Before Eloisa, before he became an internationally known chef, before Gourmet magazine dubbed him the “Father of Modern Southwest Cuisine,” John Rivera Sedlar was a 13-year-old kid in The Bull Ring kitchen, working for a Frenchman whose name translated to “John Refrigerator.”
But how Jean Frigo figures in the story of 63-year-old Sedlar’s improbable, remarkable culinary journey will have to wait. For now, he’s discussing the opening course of his artistic, high-concept O’Keeffe Table dining experience: a tray of aromatics designed to evoke the environment and atmosphere of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Northern New Mexico home.
“Usually, I would be in a chef’s jacket and I would be standing,” Sedlar says before launching into a sensory guide to the striking outlay of purple sage, artemisia tridentata, jalapeño, red chile, apricots and bright strawberries whose scent summons to mind the color red.
Instead of standing in front of guests and presenting the courses, the chef has taken the time today to sit in Eloisa’s intimate private dining room and reflect on his multifaceted culinary career and his Santa Fe restaurant, which he opened in 2015 and named for his grandmother. Sedlar is newly retired from restaurants. He served his final day at the helm of Eloisa’s kitchen Dec. 12, and the Drury Plaza Hotel and restaurant staff feted his retirement with an elaborate dinner and even a cameo from his 88-year-old mother, Rose.
But the Santa Fe native — whose career has included critically acclaimed Los Angeles restaurants, a groundbreaking cookbook that fused traditional Southwestern cuisine with classic French technique and a quest to introduce the flavors of his childhood home to the rest of the world — isn’t slowing down. He has a host of ambitious projects ahead, from state dinners and new cookbooks to researching New Mexico’s earliest food origins and refining our definition of its most classic cuisine.
“Fifty years ago on Old Santa Fe Trail, I was at The Bull Ring, and 50 years later I’ve come to Palace Avenue, with an homage to a great home cook and a professional cook, Eloisa Rivera. But in between all that time,” he adds with a smile, “a lot has happened.”
Talking to Sedlar over courses of Eloisa’s signature culinary offering is a whirlwind of memory, knowledge and insight. He recalls childhood visits to O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú homes and a decades-later invitation from the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation to load up on ripe apricots from her garden.
His Aunt Geronima — Eloisa’s sister, who they called Aunt Jerry — served as the legendary artist’s cook and chauffeur for years, and her intimate knowledge of O’Keeffe’s dining habits and food preferences formed the basis of his multicourse menu at Eloisa.
Each dish is intricately plotted and presented, accompanied by a book of oversized photos that help weave an insightful narrative of both O’Keeffe and her life in Northern New Mexico. Blue Poppies, a nod to her famous red poppy paintings, are Peruvian potato crisps with full-flavored trout roe (she loved fish from the river) and a spicy pop of chipotle crema served atop a showstopping glass-topped animal skull.
A carefully composed salad marries Blue Lake green beans (O’Keeffe vacationed at Lake George with husband Alfred Stieglitz) with beets and radishes (she grew those vegetables in her garden) and watercress (which grew wild at her Abiquiú studio home after a rainstorm). It’s all topped with a distinctive toasted sesame oil vinaigrette — a favorite recipe of O’Keeffe’s from her large collection of cookbooks, which she and Aunt Jerry would peruse in the evenings over classical music, Sedlar says.
The Taos Abstraction pairs grilled salmon with eggplant that contains a geometric presentation of potato and Wisconsin cheese, which O’Keeffe’s sisters would bring when they visited.
“We go to the local farmers market; we have ingredients flown in,” Sedlar says. “We’re a global restaurant with a foundation of New Mexico ingredients. People will say, ‘Did Eloisa really cook that?’ ” He laughs. “Kinda. Eloisa was my grandmother, and I worked with her in her kitchens, and I learned how to fry fish and we loved potatoes gratin and green chile sauces. So in a way, it’s a thread to our culinary founders and past.”
Sedlar was influenced at a young age by the culinary skills of strong women in his life. “All the ladies — señoras, tías, hermanas — in our family were all very good cooks,” he says. “There were still wood stoves — even in Eloisa’s house, four blocks from here, she had a wood stove. They were so talented at using these wood stoves, between the ovens and the fryer on top of the stove and baking and stewing the beans all day long and then fast-frying the sopaipillas and tortillas out of flour.”
