John R. Sedlar

September 1995

Food Arts presents the September 1995 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to John Rivera Sedlar, father of modern Southwest cuisine, for updating, upgrading, and celebrating the foods of his Hispanic heritage.

When Sedlar and partner Steve Garcia opened Sain Estéphe in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1980, the menu was nouvelle French. But Sedlar couldn't stop putting peppers into just about everything, and Saint Estéphe soon became the first of the fine dining Southwesterns. Sedlar sold his shares in 1990, and the restaurant closed two years later.

Next he opened Bikini in Santa Monica, a spectacularly beautiful restaurant where he was able to play with the other ingredients that had long appealed to him, especially those of the Pacific Rim. "By then I had traveled all over the world," he says. "And my clientele had too. They wanted new flavors."

And now at age 40, with his restaurant Abiqiui in Santa Monica and a five-book series on Hispanic food forthcoming from Ten Speed Press (Berkeley), Sedlar is enjoying "a realignment with my roots."

Those who know Sedlar know the reverence he has for his heritage. His father was an American serviceman stationed in Albuquerque when he met his mother, whose family had come to New Mexico from Spain, via Mexico. Sedlar was born and raised in Santa Fe; his aunt, Jerry Newsom, was Georgia O'Keefe's personal chef. One of his earliest memories is of his grandmother making bizochitos while listening to Mass in Spanish on the radio. "She—and not my mother—was really my link to Southwestern cooking," he says. "Together we'd cook traditional dishes: posole, enchiladas, empanaditas, sopaipillas."

When Sedlar was five, the Air Force sent his family to France and, later, to Spain, where they stayed for three years. Back in the States, he got his first cooking job during high school, in a restaurant where haute cuisine comprised one side of the menu and burritos and tacos on the other. "No one in Santa Fe seemed to think that odd," he says. "I cooked the French side, which was much more interesting to me." When he felt ready for some classic training, he apprenticed himself, at age 23, to the legendary Jean Bertranou at L'Ermitage in Los Angeles.

Bikini, opened in 1991, was almost Asian in its simplicity but carried a $2 million price tag nonetheless. And into this serene, sophisticated room Sedlar injected the whimsy for which he has become known: oversize Lichtenstein-style chargers proclaiming "Blam! Blam!"; dishes with pop art names such as "Tacos Godzilla" and "Flying Lobster Sushi." The reviews for the food were superb. And then came the earthquake, January 17, 1994. The building was heavily damaged and so was much of the restaurant. The wine bottles smashed, the computer system crashed, much of the glass and custom china were gone. More than a year later, Bikini's huge front windows were still cracking.

So when Bill Kimpton tapped Sedlar to create a Southwestern restaurant in the Monticello Hotel in San Francisco, he jumped at the chance to return to his "native" cuisine, in a new market and without the hassles of ownership. He called the restaurant Abiquiu, after the New Mexico town where his family has had a ranch for 120 years. It opened in May 1994, and Sedlar says he was relieved. The closing gave him freedom to pursue his most current passion, tamales. "I've devoted this entire year to them," he proclaims. "I want people to learn that they're not labor intensive. Sure, if you're making 500 in one afternoon they are, but as an everyday staple, they're a nutritious, versatile, fast, filling food." Sedlar's Tamales poster was just published by Ten Speed Press, and he's finishing up his recipes for a tamale cookbook he's writing with chefs Mark Miller and Stephen Pyles. Then comes a single-subject series: another book on tamales, followed by chile rellenos, huevos rancheros, tacos, and enchiladas.

So why this fascination with the cuisine of his Hispanic forebears, and why now? "With all the wild experimentation of the '80s," he says, "it's comforting to return to regional classics: a traditional bowl of pinto beans, a warm crusty tortilla, the perfect posole, an ethereal green chile sauce. I feel a responsibility to perpetuate these dishes and to preserve their distinct nuances."

This month, Sedlar's career comes poignantly full circle as he packs up his pots and plates and heads for Abiquiu, New Mexico, to cook a fund-raiser. "Over the years, I've been invited to cook in Moscow, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Toronto, Italy, and Chile," he reports. "I've cooked for politicians and movie stars, at the Playboy Mansion and at Rockefeller Center. But to be invited home, to my small pueblo of Abiquiu, tickles me the most."