Kitchen Confidential: At Home with 'Iron Chef' Winner Jose Garces

PLUS: Recipes from Garces’ new cookbook, Latin Evolution.

Main Line Today associate editor Dawn E. Warden recently paid a visit to the Center City home of one of the region’s most celebrated chefs. The highlights from their chat are below. (For more on Jose Garces and his local empire, check out October’s Epicure feature, “Humble Rise.”)

MLT: Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
JG: My advice would be to go for your dreams—make sure you have a solid foundation and surround yourself with good people, and those dreams can become a reality.

MLT: How does your latest Philadelphia restaurant, Chifa, complete your empire, and where do you think it fits into the overall dynamics of the scene?
JG: Chifa will be a fusion of Peruvian and Chinese cuisine. It’s basically South American and Asian, but the core of the concept and the real inspiration comes from Peru and China. Look for menu sections such as arepas, ceviches, empanadas, dim sum, noodles, rice dishes and curries. In Peru—especially Lima—there are Chinese restaurants called chifas. Chinese indentured servants arrived in Peru in the mid-19th century to work on the railroads and coastal plantations and, of course, brought their cuisine customs. These restaurants combine Chinese cuisine along with the local ingredients and flair. There are no other restaurants like this in Philadelphia.

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MLT: How do you decide which chefs move to your new restaurants?
JG: If one of my chefs shows an interest in a certain type of cuisine, or comes to me with ideas for new menu items, it can start there.  

MLT: What makes the ideal dining experience—whether for your customers or for yourself?
JG: My ideal dining experience for my customers is to take them on a culinary journey in a comfortable atmosphere with excellent service. My personal ideal dining experience would be trying something that I haven’t had before and finding inspiration for a new dish. This could be in a restaurant or in another country.  

MLT: How adaptable do you feel you and your restaurants are in a changing economy?
JG: Because my restaurants embrace the idea of tapas, or small plates, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to dine with us. You can simply try a few dishes and have a glass of wine—that is the beauty of tapas.

MLT: Do you anticipate tackling a concept more indigenous to the U.S. or Pennsylvania?  
JG: I love Latin cuisines; they are my passion and have been the focus of my culinary career. At this point, I do not anticipate opening something that is not tied into those types of cuisines in some way.

MLT: What did you learn while writing your cookbook?
JG: I always wanted to write a cookbook. For my first one, I had to come up with a clear vision of what represented me best as a chef. Latin Evolution is a combination of the culinary influences from my family and the varied and diverse cultures that have shaped my culinary career. The process is long, and when you are working on a book and opening restaurants, it can become daunting. But I had a great writer, April White, and a great editor at Lake Isle Press who helped me immensely. In the end, Latin Evolution is exactly what I hoped it would be, and I am excited at the thought of my next book.

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MLT: What was it like to be on Iron Chef?
Competing on Iron Chef America against Bobby Flay has been one of the highlights of my career to date. I think that most chefs would love the opportunity to be on the show going up against one of their peers. The experience was amazing, but keeping the outcome a secret was the hardest part.

MLT: Can you tell us more about the über-fabulous trip you have planned as part of your research for Chifa’s menu?
I’m taking a few of the chefs and my designer to Peru for 10 days in the beginning of November to prepare for Chifa. This is an important part of opening a restaurant that focuses on a cuisine from another country. It allows the chefs to try the many dishes that we will interpret and make our own. It also gives them ideas; we always come back from these trips with so many new dishes. Also, I like to bring my designer along because he can take parts of the culture and include them in the design of the restaurant.   

MLT: One of the things I’ve always loved is that you list all of your staff on the menu at Tinto. I also know that you’ve been able to hang on to your key chefs, and wonder what your secret for success is as a manager.
Keeping my staff happy is a main priority for me. It’s simple: If you treat your staff, from the managers to the busboys, with the respect that they deserve for helping you run a successful business, then hopefully they will want to stay with you for a long time. You are only as good as your staff. They’re the ones who are in contact with the customers every day and creating the reputation for the restaurants.

Recipes from Jose Garces’ Latin Evolution on page 2 …

Recipes from Jose Garces’ Latin Evolution

Dungeness Crab Guacamole with Belgian Endive
and Garlic Chips

There’s little agreement on what makes a Mexican guacamole recipe authentic. Start with avocado, tomatoes, onion, chiles, cilantro and lime (though most recipes call for raw garlic, I think the flavor is overwhelming), and then experiment with other flavors. Crab is an excellent addition, as are other cooked shellfish and tropical fruits. Almost anything sweet or spicy will work.

