Jose Garces stands tall as Iron Chef America host Mark Dacascos introduces him to the nation’s insatiable Food Network groupies. Under bright lights and the ominous gaze of the show’s resident chefs, Garces is decked out in his signature black chef’s coat, arms folded as he declares Southwestern cuisine master Bobby Flay his competitor. The challenge: to create five dishes that include melon, a frozen component and a secret ingredient.
Cool as cucumbers, Garces and Flay shake hands, gather their ingredients and head to opposite sides of the kitchen. Dacascos gives the command, and the “Battle of the Brain Freeze” is on.
For the 36-year-old Garces, this has to be a cakewalk—especially in light of everything he’s juggling in Philadelphia right now. The mastermind behind Amada, Tinto and Distrito, Garces has a fifth Philly restaurant, Chifa, coming in January. He’s also co-written a new cookbook called Latin Evolution, and is featured in an upcoming Thanksgiving Food & Wine spread. And then there’s Mercat a la Planxa, a restaurant in his native Chicago.
It took a half hour or so, but Garces’ solemn look finally gives way to his signature smile. Soon enough, he’ll be serving up a rare defeat for Flay, who has 19 Iron Chef wins thus far. The episode aired Aug. 17, and for a week afterward, Garces’ Philadelphia restaurants served the winning dishes. One, Desayuno, features fresh melon, quail egg and bacon crisp served with cream and maple and cooled with an espresso granite.
While it’s all jelling for Garces these days, his humility is the antithesis of the super-sized temperament seen in many chefs of his caliber. Try to push for war stories, and he’ll play up the positives. Midway through a story about the sprinklers going off at Amada just before service, he shrugs his shoulders. “Yeah it’s stressful, but I have a supportive wife who lets me be who I want to be, and my mother and my brother are in my life every day, so I’m always reminded of what matters most,” Garces says. “I don’t worry as much about the restaurants as I do about how I can be involved with—and have an impact on—my kids. I’ve worked very hard to make all this work.”
Back in Center City, a week before the airing of the Flay smack-down, Garces is preparing for a photo shoot in the sleek, minimalist kitchen of his Race Street home. It’s part of a great room that boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, a two-way fireplace and an overstuffed L-shaped leather sofa. In the background, a hip mix of Music Choice tunes spills out of a large flat-screen TV. There’s not a hint of ego in the vicinity—only the satisfied aura of a man living out his dream.
The son of Ecuadorian parents, Garces grew up in Chicago. As a young boy, he loved to cook alongside his grandmother, who rewarded him with a strong foundation in Latin cuisine—and lots of delicious treats.
“I was a chubby kid,” says Garces. “I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmom and mom, always saying, ‘Let me try.’”
Garces first pursued his passion for cooking at Chicago’s Kendall College. Then he interned at La Taberna del Alabardero restaurant in Marbella, Spain, where he explored Spanish cooking in greater depth before heading to New York. This turned out to be a perfect career move for Garces, who ended up working in the kitchens of Douglas Rodriguez, the pioneer of Nuevo Latino cooking. Under Rodriguez’s guidance, Garces began to apply his classical training and modern techniques to traditional Latin dishes.
At the start of the decade, Garces arrived in Philadelphia as a protégé of Stephen Starr. His first appointment was as executive chef at Alma de Cuba, also run by Rodriguez. Two years later, he was picked to run the kitchen at El Vez, a position that gave him the confidence he needed to start planning his own culinary empire.
In the spring of 2004, Garces left Starr to try a concept he’d been dreaming about since his last year of culinary school, when he conceived the blueprint for Amada, a true Spanish tapas restaurant. He recalls the flood of worry that consumed him during the early stages of Amada. “My brother and I were standing amidst a pile of rubble with a million dollars of our and others’ money on the line,” he says. “The excitement over breaking ground was mixed with extreme feelings of being overwhelmed. We both shared a few tears, scared to death.”
At the time, the city hadn’t seen anything like Amada, and it got high marks for its authenticity, quality of food and excellent service.
“I had no idea Amada would take off the way it did,” Garces admits. “We were busy, but it took some time to build up a clientele. Although I had a lot of exper-ience, having your name attached 110 percent made things seem tougher. If the restaurant had a night of bad service, it took an emotional toll. Keeping the big- picture view went a long way.”
For Garces, his triumphant return to Chicago was a “total win-win.” For Mercat a la Planxa (Off the Grill), he partnered with the Sage Restaurant Group to create the fun, modern Catalan-inspired tapas restaurant. His name is on the marquee, with full creative rights and minimal obligations.
“This is my home,” says Garces of Philadelphia. “But it’s always been a dream of mine to go back to Chicago.”
Introducing audiences to different cultural influences—and doing so with genuineness, originality and a healthy respect for nature—is at the core of Garces’ culinary success. Fresh, simple, authentic ingredients reign at his restaur-ants, whether it’s the tapas at Amada and Mercat a la Planxa, the modern Mexican fare at Distrito or the Basque-style small plates at Tinto. Clever combinations, juxtapositions and unexpected twists elevate every dish to a level worthy of an esteemed James Beard nomination.
With his new book, Latin Evolution (co-written with Philadelphia magazine’s April White), Garces hopes to inspire both professionals and ambitious home cooks to go Latin at home. The “evolution,” says Garces, involves bringing American ingredients into the mix.
“You don’t have to make the entire recipe; you can take snippets,” he says. “The recipes are not so hard and fast, although each dish does have several components. There is an extensive list of sources and substitutions, which hopefully will ease any intimidation.”
Lately, Garces has been in hot pursuit of Latin cuisine with an Asian flair. Following this fall’s book tour, he’ll be traveling to Peru and China to sample the flavors of Lima, Hong Kong, Canton and a handful of other cities. He hopes to incorporate what he learns into Chifa, his fourth and final Philly fling.
“After Chifa, I’m closing up the Philadelphia concept so I can focus on maintaining and managing the restaurants,” Graces says. “I’ve seen what happened to Stephen [Starr]; it’s easy to cannibalize yourself by putting so many restaurants in the same market. You push yourself out.”
And besides, he says, “Everything after Amada is gravy.”
Main Line restaurateur Scott Morrison has the utmost respect for Garces’ culinary vision and staying power. “Going from three to four [restaurants] is a lot different than from one to two,” says the man behind Nectar, Tango and Maia. “Jose’s proven there’s room for more than one key operator, and he’s established himself as a person with a following and the ability to build people around him. He also understands and knows how to give people what they want—and do it without being intimidating.”
Ultimately, Garces contends, it’s not about creating the perfect dish. “The fun comes from creating an interest in an unfamiliar cuisine and getting people to be excited about eating—not just for sustenance—and making them feel taken care of,” he says.
The day before our interview, Garces and his family had just returned from a weekend away—something most multi-tasking chefs of his stature can only fantasize about.
“The stars are in line and balanced right now,” says Garces. “There’s a lot going on, and I’m still working a 60-hour week. But I am at the point where I can take a weekend off.”
Family is important to Garces, and he aspires to give that same quality of life to his chefs. “It’s easy to burn out in this business, so I tell them, ‘Go be with your families,’” he says. “You just don’t know. You could walk out the door and get run over by a bus.”
Jose Garces’ Local Empire:
Amada 217 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, (215) 625-2450, amadarestaurant.com
Tinto 114 S. 20th St., Philadelphia, (215) 665-9150, tintorestaurant.com
Distrito 3945 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, (215) 222-1657, distritorestaurant.com
Chifa 707 Chestnut St., Philadelphia (coming soon)