Iron Chef Jose Garces: The Rich Flavors of Culture

Renowned chef Jose Garces imparts a passion for regional cuisine that has catapulted him into the realm of celebrity. He opened his first restaurant in 2005, and today he owns and operates 15 highly successful restaurants in five cities. Garces is a 2009 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic award and one of few chefs in the country to hold the title of Iron Chef, appearing regularly on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. He has been featured prominently on top TV shows and in major media, including The Today Show, Dr. Oz, the New York Times, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and the Wall Street Journal.

The Flavors of Region

If you happen to dine at one of Chef Garces’ restaurants, you’ll find specialties in some unique cuisines—among them Catalan, Andalusian, Peruvian, and of course his familial Ecuadorian. If you ask Garces why he specializes in these types of cuisines, his answer is simple. “You can find out so much about people and places by eating with them,” he tells Calmful Living. “All of the places you mention are locales where I’ve made it a point to try and eat like a local, soaking up the culture and the cuisine.”

Garces highlights venues that share vibrant, proud and deep identities. For example, Catalonia and Andalusia—now autonomous communities of Spain—have made their own vital cultural contributions to the world. Both have produced legendary artists; Catalonia was the birthplace of luminary painter Salvador Dalí and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, while Andalusia gave us Pablo Picasso. Andalusia has also contributed cultural elements most usually associated with Spain itself, such as flamenco music and dancing, bullfighting, and the famous Andalusian (also known as “pure Spanish”) horse. It would only make sense that the cuisine of such places would be as singularly rich.

The eclectic restaurants opened by Chef Garces span the globe in terms of palate. In Philadelphia, the city he now makes his home, Amada is an authentic Andalusian tapas bar and restaurant, where Garces goes beyond tradition, interpreting centuries-old tapas recipes. His Tinto wine bar is inspired by the Basque region of northern Spain and southern France. Distrito brings the culture and cuisine of Mexico City, and Chifa is a Latin-Asian restaurant named after the Chino-Peruvian eateries that serve this unique fusion of foods. In his native Chicago, he helms a renowned Catalan restaurant called Mercat a la Planxa. There are also examples of these and other culture cuisines in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Palm Springs, California.

From His Childhood Kitchen

Garces was born and raised in Chicago, to Ecuadorian parents. He graduated from Chicago’s Kendall College School of Culinary Arts and then spent several years studying different cuisines in top-rated professional kitchens, from Spain to New York City.

The warmth Chef Garces expresses through his cuisine and the atmosphere of his restaurants has roots in his childhood. “I loved being in the kitchen from a young age, mostly as a supporting role to my Mamita Amada (paternal grandmother) and my mother, who were the culinary stars in our house,” Garces recalls. “Cooking alongside them, I saw firsthand how food can bring people together as a family—literally and figuratively—and that stuck with me. When I started considering a career, it took me some time to return to that idea, but ultimately I enrolled in culinary school and I haven’t looked back since.”

Local, Sustainable—and Flavorful

Being a top chef, Garces knows that ingredient flavor is of paramount importance to a culinary creation. For him, this has meant utilizing ingredients grown locally and sustainably, whenever possible. “My cooking has always been about using the best available ingredients, which is another legacy from Mamita Amada,” Garces continues. “To this day, she insists that there is no American equal for some of the cheeses she cooks with in Ecuador—and I’m certain she’d smuggle them into the country if she thought she could! So using local, seasonal and sustainably produced ingredients, which tend to be raised and sold with greater care than mass-produced equivalents, is a natural for me.

“I’m of the opinion that using the best possible components will yield the best possible results. And it’s been proven true again and again, every time I bite into a salad with local vegetables or cut into a butter-tender humanely raised steak.”

In an effort to bring an increasing number of local and sustainable ingredients to his restaurants, several years ago Chef Garces bought Luna Farm in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. He had it converted so that anything produced there would be organic and sustainable. “When I acquired Luna Farm, it was in disrepair; so our ‘conversion’ was less about adapting the old pieces to new technology than starting from scratch to create a ‘green’ farm,” he relates. “We built greenhouses that utilize solar energy for heat and light, built a rainwater irrigation system, and set up the conversion of used fryer oil from the restaurants into biodiesel. We also raise honeybees, for natural pollination and to preserve an endangered local species.”

The 40-acre farm provides organic vegetables, fruits, eggs and honey year-round to several of Garces’ East Coast restaurants. The crops grown include sweet corn, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, radishes, arugula, spinach and lettuces, and there are many varieties of tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons as well.

“Operating the farm in conjunction with the restaurants actually presents several opportunities to ‘green’ our entire enterprise,” Garces points out. “We compost waste from the restaurants and use it to fertilize the farm. We power the tractor with biodiesel that we convert from used fryer oil from the local restaurants. And obviously, whenever possible, we serve the vegetables, herbs, fruits, nuts and mushrooms that we grow.”

The farm also serves another purpose in Garces’ considerably busy life. “Luna Farm’s role in my life is twofold: it’s both a rural escape for me and my family and a source of exceptional produce for my restaurants,” he says. “And in both those purposes, it has exceeded my expectations. I can’t imagine a more beautiful, restful place to spend time with my wife and our children, and I can’t fathom finding fresher produce to serve to my guests.”

Exporting His Joy of Cooking

In an effort to share the joys of culture and cooking with others, Chef Garces has just published his second book, The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru. This book chronologically tells the story of Garces’ food journey, with each chapter dedicated to a place that influenced his style, beginning in Ecuador with traditional recipes of his childhood. For each country, Garces writes four dinner menus highlighting his favorite dishes and cultural “essentials.” The book includes more than 100 recipes accompanied by beautiful food and travel photos, along with his personal memories.

The Latin Road Home is a record of my life as a chef so far: where I came from, how I got here, and where I think I might be going,” Garces explains. “I hope that people will enjoy it as much for the journey as for the recipes.

“Learning to cook was, for me, a formative experience, one that bonded me with my family and helped me to find my life’s calling. It may not be that for everyone, but it’s a skill that will never not be in demand and is a worthwhile one to examine, if not to master.”

Expansive and Intimate

While Chef Garces has played a public role in changing our food landscape, he maintains humility and an authenticity born of dedication and hard work. “I tend not to really look that far into things,” he says. “I’m a chef, which means that I prepare and serve food for a living. If I can also manage to introduce people to something new or help them celebrate a milestone occasion, that’s about all I ask. I will say that working in restaurants has given me a deep insight into the challenges faced by immigrants in this country, and I founded my Garces Family Foundation to help provide critical financial and practical support to those who need it in order to contribute to the rich fabric of our national landscape.

“My mission is to prepare the best food that I can in the most welcoming environment that I can create, and to give back to those who help me to do so in any way that I can,” Garces concludes. “Food brings people together in the most literal of ways: we gather around the table to eat; we cook for each other; we raise our glasses in a toast. There is perhaps no more social act than cooking and eating together.” n

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Chef Jose Garces’ book The Latin Road Home is available from the Calmful Living bookstore