Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, John Rivera Sedlar had his first taste of Latin cooking in the kitchen of his mother, aunts, and beloved Grandma Eloisa. “My favorite time of year,” Sedlar remembers, “was before Christmas, when they would gather together in my aunts’ kitchen in Abiquiu, the village where Georgia O’Keeffe lived, to make huge mountains of bizcochitos, empanaditas, and tamales. If I close my eyes, I can still smell those fragrant aromas and taste those sweet, spicy, earthy foods.”
Honest, down-to-earth experiences fueled Sedlar’s drive to become a chef. He worked his way through popular restaurants in Santa Fe before moving to Southern California, where he won a local following in the South Bay region in his early 20s.
That quest for something more led John Rivera Sedlar to leave his successful restaurant job to apprentice himself to the legendary chef Jean Bertranou at L’Ermitage in Los Angeles. Sedlar first gained national attention from food lovers and journalists alike in the early 1980s when he combined his classical training with memories of his New Mexico childhood to create when he called Modern Southwest Cuisine, a description that also became the title of Sedlar’s first book.
In 1986, Great Chefs television was embarking on a new direction for their television series, which up until then concentrated on chefs in one city at a time, and featuring only one chef per episode. Great Chefs of the West was to feature a new trend, Southwestern Cuisine, and would feature chefs from the west and southwest. Each episode would include three different chefs and
a down-home cook.
In the fall of 1986, we committed to taping Chef John Sedlar in his Manhattan, California restaurant, Saint Estephe, but we were in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the time, so he suggested we tape his Grandmother Eloisa Rivera, who was his inspiration, while in town. She prepared bizcochitos, and we will never forget the wonderful aromas! We then traveled out to Los Angeles and taped two additional dishes with Chef John Rivera Sedlar for the Great Chefs of the West series, Enchilada of Filet and Neon Tumbleweed as a dessert.
While sharing his passion for Latin food traditions with business friends Bill Chait and Eddie Sotto, John Rivera Sedlar began to imagine a restaurant that would celebrate Latin food in all its diverse variety. “Bill and Eddie immediately got it,” Sedlar says, “and together we very quickly evolved a vision for a fun, approachable, casual restaurant where guests could explore the world of Latin food and drink.” Of course, the restaurant would be named Rivera, after his grandmother.
In 2011, Sedlar was named “Chef of the Year” by Esquire and Rivera Restaurant received the title of “Best New Restaurants 2011”. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 Chef Sedlar was nominated for Best Chef Pacific by the James Beard Foundation.