Garces Cooks Up An Ambitious Latin Flavor in a Food Truck

By Kristine M. Kierzek

Just five short years ago Jose Garces opened his first restaurant, Amada, in Philadelphia.

Today, the 36-year-old Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner runs seven restaurants in Philadelphia, plus Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa.

Born to Ecuadorian parents in Chicago, Garces is keenly aware of his roots. Deftly navigating Latin cuisines, his food mixes authenticity and tradition with innovation. He credits Nuevo Latino pioneer Douglas Rodriguez with shaping him as a chef.

Rodriguez played an instrumental part in his personal life, too. While working as chef de cuisine at Rodriguez’s Alma de Cuba, he met his Cuban-born wife, Beatriz.

Garces’ first cookbook, “Latin Evolution” (Lake Isle Press, 2008), put his modern spin on Latin classics. He’s exploring Latin cooking at home for his next cookbook, out next year.

While on a recent trip to Ecuador, Garces answered questions via e-mail.

Q.You met your wife while she was working as a server, putting herself through dental school?

A. She was a server, and I was working my first job in Philadelphia, serving as chef de cuisine for Douglas Rodriguez. Today, she practices at Sonrisa Dental in Old City, Philadelphia.

Q. Do your kids help in the kitchen?

A. Olivia is 7. Andres is 3. Olivia’s just starting to have an interest in the goings-on in the kitchen beyond wanting to make a mess. . . . Andres loves to cook, and often helps make breakfast.

Q.You still have family in Ecuador?

A. Yes. . . . My 91-year-old grandmother, Mamita Amada, and a veritable army of aunts, uncles and cousins. . . . I want my children to understand their background and where their family came from.

Q.Anything you make sure to eat while visiting?

A. Everything. So much of the joy of traveling, for me, is about experiencing the culture and the cuisine of a place. I can’t imagine taking a trip and not returning stuffed, exhausted and dying to cook all the things I tried. . . . Fritada, a classic Ecuadorian pork dish with mote, and ceviche . . . come to mind immediately – as does my grandmother’s empanada verde, one of my all-time favorite treats.

Q.Who was your first teacher in the kitchen?

A. My mother. My grandmother taught her to cook, so of course I also learned quite a bit from her, Mamita Amada.

Q.How many restaurants do you have now?

A. I own seven restaurants in Philadelphia (Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company and JG Domestic). . . . Next year, I’ll open Frohman’s Wursthaus, a fun beers-and-bratwursts joint. I also recently launched a food truck, Guapos Tacos. . . .  In Chicago, I am executive chef and partner of Mercat a la Planxa.

Q.Will the new restaurants retain a Latin influence?

A. My food will always retain a Latin influence because it was so central to my learning to cook. . . . The taco truck will, for sure, have Mexican influences, but the sausage shop will include more German, American and Italian heritage. Of course, I’m not ruling out a chorizo offering.

Q. Why a taco truck?

A. Food trucks are so much fun! The taco truck is my way of expanding my reach to catering. People can throw a great party and we’ll show up. . . . Crafty way to get invited to some good parties, isn’t it?

Q.How did growing up in Chicago influence you?

A. I was surrounded by everything from classic American meat-and-potatoes cooking to diverse ethnic cuisines. . . . The culinary arts program at Kendall College in Chicago was critical in shaping me as a chef.

Q.What do you think when you look at your cookbook, “Latin Evolution”?

A. It has the mystical appeal of a yearbook . . . evoking a period of tremendous growth in my life. I am working on a second cookbook now, but just as Tinto is different from Amada (my second and first restaurants, respectively), I’m sure the books will feel different and have different roles in my life. This new book will have everyday meals from six Latin countries.