“It all started with my grandmother Eloisa on Alto Street,” says Chef John Rivera Sedlar, referring to the narrow lane still lined with ancient adobes on Santa Fe’s west side. Since he left New Mexico in 1973, Sedlar has founded four blazingly successful southern California restaurants, been lauded as the founder of modern Southwestern cooking, and nabbed Esquire’s 2011 Chef of the Year honor. His trail of conquest is nearly as long as his winding path away from—and back to—New Mexico. Now, just in time for Christmas, Sedlar opens Eloisa, his first New Mexico restaurant, on Santa Fe’s Palace Avenue.
The name honors that influential maternal grandmother, Eloisa Martinez Rivera. The first food memories that waft through John’s mind are “the generosity and abundance of her meals, such as Christmas dinner, with baskets of biscochitos, fruit-filled pasteles, sweet and savory empanaditas, platters of tamales and sopes, and cauldrons of pintos, posole, and chile covering every kitchen and dining room surface.” Eloisa, her sisters, and their large extended family of kids and cousins and grandchildren often gathered at the Martinez family’s ranch north of Santa Fe, near Abiquiú.
Sedlar always associates the fragrance of woodsmoke with the aromas of the dishes, since logs fueled the ranch stove and ovens during his childhood. Well seasoned jerky hung on the clothesline every fall and ristras dangled from the eaves. At Christmastime, everyone sat around the rustic table to shell mountains of mink-colored piñon nuts. The menu of restaurant Eloisa will draw heavily on the foods of northern New Mexico, from corn masa, chile, and apricots to lamb, trout, and goat cheese. The staff will prepare fresh masa daily, as did Grandma Eloisa, says John, “for tortillas florales, tender comal-cooked disks pressed with fresh or dried edible flowers and herbs. Other menu items will mingle the world of Latin American flavors, all the way back to Spain, with an Asian touch here and there.”
THE LONG ROAD HOME
I knew Sedlar’s cooking well before I knew Sedlar. I was one of the eager young food fanatics who found their way to dine at his California restaurant, Saint Estèphe, in the early 1980s. I’d go anywhere for a reputedly good meal, even to Manhattan Beach, to which Sedlar and a circle of Santa Fe friends had decamped when they graduated from high school in 1973. The restaurant and Sedlar were getting high praise in the pages of Bon Appétit, Food and Wine, and Gourmet magazines. He was also featured on the PBS show Great Chefs, considered groundbreaking for its then-novel visits to professional kitchens all over the country.
Sedlar had opened Saint Estèphe in Manhattan Beach in 1980, serving haute French fare. Though he had not attended culinary school, he had apprenticed in the kitchen of L’Ermitage, in Beverly Hills, with Chef Jean Bertranou. But after a year in business, Saint Estèphe had yet to gain a following.
As Sedlar was pondering his next move, French chef extraordinaire Paul Bocuse landed on the cover of Time magazine, canonized in print as the first celebrity chef. Bocuse, a rather notorious grump, was railing against other chefs in France who were experimenting with ingredients from Asia and around the world. He believed that they should instead be looking at their own terroir, incorporating more of the regional flavors of France in their cuisine. It was John’s “a-ha!” moment. He made a trip back to the Santa Fe area and searched out the best pinto beans, posole, and chicos. He also shipped ten cases of Chimayó chiles back to Saint Estèphe. With renewed determination and creativity, John mashed up his grandmother’s classic dishes—the carne adovada, the enchiladas, the anise-scented biscochitos—with the restaurant’s French foundation and his own inventive instincts. In what seemed like a nanosecond, he was heralded as a founder of “modern Southwestern” cuisine, and he shot to culinary stardom.
Diners flocked to sample his chile relleno bursting with a French-style mushroom duxelles and topped with goat cheese sauce, and the tamales filled with salmon mousse and blanketed with cilantro cream. Years before P.F. Chang’s lettuce wraps, John was serving up red-chile-topped smoked chicken tacos in shells of radicchio. My favorite was his ravioli, plump with Grandma Eloisa’s carne adovada, floating in garlic cream. Sedlar’s ravishing 1986 book, Modern Southwest Cuisine (Simon & Schuster) allowed me to recreate these still completely novel and strikingly beautiful dishes in my New Mexico kitchen.
John eventually sold his ownership in Saint Estèphe and established other restaurants in Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles, where his Rivera, also named in honor of Grandma Eloisa, still flourishes. She lived long enough to relish John’s success and enjoy media attention herself. You can watch Eloisa Rivera, in her seventies, whipping up those Christmas biscochitos on YouTube (mynm.us/eloisarivera), in a clip from Great Chefs of the West. She is all seriousness for the camera, looking elegant in a turquoise brooch and matching earrings. Eloisa had a prominent professional career herself, at least in Santa Fe. For years, she cooked for the Greer family (who built the Lensic Theater), and then at Bishop’s Lodge. She worked outside the home out of economic necessity but achieved a level of professional respect unusual for women in that era. (And Sedlar’s aunt Jerry worked as Georgia O’Keeffe’s cook in Abiquiú.)
