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Chef’s Special
Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Chef’s Special

With Amada thriving, Tinto days from opening and Chilango starting to move from concept to construction, you’d think Jose Garces would be ready for a break. He’s not.


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MEXICO CITY—Jose Garces clears his palate and soaks in the cultural chaos. Sporting a tan guayabera shirt and black Chanel sunglasses, his thick black brows helping to shade his eyes from the late-morning rays, he reviews his stops for the day, which include markets, taquerias and cantinas.

Garces hops in the front seat of a 1986 Cutlass Supreme. His sous chef Tim Spinner and designer Jun Aizaki pile into the back. The three men are on a treasure hunt for inspiration—searching for the authentic accents and finishes they need to make their project shine.

First up on the itinerary: La Merced.

The driver raises his eyebrows.

That market, he says, is infested with chineros—thieves who wander the stalls and surrounding streets, robbing and assaulting anyone they can catch off-guard. (The name comes from a Chinese headlock maneuver the thieves use to disable their victims.)

But the promise of greasy huaraches, pitchers of agua de jamaica, fresh huitlacoche (a corn fungus popular in Mexican cooking) and barrels of dried chili peppers, mole sauces and candy-colored sugars within the market’s maze prove irresistible.

The driver agrees to be their guide.

“If I’m not back in two hours,” he says, passing his car keys to the parking attendant, “call my wife and tell her they got me.”

At the market Garces snaps photo after photo of ceramic dishware, kitschy vinyl tablecloths, lucha libre masks and Santeria charms. “Smells like our hotel room,” he says as they wind through the live animal section of the market—packed with puppies, ostriches, snakes and chickens.

He calmly takes it all in, trying to boil the sights, sounds and smells down to an essence indigenous to Mexico City that he can then transport to the new restaurant he’ll soon be opening back home in Philadelphia called Chilango—an expression layered with connotations of class pretensions that refer to people from Mexico City.


Garces likes to stretch out the syllables when he says it, smiling each time it rolls off his tongue.

In his new restaurant the downstairs taqueria/cantina will be festive and casual with an industrial tortilla press and grill churning out warm tortillas, a walk-up taco window for sidewalk orders, a fresh-fruit margarita bar and live entertainment—possibly mariachis.

Upstairs, he says, there’ll be an elegant, modern dining room with a more sophisticated and creative menu.

“Mexico City, gourmet-style,” he calls it.

Photos by Kate Kilpatrick.

Photos by Kate Kilpatrick.

When Garces opened Amada in Old City in October 2005, there wasn’t much by way of competition.

“He really kick-started the tapas scene here,” says his friend Marc Vetri, the chef/owner behind Vetri, the intimate Center City joint that Bon Appétit called “possibly the best Italian restaurant in America.” (Vetri’s second endeavor Osteria opened on North Broad Street last month.)

“[Garces] is just one of those restaurateurs who understands what the city needs,” says Vetri. “I was talking about opening up a tapas restaurant here four or five years ago. I went to Spain a couple times and was really into it. But I never did. A couple years later he did it—and he nailed it.”

Amada was immediately recognized as one of the city’s best restaurants.

Celebrity chef Douglas Rodriguez, Garces’ mentor, calls Amada “the best tapas bar in America.”

Food insiders were familiar with Garces’ talent from his years working as executive chef of the Stephen Starr-operated hip faves Alma de Cuba and El Vez. But they were less familiar with his entrepreneurial acumen, and never would’ve suspected that just a year and a half after opening his first restaurant he’d be positioned as the city’s next great restaurant mogul.

Garces’ second restaurant Tinto, a wine/tapas bar focusing on the Basque region of Spain, is set to open this week at 20th and Sansom, across from Capogiro. Then comes Chilango—the aforementioned taqueria/restaurant inspired by the food and flavors of Mexico City.

Chilango will occupy a bi-level space in the Hub, a brand-new postmodern, earth-toned high-rise at 40th and Chestnut streets in University City. On the heels of Chilango, he’ll be opening a steakhouse in his Chicago hometown, followed by the release of his first cookbook Latin Evolution next year.

“This is pretty insane for me right now,” Garces says of his hectic schedule.

“In terms of talent, there are a lot of great chefs in Philly in all different cuisines. In terms of ambition as an entrepreneur, that’s a smaller group—that’s what sets Garces apart,” says Philadelphia magazine food editor April White, who’s writing Garces’ cookbook.

“Jose has an incredible sense of what people really want to eat combined with a sense of what’s new,” says Food and Wine editor Dana Cowin, who recently visited Amada.

Her assessment of Amada: “I loved it. I loved that the food’s comforting and clever. I loved that the potato cake, the tortilla Española, is served with a little white mortar with saffron aioli and a little pestle. I love the casks of sangria on the walls. I love the hanging hams. I love that he has flamenco.”

