Today, John Sedlar gets a more-than-deserved victory lap in The L.A. Times. Seriously, we've wanted to hoist this chef onto the city's shoulders and carry him down Broadway for a while now and are overjoyed at Betty Hallock's fluid tribute. The Rivera mastermind not only gets due credit for pioneering Southwestern cooking and advancing such flourishes as elaborate sauce drizzling, mixing chocolate with chiles, and modern art plating, but he also came back from restaurant retirement to earn a rare three-and-a-half star review from The L.A. Times for Rivera, which many agree with its critic is the city's most captivating fine-dining establishment.
While Sedlar is still working on his dream of a tamale museum (there is a full website), he takes the paper through his early years when he and a handful of Southwestern chefs like Mark Miller, Robert Del Grande, Stephan Pyles, and Dean Fearing started questioning their euro-centric influences and turned inward to their own U.S. heritage. After opening Saint Estephe in Manhattan Beach, Sedlar started putting together his vision of U.S.-Latin cuisine, starting with the tortilla. He tells the paper, "I worked with my grandmother in search of the perfect tortilla. We held them up in our hands, took pictures, studied the shape of them, the char marks."
Sedlar's veneration of Southwestern U.S. and Latin American folded inside of French recipes took off, blowing the minds of pro diners like Ruth Reichl, who once wrote, "When he first put dishes such as ravioli stuffed with carne adobada in a chevre sauce on his menu, most of his customers thought he was insane...Ten years later his French-inflected Southwestern menu seems not only sane but downright sensible." And the praise pours in from celebrated chef Mary Sue Milliken, who says, "John's one of those people who has a contagious passion and persistence."
After selling his stake, Sedlar chased Saint Estephe with Santa Monica's sleek Bikini, a restaurant that the chef calls "Rivera, exploded." And explode it did. Or rather, it went bust amid a recession. Sedlar then pulled a Matt Johnson, though he claims he didn't disappear so much as take a few months off that led to fifteen years spent on consulting jobs, traveling, and putting out his own line of tamales.
The art-obsessed chef was a little freaked out to open the two-million dollar Rivera fifteen years later, but the proof is in the puerco pibil, as we say, with Sedlar's partner Bill Chait confirming that both Rivera and the newer Playa are quite successful.
Sedlar's next move is to finally get that Museo Tamal open and running, and he even has sponsors and a temporary space to fulfill that passion, though the size hardly covers his entire vision. The French-trained chef also divulges an interest in opening a Latin restaurant in Paris, an idea he claims will bring him "full-circle."
Through his past successes and unshakeable ambitions for the future, what impresses us most about Sedlar is his drive to keep innovating and exploring the cuisine that forms so much of our region's character, along with his palpable passion for Los Angeles and the entire Southwest, and for the humble, friendly attitude he exhibits with everyone. Let's hope he's just getting started!