John’s mother, Rose, grew up on Alto Street and met John’s late father, Joe, when he was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, in Albuquerque. After marrying into the Rivera clan, Joe Sedlar moved wife Rose and, eventually, their four sons to Air Force posts in other parts of the United States and Europe. They made regular pilgrimages back to New Mexico and the Abiquiú family ranch, where all the passages of life—weddings, funerals, baptisms, holidays—were commemorated. John spent some childhood summers at the ranch, helping with the serious labor of picking fruits and vegetables. Once Joe retired from the Air Force, the family returned to Santa Fe. Eloisa and her sisters kept the thread to the past alive with their rituals of drying corn, chile, and beef for the winter, putting up compotes of apricot and peaches and apples to later stuff the holiday shortbread pasteles, and keeping chile-based fare on the family table.
When Sedlar turned 14, Eloisa got him a job in the hotel kitchen of La Fonda on the Plaza. Before long, though, he moved a few blocks down Old Santa Trail to the Bull Ring, a bar and restaurant where politicos regularly gathered (and still do, albeit in a different loca- tion). Initially a busboy, he switched to the kitchen at the request of the chef, who recognized Sedlar’s enthusiasm for his work.
“It was the era when fine dining restaurants would have a side of the menu devoted to ‘Continental’ fare, which was vaguely French,” says the chef, “and the other side would be New Mexican, still referred to as ‘Spanish.’”
From there, Sedlar made the jump to southern California, first working in restaurant kitchens, and then creating Saint Estèphe, followed by Bikini, Abiquiu, and Rivera. He co-authored another book, Tamales, with the founder of Santa Fe’s Coyote Café, Mark Miller, and Dallas chef Stephan Pyles (John Wiley & Sons, 2003).
All the while, John made frequent trips to Latin America and Spain, tracing the roots of the foods of the Americas. In a hiatus before opening Rivera, he worked in the kitchen of El Bulli, the legendary three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain known for championing molecular gastronomy. Sedlar is using the extensive knowledge gained through his work and travels to found the nonprofit Museum Tamal, now in development in Los Angeles, for the study of Latin American culture through its food.
As 2015 draws near, Eloisa and her son-in-law Joe are no longer at the table, having passed away. The old casa on the Abiquiú ranch, with its wood-burning stove and packed dirt floors, has been abandoned in favor of a home with more modern plumbing. However, much remains as it was. Rose Rivera Sedlar still resides in Santa Fe. The Abiquiú property is still in the family, and it will forever be Sedlar’s spiritual home. Eloisa’s sister’s daughter, Perla Gallegos, runs the working ranch today. Cattle still dot the pastures. Come summer, ancient apricot trees will again yield their honeyed fruit, and sweet corn will stretch tall in the fields.
In the wonderful—some would say spiritual—twists that life accords us, Rose now makes many of her mother Eloisa’s recipes herself. As John works on the menus for the restaurant’s December opening, Rose is so proud that the family’s culinary heritage will live on through him. The restaurant will be inside Santa Fe’s new Drury Plaza Hotel, the reincarnation of downtown’s old St. Vincent’s Hospital, where John and his brothers made many an emergency room visit for their youthful scrapes and bruises. And it’s just a block away from Canyon Road, where on Christmas Eve, the Sedlars would walk together among the glimmering farolitos and luminaria bonfires. From Eloisa, it’s also an easy walk across the Santa Fe Plaza to Alto Street, the little lane where it all began.
RAVIOLI OF CARNE ADOVADA WITH GARLIC CREAM SAUCE
This is one of my very favorite John Sedlar recipes, from his Saint Estèphe restaurant. He wraps northern New Mexico’s tradi- tional pork, slow-cooked with red chile, in pasta rather than a tortilla. The ravioli with silky sauce can make an appetizer or a main course on a winter’s evening. Serves 6
1 pound boneless pork shoulder
1 small onion, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 medium carrot, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
1 small bay leaf, crumbled
1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
3 cups water
1⁄4 cup dried ground New Mexican red chile
1 large garlic clove, minced
1⁄2 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano or marjoram
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1⁄2 teaspoon white pepper
11⁄2 pounds freshly made pasta or egg roll wrappers
GARLIC CREAM SAUCE
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 large garlic cloves, minced
3 cups heavy cream
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
24 whole small dried chiles de árbol, optional
Preheat oven to 350° F.
Place pork in small roasting pan with onion, carrot, and celery. Sprinkle pork with bay leaf and thyme and pour water around pork. Cover pan and roast until pork is very tender and can pull apart into shreds, about 11⁄2 to 2 hours. Remove pork from pan. Strain pan juices into a bowl and refrigerate to solidify fat. Skim off fat. When pork is cool enough to handle, tear meat by hand into very fine shreds.
