John Rivera Sedlar, who opened his downtown restaurant Rivera a year and a half ago, has been one of Los Angeles' best chefs for decades: before Rivera, before the chef “retired” for 15 years, before the Museum Tamal, back to when he ran St. Estephe and Bikini. Sedlar's return was much heralded, and in the 18 or so months since Rivera opened, Sedlar hasn't stopped working or cooking: he's refined his menu, tinkered with the spices and played musical (tequila) chairs with the rooms and the food. Recently the chef unveiled not one new menu but three simultaneously, each in a different room, each a paean to a different Latin cuisine. It's an ambitious and playful project, both of which adjectives describe Sedlar himself, who is opening another restaurant in November.
We sat down to chat with the chef recently, in the back room of Rivera devoted to the Spanish Sangre menu, over a cup of coffee and next to the wall of tequila and a few hilarious Conquistador helmet lamps. Turn the page for the first part of the interview, and check back tomorrow for part two, and Sedlar's recipe for Scallops Arabesque.
Squid Ink: Where to start?
John Sedlar: Where to start — I just don't know. It's just such a colossal, amazing time for restaurateurs and chefs and food writers. We're so lucky to be in this industry right now. It's just on fire; it's white hot.
SI: It seems that way. And you've been in this town for how long exactly?
JS: 73, 83, 93, 2000… Forty years. Forty years. Yes.
SI: How has it change relative to what you do, to Latin food? That seems to have changed a lot, especially recently. At the risk of over-generalizing… what's the best thing that's happened to it?
JS: Great question. And I don't know what the answer is to the best thing that's happened to it. But I think one or two of the major things that have changed, from my perspective, after having retired from the food industry and then coming back, is that the customers have changed. It's not the chefs; the chefs have always been creative. the customers and the staff have changed, to a really wonderful level. And it's completely changed how I approach my job as a chef. It's just, they're interested. Of course it all probably started with the Food Network, which was based out of New York. People say that the viewers don't necessarily know how to cook any better, but they really know how to order food in restaurants. They know how to read a menu, they know what the ingredients are. There's no mystique. The mystique has been lifted. They're interested and they promote restaurants, so they support them. The restaurants support the farmers; they go to the farmers markets. The cooks are much more serious than when I left the industry. The cooks are focused, passionate, educated, great knife skills. The staff and the customers are just wonderful.
SI: So how long were you retired?
JS: 15 years. I came out of retirement [to open Rivera]. Some friends of mine said, let's roll the dice again, and it's been really wonderful. A year and a half since we opened.
SI: So much so that you're opening another restaurant.
JS: Yes. It seems like the right thing to do.
SI: Instead of a food truck, say.
JS: Gosh, those food trucks. But to answer the question about what's happened to Latin food, I was just talking to my chefs in the kitchen, frustrated. And I said, Why is it that the top Latin chefs in our country and in our city are all Anglos? Rick Bayless is such a terrific chef and Wolfgang Puck is the chef at Conga Room: his organization does all the food for that organization. So between that great Austrian-Latin chef and Jimmy Shaw [chef-owner of Loteria Grill]…
And I say, what's wrong with the Latinos in this city? I think that California is just getting a backseat reputation because it's second to New York, where the Food Network is and most publishing, and so. But I think Los Angeles really has the potential to be the greatest food city in the world. And I think that because of the ethnic enclaves it can be the most flavorful food. And where are our Latino chefs? Where are the students and the cooks in our kitchens that should be creating explosively delicious food with their foundation, their basic knowledge, what's in their genes, what's in their roots, what they had growing up? Why aren't they translating those dishes into delicious food? And I think it's a problem.
SI: So why, do you think?
JS: And I was talking to my cooks, who are mostly Latinos, and I said, What's wrong with us? What's wrong with you guys? Why aren't you taking the baton? The customer wants it now. Why aren't you getting those big positions? Why isn't there a Latino running the Conga Room? Why isn't there a Latino running Bayless's restaurant? I wonder if it isn't the Latino-ness in us, if there's a personality trait, a cultural trait; I don't know. It's a question I put on the table and I said, We're going to discuss this more and we're going to look at all the angles. Why, why, why, and what are you guys going to do about it?
SI: So what did they say?
JS: I had everybody eating here, from all the culinary institutes. From the Cordon Bleu, from the CIA, from the CIA in Austin, which is a Latin culinary institute, it focuses on Latin food. They want to send their students to cook here in this restaurant. I was just cooking at the Taste of Santa Fe, and some of the restaurants there want to send their cooks from the heart, where I'm from, from the barrios, from the chile fields — they want to send them here to LA to cook in my kitchen so they can learn what Latin food is. Why? [Laughs.] It's really weird. It's lopsided, and I'm very curious about this.
SI: So why? What's your theory?
JS: When I first came, literally, to California, and you would see Latinos, their eyes were cast down, their shoulders were hunched, it was almost like they were navigating in the city by being quiet, kind of like in a cocoon. And now their shoulders are back, they're looking up: we know our rights, we love our people, we're beautiful, we have great food, and we have great history and great culture and we don't care what they say in Arizona.
For awhile I was shocked that the busboys in all the restaurants were I worked used to own apartment buildings. The busboys worked hard, saved money and were leveraging their money into apartment buildings, and then they'd sell them and get something better. Many of my staff owned houses. And why aren't they opening restaurants? The few that I know, except Guelaguetza, are not propelling this great gastronomy.
SI: Do you have any theories about why?
JS: Well, we've all seen so many revolutions come since California cuisine. Fusion, raw food. [Laughs.]
SI: Do you always laugh when you say raw food?
JS: … And probably another dozen, half dozen revolutions in food. [Still laughing.] I'm a child of nouvelle cuisine. I mean, I knew the 10 commandments of nouvelle cuisine. And then I look at what are commandments of California cuisine; and what are the iconic processes of the molecular gastronomy kitchen. So we've seen the revolutions. Some people think that food started when goat cheese was introduced on arugula salads.
So the only thing that I can say about why is that maybe there might be an inherent embarrassment, you know, to what Latin food is. The clunky tortilla, the fatty cheeses, the menudo. It's seen as very ethnic. I personally feel that Latin food has finally arrived; it's finally shoulder to shoulder with the other great kitchens of the world. But I just don't know if Latinos understand that, or if they (we) have a broad enough exposure to a global reference.
SI: Sometimes the thing that's hardest to see — it sounds clichéd — is what's in your backyard.
JS: When people leave Los Angeles I think what they want to come back home to is Mexican food. The identity of the city, really our true heritage is Latin. It's Mexican, Zapotec, South American, Spanish, Portuguese.
Being downtown here has been very interesting, so I just created — it took a year to write this menu — a Latin food story. What I've done is called Conexiones, and I've tried to connect all the Latin stories that we know here in Southern California, try and connect Spain and Southern California, the Aztecs and the Moors, the Caribbean and Argentina, and what are all these connections and where do all these foods come from. So it's connecting cultures ancient and modern, connecting continents.
SI: You're quite an anthropologist.
JS: We had to really look into quite a lot of stories.
Check back tomorrow for the second part of this interview, and for Sedlar's recipe for Scallops Arabesque.