Expansive views bathed in salubrious, sun-kissed air punctuated by languid breezes. Cerulean skies graduating in depth and brilliance the higher they climb above the horizon. Surreal topography of unnaturally contorted, dappled sandstone formations and juniper laden foothills. Lush, well-tended gardens blessed with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, flowers and shrubs. Such was the idyll Georgia O’Keefe called home.
On Sunday, July 19th, 2015, another transcendent artist–one whose medium is food and whose canvas is the palate—spent the day at the home of the legendary doyenne of American painting. He went there to pick apricots from the Abiquiu property on which she had lovingly doted. It wasn’t John Rivera Sedlar’s first visit. Much of the chef’s upbringing and many of his happiest memories were at his family’s ranch in Abiquiu, not too far from where O’Keefe had lived and where she had painted the stunning macro perspectives of floral sensuality which captivated the world.
Chef Sedlar’s aunt, Jerry Newsom, was Georgia O’Keefe’s personal chef for more than a decade, but it was under the nurturing influence of his grandmother Eloisa Martinez Rivera that his interest in cooking was kindled. Not only did she teach him how to prepare traditional New Mexican staples such as posole, sopaipillas and enchiladas, she instilled in him, a spirit of generosity through her alacritous example of feeding the familial multitudes who often gathered at the family ranch for celebrations.
Had Chef Sedlar’s formative development been limited to familial learnings, he might have pursued the culinary culture of New Mexico exclusively, however, he culled a wider expanse of culinary appreciation from living in Spain and France where the Air Force had stationed his father. When his father retired, Eloisa got the precocious then-fourteen-year-old a job in the hotel kitchen of La Fonda in Santa Fe’s famous Plaza. Not long thereafter, he took a job at the Bull Ring. Even back then, Santa Fe’s restaurants weren’t formulaic and predictable. Because the restaurants in which he worked while still in high school featured haute cuisine on one side of the menu and “Spanish” (traditional New Mexican) food on the other, he quickly added French cuisine to his repertoire.
From Santa Fe, he moved to Los Angeles where, at age 23, he apprenticed under the legendary Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage. At L’Ermitage he mastered classic techniques while continuing to evolve his own approach to cooking. By 1980, Chef Sedlar was ready to strike out as a restaurant owner, partnering with Santa Fe native Estevan Garcia to launch Saint Estéphe in Manhattan Beach. Initially offering nouvelle French cuisine, the restaurant evolved to become one of the Los Angeles area’s first fine-dining Southwestern restaurants.
Modern Southwest cuisine as it was executed at Saint Estéphe was such a breath-of-fresh-air concept that Bon Apetit magazine named the pioneering establishment “among the very best in California, or even the west.” In the kitchen Chef Sedlar employed fusion techniques, especially of French and New Mexican ingredients, long before the term “fusion” came into vogue. At the heart of his culinary pairings were the ingredients on which he had been weaned in New Mexico, ingredients he wisely embraced and lovingly shared with his guests.
Had he remained in New Mexico, it’s conceivable that the driven chef would have achieved significant acclaim, but it would likely have been the “big fish in a small pond” type of recognition. Instead, he plied his craft in the megalopolis of Los Angeles where diners (and the peripatetic media) tend to be more persnickety and less forgiving. To survive that scrutiny, you’ve got to be good. To stand out and excel in that limelight for forty years, you’ve got to be great. Chef Sedlar’s “big fish in a big pond” greatness placed him in rarefied company, a pantheon of culinary luminescence.
From a culinary perspective, Chef Sedlar’s accomplishments are almost Jeffersonian in their breadth and impact. No less than Gourmet Magazine named him “the father of modern Southwest cuisine.” He was the youngest chef ever to receive the Silver Spoon Award from Food Arts Magazine. In 2011, Esquire Magazine named him “Chef of the Year” and listed Rivera, his restaurant at the time, among the nation’s “Best New Restaurants” for 2011. He was recognized in the Cook’s Magazine feature “Top 50 Who’s Who of Cooking in America” and has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard Award as Best Chef of the Pacific. Chef Sedlar is the author of several cookbooks and “The Tamale Poster” which still adorns the walls of many restaurants. You may even have seen him on season three of the Top Chef Masters series.
One of the Land of Enchantment’s most alluring qualities is how it draws its sons and daughters back home. It’s a pull we can’t resist. After more than forty years in the fast-paced fishbowl that is Los Angeles, Chef Sedlar, too, felt the compelling need to return home. Still too vibrant and energetic to retire, he sold Rivera, his wildly successful Los Angeles restaurant in the shadow of the star-studded Staples Center and signed on to helm the restaurant operation at the Drury Plaza Hotel in Santa Fe. Fittingly, he chose to name his restaurant Eloisa after the grandmother who set him on the path of his passion.
Perhaps no word in the vernacular of Spanish Northern New Mexico evokes such veneration, reverence (and, for those of us who have lost these heaven-sent treasures, a melancholy ache not even time can erase) as “abuelita” or grandmother. Though Eloisa is named specifically for Chef Sedlar’s own grandmother, his restaurant celebrates all Southwestern women—the madres, tias and hermanas—whom he contends “have always formed the foundation of New Mexico’s culinary heritage.”