His grandmother Eloisa got Sedlar his first job as a busboy at La Fonda, but he soon found work at The Bull Ring, where Frigo fashioned his menu with one side of continental French dishes and the other of New Mexican specialties.
“He was very proud of being French, and he didn’t like our New Mexican food,” Sedlar says. “It turns out that most of the French didn’t like our food.”
The New Mexico-raised boy became a master at French technique, apprenticing himself to legendary French chef Jean Bertranou in Los Angeles. At his first restaurant, Saint Estèphe, Sedlar began merging the cuisine he was raised on with the French techniques he’d learned. Then, in 1984, he published Modern Southwest Cuisine, a transformative take on everything from huevos rancheros to biscochitos.
Rocky Durham, now the executive chef at Blue Heron Restaurant at Sunrise Springs Spa Resort, remembers the book well. As an emerging cook in Los Angeles in 1989, he used the book as inspiration for his own dishes.
“Without the influence of his work, even before I met the man, there’s no way I would be the chef I am today,” said Durham, who spoke at Sedlar’s farewell dinner. “This is a mentorship that for me started in 1989, even though it was years before I met him.”
For Sedlar, accolades and a string of acclaimed L.A. restaurants, including pan-Latin fusion restaurant Rivera, followed. But Sedlar had his sights set even higher.
“After introducing modern Southwest cuisine, I started getting calls from Hong Kong, Russia, Rome, everywhere. They all wanted to know what is Southwestern food and what are the ingredients? I decided to train the world, to educate the world about what these ingredients were.
“They thought of it as a second-class cuisine, but I knew that it had great virtues: that it was nutritious, that it was beautiful, colorful, aristocratic. It had story and tradition.”
He traveled extensively, even sipping vodka at the Kremlin and marching in Red Square with other chefs in the ’90s. More recently, he cooked for the king of Spain at the home of Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles.
Garcetti also sent him to L.A.’s sister city, Bordeaux, France, to cook a New Mexico-style dinner and luncheon for 400 at the storied Place de la Bourse. At the event, he introduced his staff to the appreciative crowd — and shared the story of Frigo.
“I said, ‘It gives me great joy to be here with my ingredients from my home and the cooks from my home,’ ” he says. “It was full circle. We had arrived, and New Mexico had arrived. Now New Mexico is getting great respect for its food, for the various levels of textures and flavors. It’s almost shoulder to shoulder with the other great kitchens and cuisines of the world. Our goal is to take it there, to bridge that last step.”
The Eloisa kitchen is now run by chef Mario Mendoza-Martinez, a Geronimo and Luminaria alumnus who has been at Eloisa since 2017 under Sedlar’s mentorship, said Rick Pedram, director of food and beverage operations at the Drury. The restaurant will continue to adhere to Sedlar’s modern Southwest philosophy and approach, and the O’Keeffe Table will continue to be a key component of the restaurant’s offerings, he said.
“He’s the founder, the restaurant is named for his grandmother, his recipes will always be a part of the operations,” Pedram said.
Which brings Sedlar to what lies ahead. He’s been asked to plan state dinners for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and consult on her edible garden. He’s working toward submitting his vision of what New Mexico’s official state cuisine might look like. And he has two cookbooks planned for 2021: one on traditional cooking in the Rio Grande Valley, another on O’Keeffe and her dining habits. Also in the works is a high-quality boutique food line, called New Mexico Pantry, that would supply apricot jam, vinegars and other items.
Sedlar recently traveled to Israel and said he’s searching for the earliest roots of New Mexican cuisine while exploring Santa Fe’s confluence of culinary influences from across the Americas and around the world. On this weekday afternoon in the private dining room of his final restaurant, it’s clear Sedlar’s culinary future is wide open.
“I have a food vision for Santa Fe,” he says. “It’s a long-term food vision, and Eloisa was really the baby steps — to come into town, to understand the vendors, to understand the staff, the ingredients and to put my arms around what’s happening food-wise historically and culturally — and the fun really is going to continue.”