(Interview by Mark Oppenheimer/Photos by Ramsay de Give)
In the Summer 1974, armed with the basics of French technique, which he learned at a café in Santa Fe, John Sedlar made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles to undertake the rigors of learning the French kitchen by apprenticing to Chef Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage.
Eventually, John struck out on his own, opening Saint Estéphe in the South Beach area of Torrance, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Under-financed, failing and unaware of the culinary history unfolding all around him, the young chef explored an idea that not only saved his restaurant, but deemed him forever the creator of Modern Southwest Cuisine, thrusting him out of obscurity and into the burgeoning limelight of the Los Angeles restaurant landscape. This new concept was the natural ‘fusing’ of Southwest ingredients with traditional French cooking techniques, and it was received to great acclaim.
John Sedlar is a restaurant provocateur, a Renaissance man, a food visionary, a chef who unknowingly became an essential, vital part of restaurant history and food lore; he was among the first of those who later came to be known as celebrity chefs.
Four decades later, in 2015, fascinated by what is still left to learn, unafraid to fail and unwilling to copy himself, John opened Eliosa in Santa Fe, where he continues interpreting and fusing cuisines in a way only he can. Humbled by time and experience, with an infectious curiosity, John’s quest to unravel a food’s essence and serve his customers the mystery of flavors and tastes is our good fortune.
Mark Oppenheimer: What feeds you and what do you feed?
Chef John Sedlar: I have a very symbiotic relationship with my customers. My customers, as they like to say, are well fed. I’m not talking about quantity, but rather, people who are very interested in food; they’re constantly traveling the world, they’re very knowledgeable. We have a relationship where I challenge them and they challenge me—and they want to be challenged, as well as I want to be challenged.
I’ve gone to the Middle East to research ingredients and techniques and traditional foods to understand a food’s journey from there to the Santa Fe kitchen, as well as including holy foods and sacred foods found in the Holy City. Food can be very political, and there’s very powerful meaning in those foods that we’re eating. They mean a lot to people, to chefs, and they really pull people together.
Mark: You have a natural feel for the spectacle of presentation, the theatrics and the story of a meal, immersing the customer in a total experience in which you excite all five senses—sound, smell, taste, sight, touch—as well as emotions.
John: Being trained in a French kitchen, there is an immersion into everything seasonal, engaging all the senses, as well as the visual sense of what the plate is, what food vessel the food is served from, and a dramatic flourish of unique ingredients. Aromas are very important. One of my favorite meals these days is “The Essence of the Southwest,” which is a menu inspired by the artist Georgia O’Keeffe and it’s designed to engage all the senses. The menu comes to the table, it’s a tasting menu, and has to be ordered by the entire table. The menu is 24-30-inches across and it opens up with vistas of Ms. O’Keeffe’s summer home in Abiquiu, and her winter home at the Ghost Ranch. It has vistas of her garden, and what she was growing there. The first page you open up is a huge picture of Ms. O’Keeffe’s eyes. Georgia O’Keeffe is considered to be one of America’s greatest women artists. The menu reflects how she saw food and the prism that she viewed and appreciated the canvas of a plate—in a very similar way to the way she saw a canvas when she would paint the desert strewn with bones of the Southwest.
The first course that comes is an aromatics course, foods that you only smell. A plate of various herbs and fruits arrive at the table that you can smell and pass around to each other. The idea is, being in Santa Fe, at the restaurant Eloisa, we transport the guests to Abiquiu. We ask, what’s the chamisa? What’s the sage? Where are the chiles from up there when they’re roasted? What does the piñon smell like when it’s toasted? So we pass these aromatics to all the guests and show them pictures of the Abiquiu region where Miss O’Keeffe lived and had her garden. So, there’s an actual picture, an engagement; it’s hard to describe, but it’s a very contemporary and modern garnishment for modern cooking.
Mark: When I consider your life’s work as a chef and restaurateur, I think of you as not only a chef exploring and mining the world’s tastes and flavors, but as an anthropologist seeking to uncover the mysteries of a civilization by investigating its ingredients, cooking methods, presentation and growing practices, all the while preserving the rich culinary histories of cultures.
John: There are many civilizations represented in the Santa Fe kitchen—influences from many civilizations. During my recent trip to the Middle East, I was exploring some of the basic ingredients like figs, dates, pomegranates and spices like cumino and pimenton that have made their way across North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula and across the Atlantic to New Mexico into the Santa Fe kitchen.
