you have one of these at home?
JS: No. We should have gotten a few extras.
Check back later for Sedlar's recipe for Scallops Arabesque.