A Chat With John Sedlar

The “Father Of Modern Southwestern Cuisine” Returns To New Mexico

Gwyneth Doland
7 min read
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On Saturday, May 8, acclaimed chef John Sedlar will be at Santa Ana Pueblo's Prairie Star restaurant to collaborate with Chef Heath VanRiper on a dinner to benefit the American Diabetes Association. Alibi caught up with this native New Mexican at his office in Los Angeles to talk about southwestern food in general and the dinner in particular.

You grew up in Santa Fe but your great-grandparents were from Abiquiu, is that right?

Yes, Abiquiu is where my family is from. In fact, my grandmother passed away last year and she was the last person buried in the cemetery there. They had to close it after that. My great-aunt Jerry was a chef for Georgia O'Keeffe for 15 years. We did a dinner for the opening of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe because we knew exactly what she used to eat, what recipes she liked and what she grew in her garden.

Do you still have land there?

There is still a ranch there, Los Silvestres, a small place next to the river. … I go there occasionally now. I used to go there a lot as a kid. I remember my aunt cooking at the wood-burning stove, making fresh tortillas …

Did you learn to cook from your great-aunt Jerry?

No, I never cooked with her. I mostly cooked with my grandmother. She was a life-time professional cook in Santa Fe. She's the link to my New Mexican heritage.

Where do you live now?

I live in Los Angeles. … I come back several times a year.

You're often referred to as the “father of modern Southwestern cuisine.” What does that term mean? How is modern Southwest cuisine different from the traditional New Mexican food we're familiar with?

I think I was the first chef to address nutrition and composing [Southwestern] dishes instead of using a spoon and serve style. I also think I was one of the first to infuse [Southwestern food] with international ingredients and cooking techniques.

When did you start cooking professionally?

When I was growing up the only opportunities in Santa Fe were working at restaurants, gas stations or grocery stores, so I ended up as a busboy in fine dining restaurants. I fell in love with the kitchen and haute cuisine. We were all Francophiles at that time so I aspired to cooking ethereal dishes that were beautiful in presentation.

Not so much like traditional New Mexican food.

No, the opposite of homey.

So you decided to combine the French aesthetic and the flavors of New Mexican food?

I decided to put them together and really bring out the inherent delicious flavors of Northern New Mexico, the heartiness and bold colors. New Mexican food is very earthy, bold and honest. Southwestern cuisine itself is a hybrid—it comes from all the Latin cuisines. And it's finally taking its place next to the other great cuisines, French, Chinese. … People are finally starting to open up to the depth and rich history that it has.

We often take it for granted.

And we tend to think that it's pedestrian or one-dimensional. It also has great science. Take the way that corn and beans together create almost a whole protein. The way corn was cultivated from a blade of grass into a staple food of the Americas.

Speaking of corn … you've written a tamale cookbook with Coyote Café owner Mark Miller, you have a mail-order company that ships frozen tamales across the country and I understand you're involved with a new museum devoted to tamales.

It's called the tamale museum but it isn't really just about tamales. It's about all the foods and techniques of Latin America. It's a repository for recipes and food history. It's supports community and family heritage. …We call it the tamale museum because tamales hold a very special place in the hearts of Latinos. Every region has some kind of tamale they call their own, whether it's wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves, steamed or cooked over a grill, flat or square. It's a very common link between all Hispanics.

How did you become a part of the tamale museum?

I founded the museum and I'm the director. It won't open for two years … but we already have exhibitions. Our first is called Comidas Prehispanicas. It's a photo record of pre-European foods, everything from agricultural products like legumes, exotic fruits and vegetables to reptiles, iguanas, snakes … armadillos and hairless dogs, parrots, turkeys, eggs, larvae, ants. The exhibit is actually 30 years old. It showed at the Smithsonian 30 years ago. We found the original transparencies in Mexico City and had them reproduced. All of the foods and live animals had been brought into the studio and shot by a very famous archeological photographer. One of the preliminary photos is of Aztec tortillas … they've all been painted with crushed flower petals in brocade designs and they're very aristocratic looking. It has photos of prepared dishes as well. This is the perfect inaugural exhibit for us because these are the building blocks of our cuisine.

The chef at Prairie Star, Heath VanRiper, told me that there was a story behind the menu that you two have come up with for the American Diabetes Association dinner.

We wanted to be representative of the new museum, the first Latin food museum. We chose dishes, some traditional and some contemporary, that are evocative of the history of the cuisine. The story of our menu is really different inspirations from traditional to modern. The salmon mousse tamale is actually a salmon soufflé made with a Spanish sherry vinegar sauce. On top you can see, embedded into the mousse, poppy petals. It looks like a still-life in the top of the tamale. We're doing a dish called yellow jackets: a tray-passed hors d'oeuvre served in a tall apéritif glass so you can see the layers of corn and black bean soup. It looks just like a yellow jacket! Then there's a cappuccino of chicken consommé, small cups of chicken broth. You know, there was a very large Asian influence in Mexican food. … The Philippines were under Spanish rule for hundreds of years. So this broth is infused with star anise and fresh ginger and topped with heavy cream [made] with tequila añejo. We're also doing tacos Tokyo: crisp green taco shells stuffed with ahi tuna, ponzu sauce, cucumber salad and pickled ginger.

Can you repeat that? It sounds like one of those dishes you simply can't imagine just from reading the description.

Ha! Well we're serving a very classic dessert, a very formidable flan with chocolate and chile spice sauce on top. We're adding a different motif, dusting a different traditional image onto the plate with spices like curry, cumin and paprika. The aromas at the table are really quite extraordinary.

Are you going to be in the kitchen the whole time?

No, I'm going to leave most of the fun work to Heath. He's really very, very proficient and he'll be able to pull most of it together. I'll be in there with him for a while but I want to spend some time with my family and friends.

For more information and reservations for the ADA benefit dinner call 266-5716. A portion of the ticket price may be tax deductible.

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