Perhaps you’ve watched Jose Garces, the Philadelphia chef and restaurateur, bruléeing cantaloupe or whipping up pizza with short ribs and horseradish cream on television. Garces won the second season of The Next Iron Chef in 2009, joining Mario Batali and Bobby Flay as an Iron Chef, and officially entering the realm of celebrity chefdom.
Garces’ philosophy of food is “to hang my hat on flavor.” Even when Iron Chef throws a pile of cock's combs or duck tongues his way, he draws on his Latin American roots and Spanish vocabulary and composes a dish -- like braised cockscombs in a leek mushroom broth -- that is flavorful and even comforting.
That might explain why his restaurants are so successful. His food changes cultures and modes, but it always has the Garces-brand integrity of punchy, pronounced flavor. Whether you’re eating big-eye-tuna ceviche with coconut and pickled fresno at Chifa or lamb chops à la plancha at Amada, there is a clarity of flavor, balance, and texture, what Garces calls his trinity.
Since opening Amada in 2005, a Spanish restaurant in Philadelphia’s Old City, Garces has gone on to create a successful restaurant empire: Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey, and Garces Trading Company in Philly and Mercat a la Planxa in his hometown of Chicago. The restaurants all have casual but carefully designed dining rooms. They all strive for “genuine and quality service.” The ingredients are always high quality, the preparation simple, and the dishes satisfying.
Garces grew up in an Ecuadorian family in Chicago. He loved food and has loved to cook for as long as he can remember. After culinary school, he says, “I travelled to Spain and learned about the culture, lived in Marbella and Sevilla, and got inspired.”
Garces opened Pipa, a tapas spot, in New York City in 1999. His partner asked him to relocate to Philadelphia to help Stephen Starr, then a budding restaurateur and now a restaurant mogul, open Alma de Cuba. Garces worked with Starr for five years at the helm of Alma de Cuba and then El Vez, Starr’s Mexican restaurant.
Garces was amazed by the success of Starr’s restaurants. The two places he opened with Starr were grossing about $5 million a year, Garces says. “I saw a niche in the market; there were zero Spanish restaurants in Philadelphia before Amada. I took a chance.”
His risk paid off. Five years later, Amada, a dark and sleek restaurant with an open kitchen is packed on a Monday night. “Philadelphia was ready for a Spanish restaurant,” Garces says. “Now there are three or four.” The James Beard Foundation, prestigious in the food world, bestowed on Garces the title of Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region in 2009.
Garces and his restaurants have played a huge role in shaping the Philadelphia food scene. All of Garces’ restaurants, like those of his former employer Starr, have a clear concept, a theme. Amada is Spanish tapas, Chifa is Latin-Asian, Tinto is Basque, and Distrito is Mexican. In Philadelphia, you don’t just go to a restaurant, you go to a martini bar or a steakhouse or a Basque tapas joint, having a far from ordinary experience.
In March 2010, Garces opened a combination bakery, coffee shop, cheese counter, charcuterie, wine shop and BYO restaurant, Garces Trading Company. The spot is both popular -- teeming with Philadelphians eating cheese plates and truffled mushroom pizzas and drinking prosecco -- and controversial.
Why? In Pennsylvania, where the state controls all wine and liquor sales, Garces’s wine store is the only one owned by an individual and not exclusively by the state.
Customers seem to respond well to the only non-state store where you can buy a summery bottle of Riesling. It’s a pretty place, enclosed in glass and staffed by people passionate about pinot.
“I like to create new experiences,” Garces says, “and this is a great new experience for our marketplace. Great wines at a low price with good cuisine. It’s a win for general public.”
Not everyone agrees. Philadelphia Weekly calls the project a “brow-raising ‘sweetheart’ deal between Jose Garces and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board,” and a coalition of Philadelphia restaurants has filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.
Despite the controversy (Garces declined to discuss), the chef is proud of his spot and keyed up about his new project: JG Domestic. It’s a “pretty big statement,” he says. The new restaurant will focus on the “best domestic and national products and ingredients -- the best makers of cheese, wine, produce, and livestock.”
“Growth is definitely a challenge, but I enjoy it,” he says. “Iron Chef is truly thrilling, pushing yourself as a cook on a national stage.” Garces is thrilled, too, by the daily work of opening and maintaining serious restaurants. His team, he says, is like a family, and he nurtures his chefs and employees. "Everyone gets fed well, we make sure not to lose the human element. Everyone should feel at home going to work."
Garces maintains his inspiration through travel, and eating everywhere he goes. “It’s great to have to put your mind in Mexico one day and switch to Spain the next. It keeps the creative process exciting and fun.”
“There’s a surprise every day, and you just have to roll with the punches,” he says. “The restaurant business is a roller coaster ride.”
But that’s why he loves it.