(Serves 4)
3 cloves roasted garlic
2 Hass avocados
1⁄2 pound Dungeness crabmeat, picked
1⁄4 cup brunoised red onion
1 roasted jalapeño chile, diced small
1 plum tomato, seeded and brunoised
2 tbsps. cilantro chiffonade
2 tbsps. lime juice
1/2 tsp. kosher salt, plus more to taste
2 heads Belgian endive, leaves removed
1/4 cup garlic chips
1/4 cup micro cilantro
1 tsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 tbsps. lemon oil

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• In a molcajete or bowl, mash roasted garlic. Add avocado, and mash into roasted garlic. Mix in crabmeat, red onions, jalapeño chiles, tomato, cilantro and lime juice, and season with 1/2 tsp. salt.
• Trim off edges of endive leaves and place three leaves on each plate. Form guacamole into quenelles. Place each quenelle on top of an endive leaf. Stick three garlic chips into each quenelle.
• Toss cilantro with olive oil and salt, and place on top of guacamole. Drizzle with lemon oil.

Tuna Toro with Migas and Serrano-Verdial Escabeche
(Serves 4)
3/4 pound tuna toro
3/4 cup serrano-verdial escabeche (see recipe below)
2 tbsps. migas (see recipe below)
1 oz. dried serrano ham, zested
Sea salt, to taste
Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste

• Dice tuna toro.
• Toss tuna with escabeche and divide between four rocks glasses.
• Garnish with migas, dried serrano ham zest, and sea salt.
• Drizzle with olive oil.
• Serve with cocktail forks.

Serrano-Verdial Escabeche
(Yields 3/4 cup)
1/4 cup brunoised serrano ham
1/4 cup green Spanish olives, diced
1 tbsp. diced piquillo chiles
1/2 shallot, brunoised
2 tbsps. white wine vinegar
3 tbsps. extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tsps. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
Kosher salt, to taste

• Combine all ingredients in a bowl.

(Yields 1/2 cup)
1/2 day-old traditional French baguette
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 oz. serrano ham fat
1 tsp. smoked paprika

• Remove crust from baguette and dice bread into small pieces.
• In a sauté pan, combine garlic, salt and ham fat. Warm over medium-high heat.
• Add bread and toss until coated.
• Lower heat to medium, and toast until slightly colored and crisp.
• Sprinkle with smoked paprika. Discard garlic. Drain.
• Migas can be stored at room temperature in a dry area for up to one week.

Grilled Sirloin with Arroz con Crema and Tomatillo Escabeche
The adobo marinade here is a Mexican creation, but it is the perfect addition to an all-American cookout. You can prepare these steaks in the oven, but cooking them on a hot grill will add another layer to the already complex flavors. I repeatedly baste the sirloins while grilling to create a thin, spicy crust on the meat.

(Serves 4)
2 1/2 cups arroz con crema (see recipe below)
4 servings marinated sirloin steaks (see recipe below)
Kosher salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
2 cups tomatillo escabeche (see recipe below)

• In a saucepan over low heat, heat arroz con crema.
• Season steaks with salt and pepper.
• Grill over high heat, basting repeatedly, to desired doneness, about four minutes for medium-rare.
• Remove steaks from the grill and allow to rest for at least two minutes.
• Divide arroz con crema between four shallow bowls.
• Slice steaks and lay in shingles on top of arroz con crema.
• Layer tomatillo escabeche on top of steak by placing down a few tomatillos and then some of the jalapeño, shallot and cilantro.
• Add another layer of tomatillos, then more of the jalapeño, shallot and cilantro, and finally, another layer of tomatillos.

Arroz con Crema
(Yields 2 1/2 cups)
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup, plus 2 1/2 tbsps. heavy cream
2 cups cooked long grain rice
3/4 cup roasted corn kernels
1/2 cup small-diced roasted poblano chiles
3 oz. Chihuahua cheese, grated (about 2 cups)
1 oz. queso fresco cheese, crumbled
1/2 cup, plus 2 1/2 tbsps. crema Mexicana
Kosher salt, to taste

• In a saucepan, combine milk and cream, and bring to a boil over high heat.
• Reduce heat to low, add rice, corn and poblanos, and simmer for about two minutes.
• Fold in Chihuahua cheese, queso fresco and crema Mexicana. Taste and adjust seasoning.
• Arroz con crema can be refrigerated for up to two days.

Marinated Sirloin Steaks
(Yields 4 servings)
4 (6-ounce) portions 21-day dry-aged sirloin steak
2 cups adobo marinade

• Coat steaks with marinade and allow to sit for at least two hours.
• Reserve marinade for basting.

Tomatillo Escabeche
(Yields 2 cups)
12 tomatillos, sliced 1/8 inch thick
3 shallots, shaved
3 jalapeño chiles, seeded and brunoised
1/4 cup cilantro chiffonade
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
Black pepper, to taste

• In a bowl, combine all ingredients.
• Mix well.

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