The culinary roots of the ingredients of the Santa Fe kitchen lexicon really go much further back than we originally realized. Originally, we thought they only went as far back as Portugal and Spain, maybe even Morocco, Marrakech and North Africa, but in fact, they go back much further and are much older than we originally realized. My experience with cuisine around the world has inspired me to think about the way that food exerts a powerful effect on people, from the basic to the artistic and sublime. Looking at the way different cultures experience food is a profound examination of the human condition. To share food with people is to become acquainted with one another on a deeper level. We are beginning to realize that gastronomy is a cultural force, and an artistic force as well.
Mark: It’s been said that mathematicians and scientists do their best work in their 20s and 30s. In 1995, you were the youngest chef to ever receive the Silver Spoon Award from Food Arts magazine. Is there a similar window when a chef is at the height of their powers?
John: That’s a good question. I had extremely good success as a young chef. But now that my role is changing—I’m not a line cook anymore—I’m very very fortunate that I get to cook when I want to. I think that I’m at the zenith of my creative expression because of the knowledge that I have. The older I get, the more I understand that knowledge is layers upon layers of flavors, history, textures, color, and it’s just more fun than ever to cook and create menus. It’s quite fascinating because I understood the building blocks of the Santa Fe kitchen. With age, it’s all actually gotten better.
Mark: Fifteen years ago, you had the courage to walk away from your restaurants, and the bravery to return 15 years later. What was that experience like?
John: It’s not so much that I changed, but that the world changed. Kitchens change, and leaving the kitchen for 15 years and then coming back, the market is greatly enhanced, the people are eating very differently, and the community is always changing—and the pageantry of the dining table, the tablescape, it was very different, very stimulating and new. I challenge my customers and my customers challenge me. There’s various ways to eat that are new and stimulating. The world changes so fast that, in a blink of an eye, things are brand new.
Mark: What does the relationship between a chef and farmer look like to you? How does the chef inform the farmer and the farmer inform the chef?
John: That’s a very fundamental relationship that requires each to actually talk together on a regular basis. It’s wonderful when something is planted, grown and harvested especially for you. Animal husbandry and nose-to-tail programs are very specific now. One of the biggest problems is that as a restaurant chef buying produce, many times, there isn’t enough. You have enough for 10 or 20 specials, but when it’s something that you can put on your menu three months out of the year as it comes into season, you put it on your menu, it peaks in flavor, and as it wanes, you choose something else that is coming into season. Potentially, there’s a lot of constructive dialogue and communication that can happen between farmer and chef that will continue to inspire one another.
Mark: Does the farm-to-table philosophy or approach to cooking make sense to you—especially in a place like Santa Fe, which has a short growing season?
John: It’s a complicated question and a complicated answer. Farm-to-table speaks metaphorically as to whether it’s the freshest fish—is your meat aged, and humanely butchered? Are you near sustainable farms or does it take a lot of resources like petroleum to get the farm-fresh vegetables to you? It’s a very good concept and there is nothing that compares with locally grown, certified organic, sustainable, fresh produce. In that context, it’s the most delicious you can eat. Local and sustainable is ideal. But now, for better or worse, it’s a global market, you can buy things in any season from some place in the world, and it’s available. Does it burn a lot of environmental calories in order to ship it? Yes, it does. You have to weigh the benefits against the environmental and quality downsides.
One of the problems chefs have today is that there are too many ingredients available, too many premium ingredients that are peak flavor of the season and peak ripeness. It’s a global market, and we have many choices of such wonderful, deep-flavored ingredients.
Mark: What do you think of the workshop at the International Association of Culinary Professionals on Instagram food photography?
John: I think it’s fantastic. I’m actually hosting a social-media photography workshop in the Eloisa kitchen with local photographer Gabriella Marks. As a chef, I think it’s fantastic [that] people [are] shooting photos of food, every single thing they eat. Sometimes, the food is so interesting and is so good that they think that everybody else needs to know about it. I know that in Los Angeles, Twitter and social media have been a huge, important factor in the success of many restaurants. From a restaurateur-chef standpoint, it’s a lot of fun. And I’m glad IACP is teaching this. They have their pulse on communication.
Mark: Your food has a musical quality, tone, texture, high and low notes. Many chefs simply print up dishes on a menu, but you don’t. Do you compose your meals with an accompanied soundtrack?