Few grandmothers have had the luxury of such a regally appointed kitchen as the immaculately gleaming kitchen which graces Eloisa. It’s twice the size of the kitchen at Rivera, Chef Sedlar’s last restaurant in Los Angeles. You’ll want to be seated in close proximity so you can lustily ogle the transformation of down-to-earth New Mexican ingredients into exotic creations which both honor and elevate the Land of Enchantment’s culinary traditions. Watching the kitchen staff assiduously go about their prep work with the efficiency and synchronicity of drone bees is almost mesmerizing.
Eloisa’s commodious dining room seats 120 guests inside and weather-permitting, another 65 guests on the patio. The west-facing restaurant is airy and bright, features which inspire Chef Sedlar. The adjoining bar is a sommelier’s dream with an enviable wine list. Walls are festooned with 25 framed photographs on loan from Tamal, the first museum dedicated solely to the celebration of Latin culture as viewed through the lens of food. Tamal is yet another of Chef Sedlar’s dreams reaching fruition, and like a new father, he proudly pointed out photos depicting among other foods and cooking implements: huitlacoche in macro, a molcajete (pestle) and tejolote (mortar) used for grinding ingredients and tortillas adorned with floral designs.
While impressive under picture frame glass, Tortillas Florales (floral tortillas) will take your breath away when you peel back the hot kitchen towel and release steam redolent with corn. The impact is akin to finding a fossilized fern on the hills backdropping Abiquiu. Pressed into tender comal-cooked disks are fresh and dried edible flowers and herbs. As striking as they are visually, these tortillas are meant to be a holistically sensual experience. Shut your eyes and let your nostrils and taste buds imbibe aromas and flavors which will impress themselves on your senses. Feel the delicate texture of the flowers on the tortilla. Available for both lunch and dinner, the Tortillas Florales are served with a side of “Indian Butter” which is essentially an unctuous, addictive guacamole.
From an esthetic point of view, it may not be possible to top the Tortillas Florales, but edible art is plated with every order. We likened the Piquillos Rellenos to a beautiful sanguine heart. Piquillo, a Spanish term for “little beak” is meant to describe the shape of the pepper, not any generalized level of piquancy. Piquillo peppers are richly flavored with sweet-spicy notes that are enhanced through the roasting process. At Eloisa, the piquillos are roasted then stuffed with Gruyere, chorizo and golden raisins, ingredients which play off one another in a concordant symphony of flavors.
Chef Sedlar was happy I had ordered the Duck Enfrijolada, explaining that just as “enchilada” denotes corn tortillas covered with chile, “enfrijolada” means the corn tortillas are covered in beans. As with all New Mexican frijole fanatics, he understands the subtleties and nuances of beans grown in Estancia, Espanola, Moriarty and other bean-producing communities throughout the Land of Enchantment. After one bite of my entrée, I could have sworn these beans came from Heaven. Blue corn tortillas are the canvas for a masterpiece showcasing duck confit, radicchio, crema and a New Mexico cabernet chile sauce all covered in beans. These ingredients coalesce into a sum even more delicious than its parts.
At first, the notion of a Frito pie at an upscale Southwestern restaurant seemed almost incongruous, like stick figures at the Louvre. We quickly surmised that under Chef Sedlar’s deft hands, this would be no ordinary Frito pie—and it wasn’t. The only Fritos to actually grace this entrée were on the labels of the bag in which it was served. Instead, the bag was engorged with housemade corn chips with a textural semblance to wontons and a pronounced corn flavor. These chips share space on the bag with chile verde chicken, red onion, cilantro and shaved Cotija cheese. My Kim called it the best Frito pie she’s ever had and as proof, offered me only one swoon-worthy bite.
Among the many favorite dishes Chef Sedlar learned to prepare from his beloved Grandma Eloisa are bizcochitos, the first cookie in the fruited plain to be recognized as an official state cookie (House Bill 406, 1989). For a cookie to earn such a distinction, you know it’s got to be good. Eloisa’s traditional anise-laced cookies exemplify everything that’s beloved and wonderful about bizcochitos, then they’re taken to rarefied air with the pairing of popcorn ice cream. Yes, popcorn ice cream, a feat of molecular gastronomy wizardry that pairs salty-savory and sweet-creamy flavor profiles to titillate your taste buds.
Popcorn ice cream also elevates a caramel brioche that by itself is merely outstanding. The top layer of the brioche is caramelized in a crème Brulee fashion. Puncture that sugary brown sheet and you’re rewarded with a custardy, eggy bread akin to a moist, rich bread pudding. Spoon on a bit of the popcorn ice cream and taste bud delirium might ensue. Then for even more sheer contrast, pair the brioche with the musky, tangy Abiquiu apricot half. This dish is as much an adventure in flavor discernment—so many complementary contrasts–as it is a spoil yourself indulgence.
In purposely timing our inaugural visit for lunch on a Saturday, we entertained faint hopes of getting to meet the great chef, if only to express our gratitude for his return to New Mexico. When we did espy him, my first words were “you’ve broken a lot of hearts in Los Angeles,” recounting my dear friend Sandy Driscoll’s love for all of Chef Sedlar’s restaurants. It’s easy to see why he was so beloved in Los Angeles. He’s as kind, gracious, and accommodating a host as his reputation foretold, even introducing us to his proud mother Rose. I now hope to introduce all of my friends to his phenomenal restaurant.
228 East Palace Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Caramel Brioche with Popcorn Ice Cream, Bizcochitos, Frito Pie, Duck Enfrijolada, Tortillas Florales, Piquillos Rellenos