Remember those battles about cell phone use in restaurant dining rooms? It’s going the other way now—at least at Rivera in Los Angeles, where guests who want to know more about a particular dish can call chef John Sedlar for a blow-by-blow of the item’s history and preparation. It’s a clever use of interactivity that keeps Rivera in tune with the times.
Sedlar’s restaurant Rivera (the chef’s full name is John Rivera Sedlar) is the latest venture from an innovator who helped define sophisticated Latin cooking in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s via such noted restaurants as St. Estephe and Abiquiu. He took a decade-long hiatus after Abiquiu closed, but came back swinging with Rivera last year.
His fans were ready for his return. “At this casual, Latin-themed restaurant, Sedlar is sending out small plates calibrated to get even the most jaded foodie excited,” writes Los Angeles Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila.
However, Rivera’s menu has so many authentic dishes that some customers find it challenging. As Sedlar puts it, his food “draws vital connections across three centuries and three continents of Latin food history and culture.” Menu items draw links between the past and present both geographically (the Iberian Peninsula, South America, Mexico and California) and culturally (the Moors, the Inca, the Maya, the Aztecs and Angelenos.)
“Food traditions and innovation share equal importance on these menus,” says the chef, who is so into authenticity that he grinds the maize used to make the restaurant’s tortillas each day. “Although today’s foods are profoundly influenced by the past, our Conexiones menu is an exploration of how history and culture translate and evolve into the way people eat today. These menus represent how connected the Information Age enables us to be with the ancient primal experience of eating.”
That’s all well and good, but Sedlar still has to move the merchandise and turn the tables. So how’s he going to help customers decide what they should get to eat? The answer is “Table Talk.” Restaurant patrons are asked to call 1-310-464-6884 and follow the prompts, which are tied to numerical icons on Rivera’s menu. When they do, they hear the chef personally explain the history and preparation of the dishes they’re thinking about ordering.
How’s it work? If a customer is considering, Rivera’s Cabeza de Oro, he or she dials the number, presses number 45 and hers Sedlar describe a dish that includes foie gras, lobster, scallop, truffle, Jamon Iberico and Caviar. By pressing number 12, the customer hears all about Flan de Elote, a corn and black quinoa custard served with squash blossom sauce.
“John loves food history and is imaginative, both characteristics that come across so clearly in what he creates in the kitchen and puts on the plate,” says Rivera partner Eddie Sotto. “But we wanted to give our guests even more of John, enabling him to share with them firsthand his passion for this food and his incredible knowledge of Latin cuisine’s resonance in Los Angeles and throughout the world.
“Through our new feature, guests can connect not only with him as the chef, through hearing John’s voice and thoughts about the history of the ingredients and the dish, but can also connect with each other, via social media, and sharing the recorded audio-appetizers we’ve created.”
There was a time when cell phone-crazy Los Angeles was one of the few places where this could work. But most cities are cell phone-crazy today, so this method of connecting the chef with his or her customers at the point of sale would work almost anywhere now. We expect other operators to give it a try soon.