John: I think less in terms of dishes, even though the dishes can be considered notes and the tone and tempo that support the orchestra. I think in terms of cuisines. I think in terms of cuisines and regionality. People right now are more than ever interested in the story of a meal than really in an ingredient-by-ingredient analysis. They love the support and relationship of each ingredient to the big story. It’s really the cuisines, these tectonic stories that ask, “What was going on on that continent? Where did it come from? How did it get there, and where did it go?”
Mark: In your blending of traditional French technique with Southwestern ingredients, what do you think you came to understand about each individual cuisine that you wouldn’t have if you’d only given your attention to each one separately?
John: For the European kitchen, flavor is so important, whether it’s from combining many ingredients or if it’s from a single ingredient. New Mexican food is very intense, especially the red and the green chile. To focus and isolate all the great characteristics of this food without diminishing the color, flavor, spiciness, it took the French discipline to do that. The discipline of the two cuisines together and the vibrant bright flavors of Southwest food is a wonderful exercise to go through to understand that. But I think as I named that book and coined those words in the early ’80s, Modern Southwest Cuisine, I now think there’s a new Santa Fe cuisine, it’s a different Santa Fe cuisine than Modern Southwest would be. And it has to do with global influences. It’s very technical, complex and very delicious, really leaning on the high notes of the Santa Fe foundations ingredients. It’s international; it’s on a different solar system.
Mark: How has globalism changed menus around the world?
John: Chefs are first responders to different eating styles and to different and new ingredients. They definitely impact the global market. Part of my goal is as I monitor global, local and regional food trends is I see it’s all in flux and moving very fast. A few years ago, I went to Paris to touch base and check in with the French kitchen. I went to most of the Michelin-starred and the leading gastronomic restaurants. I did some research and exploration, looking into what have the French done in the last 20 years. Where have they come to? I ate and ate and ate, and I realized they haven’t gone anywhere.[laughs]. There’s been more advancement in American kitchens than there have been in the French kitchens. The French developed an incredible foundation, yet their cuisine is fatigued. There’s some very interesting American chefs working in Paris, some of them [are] producing some of the most interesting foods. So that’s just one little region, a very important gastronomic region.
The South American [food scene] is exploding; it’s incredible what raw ingredients are coming out of Brazil. Peru is happening, too, from the ancient ingredients to what’s happening with ceviche. There’s so many layers, variations and kinds of ceviche.
Mark: What’s the most important quality in a chef?
John: I think the full focus of a restaurant is many things. But to a chef, flavor and taste is everything. I’ll answer it like this, as I happen to be in the midst of training the cooks: I’m training them in the foundations—good quality salt, white pepper, black pepper, pink pepper berries, green pepper corns. I train them to understand and know good seasonings—good cooking oil, good salad dressings, fundamental, basic foundations, and we cook at 7,000 feet. We cook very high style, very ambitious, very aggressive, hyper-creative. Sometimes, it’s all teetering on not working. Some of the dishes we make are created and they just don’t work and that’s OK. Then, it’s a matter of tasting everything as they’re cooking—when it’s the final ‘à la minute’—the pulling together of a dish when you have three sauté pans for one dish and you have to taste it, have your supply of spoons at the ready—you gotta give it love, cook slowly, stir it, taste it again, then again. One of my cooks de cuisine would tell his cooks, “Give it love, give it love.” It sounds kind of hokey, but it’s very, very true and it makes such a big difference in every dish that peaks flavor as it goes through the window to the customer. So for me, it’s really taste, making sure it’s balanced, delicious and fresh. You can taste history by eating history.
Mark: How would you like to be remembered? How do you consider your legacy?
John: New Mexico is my home. My family are from here; our family ranch is here, and I love the ingredients and the flavors of New Mexico. I was very lucky that in the ’80s and ’90s, I was literally invited around the world, to bring these foods with me so people could see and taste what Southwestern food really is. It’s a very grand cuisine and the chefs are being extremely creative here in the Rio Grande Valley, and I think that in that area [where] Native American food has come to the forefront very fast, as it’s at once both the oldest cuisine of the Americas and it’s going to be the newest interesting cuisine of the Americas. It will be both the oldest and the newest—and what the ingredients are, how they’re prepared, how they’re being interpreted, prepared and filtered through the eyes and hands of young men and women chefs, probably Native, in the kitchens and the pueblos of the Southwest—it’s going to be very exciting.
I’d like to be remembered for helping evolve Modern Southwest Cuisine.
Eloisa restaurant is at 228 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe. 505.982.0883. eloisasantafe.com.