Pour defatted juices into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook down juices by one-half. Add to juice the chile, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper and reduce heat to low. Cook mixture for 10 minutes. Stir in shredded pork and cook for about 10 minutes more, stirring mixture occasionally. Mixture is ready when all excess liquid has evaporated. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, roll out pasta as thinly as possible. Trim pasta to 12 even 4-by-5-inch rectangles. With crinkle-edged ravioli cutter or a pizza cutter, slice each rectangle into 4 equal 1-by-11⁄2-inch rectangles. Place about 2 teaspoons of carne adovada filling in center of 24 of the rectangles. Dip your finger into water and moisten edges of several ravioli. Top each with rectangle of unfilled pasta. Press down around all edges. Trim edges slightly with ravioli or pizza cutter to ensure a tight seal. Repeat with all pasta. Let sit at room temperature.
Prepare cream sauce. Heat butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté for 5 minutes or until tender. Add remaining ingredients, raise heat to medium-high, and cook sauce at low rolling boil until reduced to about 11⁄2 cups, about 25 minutes. Pour sauce through a fine-mesh strainer and keep warm.
Cook pasta. Bring 2 quarts water and about 1 tablespoon salt and 1 tablespoon vegetable oil to a boil in a large saucepan. Cook ravioli in 2 batches for about 6 minutes each, until pasta is translucent and tender. Remove ravioli gently with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels.
Spoon sauce equally onto each plate. Arrange 4 ravioli on top. Garnish each plate, if you wish, with 4 chiles de árbol, and serve.
SAVORY CORN FLAN WITH ROSE’S CALABACITAS
Here’s a dish incorporating one of Chef John’s recipes for Eloisa restaurant with one of his mother’s. John sometimes scatters cooked black quinoa around the flan for an extra-dramatic appearance. The corn husk serving “bowls” aren’t something I’d expect a home cook to replicate, but here’s how John works that extra touch of magic. He places the largest dried corn husks (ojas, for tamales) he can find in water to which he has added a heaping tablespoon of turmeric. The husks soak overnight in the water to enhance their color. Each husk is then drained and stretched out over an orange. Both ends of the husks are knotted and then the husks are allowed to dry. Once dry, the husks are popped off the oranges (which are still fine for eating). The husks will hold their “bowl” shapes.
Vegetable oil or olive oil spray
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup corn juice (see note at right)
6 whole large eggs
2 egg yolks
Salt and white pepper to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil 11⁄2 pounds finely diced summer squash, at least
2 kinds (such as small zucchini, plus yellow crookneck squash or gold bar squash)
1⁄2 medium red onion, finely diced
1⁄4 cup to 3⁄4 cup chopped roasted mild New Mexican green chile
Salt and white pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Spray with oil 6 ramekins or ovenproof custard cups that can hold at least 4 ounces each. Locate a baking pan that can hold ramekins. Bring milk, cream, and corn juice to a simmer. In a mixing bowl over an ice bath, mix together eggs and egg yolks with a whisk. Whisk in warm milk mixture in a steady drizzle. Season with salt and white pepper. Chill for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat oven to 300° F.
Pour flan mixture into prepared ramekins. Transfer ramekins to baking dish. Pour hot water around ramekins halfway up the sides of the dishes. Bake for 90 minutes or until just firm.
While flan bakes, prepare calabacitas. Warm oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Stir in squash and onion and cook until squash is well softened, about 10 minutes. Stir in butter and keep warm. Add a bit of water if mixture gets dry.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
Unmold flans onto plates. Divide calabacitas among flans, spooning it around each, and serve right away.
JIM HAMMOND’S WINE PAIRINGS
RAVIOLI OF CARNE ADOVADA WITH GARLIC CREAM SAUCE
While some red wines might work, full-bodied white wines with good acidity will cut through the cream. A sparkling wine would accomplish the same task. A French-style Chardonnay such as the Milagro 2011 Chardonnay, with flavors of apple, pear, and mineral, and crisp acidity, will complement the dish. In the holiday spirit, many Gruet sparklers will work here. The Gruet Blanc de Noirs, with its mix of pinot noir and Chardonnay, will work particularly well, or try the new Gruet Blanc de Blancs 25th Anniversary sparkler, with green apple and pineapple flavors.
SAVORY CORN FLAN WITH ROSE’S CALABACITAS
New Mexico is blessed with many fine Muscat wines, and the Corrales Winery Muscat Canelli has good acidity and balance to work with the dish.
Cheryl Alters Jamison is New Mexico Magazine’s contributing culinary editor. Read her blog at nmmagazine.com/tastingnm. Jim Hammond is the author of Wines of Enchantment: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying the Wines of New Mexico (available at shop. nmmagazine.com). See more of Douglas Merriam’s work at douglasmerriam.com.