Cowin suspects Garces will someday command a restaurant empire. “I wouldn’t necessarily have gotten that from looking at his menu, or from the food we tested, but in talking with him it’s completely clear,” she says. “He has his heart in the right place and his eye on the long-term. He’s a planner. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll have a series of great restaurants because he has a great palate. And because he genuinely cares. I mean he really cares.”

Garces stays obsessively abreast of culinary trends, devouring food and industry magazines and responding to market demands. He’s a savvy businessman and a visionary—think Stephen Starr—but he’s also a chef who puts his heart into both his food and his employees.

“It’s different if you grew up working in the business,” says Garces. “I have a personal connection with the employees in the kitchen, and the waitstaff as well. I’ve been in the trenches. I’ve worked in busy restaurants. I know the ins and outs of the lifestyle and what it’s like to be just a regular worker, like a busboy—it’s hard.”

“Jose is a really interesting middle ground between a Stephen Starr—who’s vast—and the mom-and-pop BYOB,” says Food and Wine’s Cowin. “And that’s a sweet spot for Philadelphia.”

Garces says he never planned on being a chef, but he fell in love with food early on. As a high school athlete he had to choose between his two passions: food and wrestling.

His best friend Joe Erlemann, who now owns a sailing company in Chicago, remembers his buddy’s struggle.

“He had to be 170 pounds, and it just killed him to do that—because he’s a butter guy. When he was making food, he always made it very rich,” Erlemann recalls. “So he loved wrestling, but he hated it because he loved food so much.”

(For Garces, the answer was football. He could eat all he wanted and the coach loved him for it.)

But it wasn’t just about eating. Garces loved preparing meals too. Garces and Erlemann worked together as lifeguards at Chicago’s Foster Beach while working toward their associate’s degrees at Harper College. In the summer their friends would chip in for barbecues.

“When other guys were cooking, they’d throw chicken legs with nothing on them on the grill, and it was bland,” says Erlemann. “If it was Jose’s turn, it was marinated flank steak and tortillas. We’d have killer steak tacos, and everyone
would want to be around.”

It was always Latin food, and it was always good. “That was all his mom,” says Erlemann. “I don’t think he had a cookbook.”

Born to Ecuadorian immigrant parents, Garces grew up the middle child in a middle-class family in Chicago. His mother Magdelena, with whom he remains close, got him interested in cooking by the time he was 8. “I remember
her coming home from work and preparing a full family meal for my dad, my two brothers and me. I’d assist her in the kitchen, and that’s really when food inspired me.”

Garces learned how to prepare traditional Latin dishes like arepas (fried corn pancakes), empanadas (vegetable, meat or cheese-stuffed pastries) and moté (boiled corn with meat and spices). “She instilled many values in me, especially
in the kitchen. She’s a perfectionist when it comes to flavor and technique.”

After trudging through two years of business courses, Garces decided cooking was his passion and enrolled in Chicago’s Kendall College culinary school.

“He disappeared after that,” says Erlemann. “He was just so into it. He’d found his calling.”

After graduation and an internship in Texas, Garces landed a job cooking at La Taberna del Alabardero in Marbella, Spain—where the seeds of his love for Spanish cooking were planted.

Not long after his return, he moved to New York and got a job at Douglas Rodriguez’s Chicama restaurant. Rodriguez
introduced him to Nuevo Latino food, a school of cooking he’s credited with creating.

“There’s not a lot of cooking technique in Latin America. You put everything in a pot, and when it’s overcooked it’s ready,” says Rodriguez, explaining his culinary invention. Nuevo Latino cooking applies classical training and modern techniques to traditional Latin ingredients or dishes.

“Jose started off as a cook,” says Rodriguez. “Within two weeks I recognized he had a lot of talent. He had a lot of skills: people skills, cooking skills, a great attitude. He was willing and wanting to learn anything new.”

Garces, in turn, credits much of his success to Rodriguez, who took him under his wing. “He was a huge mentor,” he says. “His knowledge of food and flavors is outstanding. And he opened my eyes to the possibilities available to chefs.”

When Stephen Starr hired Rodriguez as executive chef of Alma de Cuba in 2001, Rodriguez brought Garces along for the ride. After the restaurant’s opening, Rodriguez became the absentee chef, and Garces the acting chef. (It was at Alma that Garces met his Cuban wife Beatriz, a dentist who worked there briefly as a server.) El Vez opened in 2003, and Garces ran both kitchens simultaneously.

“He’s a one-in-a-million talent,” Rodriguez says of his protege. “Some chefs can cook. Some chefs are more administrative. But a chef who can do all of it and run a business and run people and develop people is a very rare thing. He has a lot of talents I don’t even have. I’m not good with numbers—my other side of the brain doesn’t work. Both sides of his brain work well.”

