surf globally, eat locally
July 17, 2012

Jose Garces: From Iron Chef into Latin Flare
By Marcia Frost

Jose Garces opened his first restaurant in Philadelphia in 2005. Amada garnered immediate attention, as did his cookbook Latin Evolution. By 2009, Garces had five restaurants open, was a James Beard Foundation award winner and an Iron Chef on the Food Network.

Garces continues to expand his restaurant group, incorporating foods from Mexico, Spain, Peru, and even Southern France. An unmistaken Latin flare is the core of all his dishes and he now has 15 restaurants in five different cities.

In recent years Garces has also expanded his interest in wine, spirits and cocktails that pair well with his food. He even created Old Town Whiskey, an American bar that offers more than 80 whiskies, next door to Distrito in Scottsdale.

After visiting two Jose Garces restaurants in two different states (Distrito and Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago), I was impressed in the variety and uniqueness the chef presents in his restaurants. The Chicago native was happy to talk about it, as well as his venture into cocktails.

MF: Mercat a la Planxa and Distrito have completely different looks. Did you have any input in the design of your restaurants?
JG: Mercat was a collaboration between our architect, David Ashen, and our designer, Denise Korn. Together, they created the distinctive look and feel of Barcelona, from the vibrant colors of the many markets to the hexagonal motif that echoes Antoni Gaudi’s work.

I always have some input on the aesthetic of my restaurants, particularly the kitchen, but I also have been fortunate to work with some very gifted designers and I trust them to make my ideas come to life.

MF: A chef’s tasting menu is not something you expect in a casual restaurant known for its Tapas. Why did you decide to do that at Mercat a la Planxa?
JG: I have always served a chef’s tasting menu at my tapas restaurants, going right back to the opening of Amada, my first restaurant. I think it’s important for my guests to feel as if my team and I are taking care of them, and because we all know the menu so well, we’re able to guide them through a variety of dishes and help them to experience all of the flavors that the kitchen puts out without worrying that they’ll miss a signature dish or that they’ll order too little or too much food.

MF: I have a severe fish/seafood allergy and I was very impressed that there was no hesitation that the kitchen could still put together a tasting menu on a moments notice. Many chefs aren’t that flexible. Has adjusting to special needs something you have always been conscious of?
JG: Catering to special needs and dietary restrictions is important to me because I don’t think that an allergy should prevent someone from enjoying a meal. Tapas are unusually flexible in that regard – our menu at Mercat includes so many dishes that it’s easy to steer a guest away from a potentially troubling dish and substitute it with something that won’t aggravate their intolerance.

MF: I notice the use of fruits in your dishes, such as the Figs in the Serrano Ham Salad at Mercat and the Pineapple Salsa in the Pulled Pork Tacos at Distrito. It’s not something you often see in Latin cuisine.
JG: For me, building a dish is all about balancing the flavors and making sure that each comes through and is complemented by the others. I love pairing the richness of pulled pork with the bright, acidic pop of pineapple, and the subtle sweetness of figs make a tasty counterpoint to the salty, savory goodness of Serrano ham. My cooking has always been ingredient-driven; I cook to maximize the flavor of each ingredient, and fruit can lend balance to a dish that you might not otherwise find.

MF: How important do you think it is to coordinate the cocktail selection to your menu?
JG: My team and I have always worked to create cocktail offerings that are as much a part of the meal as a great dish – they are thoughtful and flavorful, meant both to be paired with the food and enjoyed on their own. In other countries, such as Spain, one would never enjoy a meal without a beverage or two, whether sherry, wine, beer or a cocktail, so we try to mimic that here and serve cocktails that are a key component of a complete dining experience. We also like to add fun elements to our cocktail lists, like at Garces Trading Company in Philadelphia, we just introduced a selection of hand-bottled, carbonated cocktails and our guests love them!

MF: At the Saguaro Hotel, you put together a coffee shop and a whiskey bar in addition to Distrito. Why did you choose those two particular outlets?
JG: Both the Garces Trading Company Coffee Kiosk and Old Town Whiskey are echoes of two of my Philadelphia ventures. At the Coffee Kiosk, we serve my own custom-roasted small-batch coffees and espressos. And what hotel would be complete without a great way to wake up in the morning? We also do snacks, pastries and sandwiches to go, perfect for guests who don’t have time for a full meal but want to eat well on the go. Old Town Whiskey is inspired by Village Whiskey, which is my favorite bar in Philadelphia – and I’m not just saying that because it’s mine! My team and I created Village Whiskey as the kind of place we’d like to hang out and unwind after a long day, and Old Town Whiskey is exactly that: a place for travelers to relax, enjoy a drink and a meal and settle into their vacation.

MF: Which is your favorite restaurant to work the kitchen in?
JG: I love being able to interact with my guests while I’m cooking, seeing their reactions to a particularly great dish, so the open kitchens at JG Domestic and Tinto immediately come to mind. I’m also blown away by the amazing, state-of-the-art kitchen at Amada at Revel, in Atlantic City, but my sentimental favorite will always be my first kitchen, Amada.

MF: What’s next?
JG: I’m of the ‘never say never’ school of thought, so to be honest, I’m not sure. These past few years have been tremendously exciting, but it’s also great at the end of the day to spend time with my family at our farm and just enjoy each other’s company. At the moment, I’m not ruling anything out.

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