Jose Garces: Fueling the creative artistry that makes a chef
Chef Jose Garces uses the art of food and cuisine to connect with his Ecuadorian roots, and help others experience Latin culture.
When we think of food, it’s common for our minds to turn to nutrition, nourishment or the vitality of its impact on growth and survival.
For world renowned chef and restaurateur Jose Garces, food and cooking is more than just survival: it is an art form, and as a chef his work goes beyond the mundane aspects of gastronomy.
“Cooking was underappreciated for many generations. For years, it used to be just a form of sustenance,” he said.
Within the culinary world, there are a myriad of different cuisines and recipes, and endless cooking techniques to choose from for each meal. Some are passed down from generation to generation in kitchens and homes across the world; other tips and demonstrations for how and what to cook can be found anywhere from Pinterest to your television set.
The level of discipline it often takes for a chef to mix and match flavors, textures and ingredients to create an appetizing and delectable dish that can effectively derail the pain and anguish of hunger is promptly what makes it an art form.
That process of piecing together the mosaic of a well-crafted meal is the underlying beauty that Garces finds in the world of culinary arts.
“As artists, you don’t always have hits right [off] the bat, and I appreciate that,” said Garces. “But I love the game, I love to strive for that perfection. And it’s so much fun at the end of the day.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that culinary arts, it’s a true art form,” he added.
With a career-long journey that has spanned nearly two decades, Garces now owns over a dozen restaurants across the Tri-State area of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. He’s traveled across continents, sharing his expertise and influence with many others.
On June 24, Garces sat down for a conversation with AL DÍA Publisher & CEO, Hernán Guaracao, to detail his start in the culinary industry, how the industry has evolved over his years, the ways in which food can connect people, and much more.
Growing up on the northside of Chicago, Garces was surrounded by a very diverse community, from Italian to Irish to Polish to Mexican. As he was coming of age, he always enjoyed the balance of being both Ecuadorian and American.
“Growing up in this Ecuadorian-American household… I wanted to stick to my roots, but also just embrace Chicago, embrace American culture,” said Garces.
An eagerness to learn about both the environment he was in, and his family’s background consumed him, and continues to play a vital role in his work today.
“While I appreciated where I came from, I think there was a yearning, at any early age, to just embrace what was going on in the country and place I was gonna live in,” he said.
At an early age, Garces’ culinary passion was cultivated by his grandmother, Mamita Amada, who taught him how to cook with Latin flair.
He credits his grandmother for being a big influence in his life, who passed down her passion for food, ingredients and flavors. Garces took everything he learned from his grandmother and parents, and allowed that to aid him in his current career.
Our life trajectory is often shaped consciously and unconsciously by our environments, both inherited and chosen, and for Garces, the mixture of being exposed to a diverse community while maintaining his Ecuadorian roots “really helped me to be able to look at where we live, and our market, in a different way,” he said.
As a student, he had the opportunity to intern at La Taberna del Alabardero in Puerto Banus, Spain.
“I wanted to just be exposed to Spanish culture, Spanish cuisine, European-inspired cooking,” he said. “So, being in Europe and learning from European chefs was something that was appealing.”
After interning in Spain, Garces then moved to New York and worked at a number of kitchens with some of the top chefs in the industry.
“That’s really where I felt like I learned the chef culture, learned how to become a chef,” he said.
While in New York, Garces met the globally acclaimed “Godfather of Nuevo Latino Cuisine,” Chef Douglas Rodriguez.
“I spent a lot of time as kind of his protégé, someone who was under his wing, and I just appreciated his thirst for flavors, and his unique abilities,” Garces said of Rodriguez. “He was a great mentor, and someone who I would credit with my appreciation for building flavors.”
Garces worked diligently on his craft and started to grow into his chefdom while in the Big Apple.
In 2001, Rodriguez was recruited by local mega-restaurateur Chef Stephen Starr to open Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. Rodriguez chose Garces to join him. Garces then found himself in the City of Brotherly Love, and for the first time, serving as an executive chef.
“I was really just thrilled to be in Philly… I think that there was just better opportunity,” he said, adding that the culinary landscape in New York over the five years he spent there was difficult for up-and-coming chefs to ascend.
“Coming down to Philadelphia... I really wasn’t too aware of the dining scene, but I knew that… [the] quality of life would be better for me,” he added.
He has since settled in Philadelphia with his wife and two children.
While there, he reflected, he and the other chefs were expected to “own the business” and “act like owners.” That environment, coupled with the influence both Rodriguez and Starr had had on him over the years, allowed Garces to gain a solid foothold in the industry.
Eventually, he began to feel more knowledgeable and became empowered to start his own business. He also realized that he had gained a following within the marketplace that sparked the confidence to take that leap.
"It had taken me about 10 years in the business before I felt that moment where I knew I should open my first restaurant and... ultimately own my own destiny,” said Garces.
In 2005, Garces opened his first restaurant in Philadelphia, Amada, named after his grandmother. The restaurant, located on Chestnut Street, features a full menu of rich, traditional Spanish cuisine and tapas.
“Success happens, and I gained a lot of confidence from that first experience,” he recalled.
Granted, there did exist some challenges along the way as he worked to build his profile and his brand, noting market conditions and the evolution of the way in which people are consuming food as two of the main contributors.
In contrast to a market like New York, Garces found there is more loyalty towards restaurants in Philadelphia, which helps; however, he’s experienced firsthand just how brief and daunting success in the culinary industry can be.
Nonetheless, Garces remains upbeat and hopeful about what the future may bring.
To aid his endeavors, Garces created a full-service catering and event division, called the Garces Group, as well as the Garces Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to Philadelphia’s underserved immigrant community.
“In our business, you just have to work, stay on it, and stay positive, because things will occur and you have to just stay the course and believe in who you are and what you can do,” he said. “That’s kind of what’s carried me all the way here.”
With easier access to information and more people traveling from the U.S. to Latin American countries, he sees more non-Latinos being exposed to Latin American cuisine.
“Food… really brings people together, and it’s more and more with our devices and the many distractions we have throughout the day,” said Garces.
“Our food, our culture is so diverse and has so many different avenues that it can’t help but bring people together,” he added.
Having been in the business for some time, Garces feels he has a great opportunity to make an impact on people’s lives.
“I think there’s good opportunity in the market to spread more of our Latin culture through food,” he said.
Garces’ focus remains being able to connect to his cultural roots, while doing what he loves and helping others enjoy it, as well.
He hopes to continue paying homage to his parents and grandmother, and one of the most effective and impactful ways to do that is through the art of cuisine.
“I think by doing that, I will be able to connect further with the Latin community here in Philadelphia and beyond,” he said.