Garces put in five years working for the Starr Restaurant Organization before deciding he needed to open a place of his own. The question was where: Miami, Chicago or Philly.

By that point he and Beatriz had a daughter Olivia, now 4. (Their son Andres is 2 months old.) They decided on Philly.

“I really like the dining market [here],” says Garces, who eventually bought a house in Queen Village. “That cheesesteak mentality can be the downside, but mostly I see the food and dining scene progressing.” He says customers are starting to appreciate exotic flavors and ethnic foods more. “It’s a market that’s really waking up. It’s still kind of fresh, and there’s room to create some paths.”

The dining market, as the reservation book at Amada will prove, likes him back. Even the real estate market is a fan.

The developers behind the Hub wooed Garces into his lease agreement for Chilango. They think he can create a destination restaurant that’ll attract Center City diners and regular Amada customers to West Philly.

“We want to associate the building with lifestyle, which we equate with salons and spas, fashion retail, restaurants,” says Ahsan Nasratullah, a developer at the Hub. “When we started to think about restaurants, we thought, ‘Who’d be the best to bring in? Who’s at the top of the market right now?’ Garces is definitely top of the market.”

Photo by Jeff Fusco.

Photo by Jeff Fusco.

The avocado ravioli arrives at the table.

A tour of Mexico City’s top gourmet restaurants has led Garces and Spinner to lunch at Pujol, one of the finest and most elegant restaurants in the wealthy neighborhood of Polanco.

“It’s modern Mexican with a twist,” explains Garces. “Very creative and very similar to what I want to do.”

The menu is particularly exciting since previous restaurant tastings proved disappointing, with an abundance of dishes Garces rated merely “amateur.”

Both men pause to soak in the presentation. Garces takes a picture. Spinner sketches in his notebook. They lift their forks and dissect the contents.

“What do you think of this?” Garces asks Spinner.

“I like it.”

“You think we could do something like this?”

“You know we can.”

“Okay, what do you think that filling is?”

From there Garces encourages Spinner to train his palate and decipher each element of the dish: the finely brunoised shrimp filling; the bright orange guajillo sauce on top; the smooth, creamy texture, followed by a sharp seafood flavor and a hot chili finish.

Using the tips of their forks they take tiny, sparing bites from plate after gluttonous plate, savoring the flavor of each taste and breaking down its contents.

Garces enjoys the exercise.

“Something that really excites me is when we get young, ambitious cooks who show promise. That’s something I take pride in. I enjoy working with them,” he says.

“A lot of chefs are assholes. They’re totally demeaning. They usually have an inferiority complex,” says Adam DeLosso, chef de cuisine at Moshulu, who’s been friends with Garces since they met 10 years ago in the kitchen of New York’s Four Seasons. “[Garces] is the complete opposite. The best part about him is he takes the great things in people and makes them shine.”

Spinner is one of those plucked talents. After working in insurance and hating it, he enrolled in culinary school. Garces brought him from El Vez to Amada, and within a few weeks made him sous chef. He’s now being groomed to take the role of head chef at Chilango, and looks up to his mentor.

“When Jose talks, he’s able to silence a room,” says Spinner. “It’s because of his experience and what he’s done. And he’s very inspiring because he wants people to follow in his footsteps. He calls it the ‘Garces School of Culinary Hard Knocks: Only the strong survive.’ He talks to us about how to run a business, keep costs in line, create specials, expand horizons in food, how to control the line and motivate the cooks to get the food up on time.”

“I try to teach the chefs that being a chef isn’t only about good food knowledge. The business aspect is also very important,’ says Garces. “It’s not without completing all these tasks can I let them go. Because I haven’t done my job if they haven’t reached that level. Someone focused and hungry for success can accomplish this in two or three years.”

Despite his current focus on Spanish cuisine, Garces says Latin cooking remains a passion. By adding the spice and heat and tropical flavors unique to Asia to the Nuevo Latino model he inherited from Douglas Rodriguez, Garces hopes to carve his own niche among star chefs.

After that, he’ll focus on nurturing his restaurants.

“The one thing I learned from Stephen: I feel he grew very fast and did a lot of great concepts, but there needs to be a lot of maintenance and care with each property,” says Garces. “I want to keep each place I open very personal and thriving.

“Being a chef/owner you grow an attachment to each place. It’s tough,” he continues. “Already I feel a little bit of separation anxiety from Amada.”

As for his mentor, Douglas Rodriguez hopes Garces’ next project is no project. “He’s got to sit down and slow down a little bit,” says Rodriguez.“I think he’s going too fast.”

With Amada thriving, Tinto days from opening and Chilango starting to move from concept to construction, you’d think Garces would be ready for a break.

He’s not.

“Latin Thai,” he says. “That’ll be my fourth and final concept here in Philadelphia.”