Even before he won the second season of The Next Iron Chef — earning him a permanent seat in the Kitchen Stadium — Ecuadorian-American chef Jose Garces was the man in the Philadelphia restaurant scene. He currently owns eight highly successful restaurants, ranging in concept from Boqueria-styled Spanish tapas (Amada) and modern Mexican (Distrito) to a Prohibition-styled whiskey bar in Rittenhouse Square (Village Whiskey).

It’s with an intense curiosity and street smarts that Garces has grown his empire from a humble start in Chicago — where he learned to cook from his grandmother. We caught up with the chef to find out some of his most memorable moments.      

Bloodiest kitchen injury you have witnessed was…
Gruesome injuries are a reality of life in the kitchen; from blistering burns to deep cuts, I’ve pretty much seen it all. The kitchen staff tends to take it with a grain of salt, because we know it comes with the territory. It’s tougher when a server or bartender cuts a finger with broken glass or spills a hot beverage — and the absolute worst, of course, is an injury involving a guest. Fortunately, those are pretty rare. The worst one I’ve seen was at one of my first kitchen jobs at the Signature Room in Chicago. We were working with a large stock pot with spigots on the bottom. One of the spigots came loose and poured hot stock on another cook’s leg. It was really bad, third degree burns. I’m getting jittery just thinking about it!

A chef who inspires you is…
I’m always attracted to chefs who aren’t afraid to express their own culinary point of view, and Philadelphia is a gold mine of talent in that regard. Marc Vetri has been preparing world-class Italian delicacies since before offal was hip. Michael Solomonov’s modern Israeli food at Zahav is unlike anything else you can find in town. I’m also constantly inspired by the masters, in particular the great Spanish chefs such as Juan Maria Arzak and Martín Berasategui. I visit Spain’s Basque country whenever I get the chance, and no trip is complete without a meal at one of their restaurants.

Taken your staff on a field trip…
Field trips are one of my favorite things about my job! Any time I open a restaurant, I try to take members of the team with me to the place whose cuisine inspired me, and we just eat our way from one end of the trip to the other. Before we opened Chifa, we visited Lima and Machu Pichu in Cuzco. The fish market (Terminal Pesquero) was one of my favorites for great street food. Then we went to several chifas to check out their mix of Chinese and Peruvian cuisines so we could get some ideas to bring back with us.

Fired somebody…
One of the realities of the hospitality business is that not everyone is a fit at every restaurant, and there have been plenty of times that I’ve had to have that conversation with members of the team. The most difficult times are when you know you’re letting go of someone with talent and vision who just doesn’t gel with your style, because it never feels good to lose gifted employees. I always wish them well. 

Kicked somebody out of your restaurant…
I don’t know that I’ve ever personally evicted anyone — but I don’t have a lot of patience for guests who are deliberately rude to my staff or vice versa. 

Dated a staff member…
I’ve only done it once, and boy did I get lucky. When I first got to Philadelphia and was working at Alma de Cuba I met a beautiful young woman who was working in the restaurant to pay her way through dental school. We dated, fell in love, and got married. Today she is the owner of a Philadelphia dental practice and the beautiful mother of my two amazing children — Dr. Beatriz Garces.

Got drunk at your restaurant…
I shy away from going too crazy, but meeting some of my management team or my sous chefs at Village Whiskey for some bourbon at the end of a long day is one of my very favorite treats.

Had a celebrity enter your dining room…
We see a lot of familiar faces at my restaurants; several of the Philadelphia Phillies are regulars, and often when a famous guest is visiting Philadelphia, they stop by for a meal or a drink. 

Improvised a dish to instant perfection…
This is a talent that I’ve honed over my appearances on The Next Iron Chef and Iron Chef America. In the heat of battle at Kitchen Stadium, there’s no time for mistakes — and the ability to turn around a misstep has saved me many times over.

Felt defeated…
It’s no secret that while I love to compete, I hate to lose — and when a challenger bests me on Iron Chef America, it can be tough to swallow.

Felt overjoyed…
I’m a lucky guy; there have been so many moments of joy in my career — and my life — that it’s tough to single any one out. Not too many people get to do what I do and work a job that they love, day after day, and I try not to forget just how fortunate I am. It makes the great moments that much sweeter.


 

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