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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2022


STORY

Lisa Cavanaugh

PHOTOS

Michael Perisco

Growing up in Chicago as the child of Ecuadorian immigrants, Jose Garces says that food was always a huge part of his life. “I remember being side by side with my Mamita, Amada, turning out empanadas for family events, but also going to the Mexican markets with my dad, and still loving the particular items that are unique to Chicago, like our pizzas, hot Italian beef, and hot dogs,” says Garces, an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and former Next Iron Chef champion. “As a child in America, you yearn to be accepted as American, but for me, the pull of the culture and food of my ancestral homeland has always had a place in my heart.”

At his restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and his adopted home of Philadelphia, Garces regularly serves versions of his favorite Ecuadorian dishes. “Empanadas de Verde, biche de camaron, a shrimp and seafood stew made from plantains, and fritada, which is a crispy pork served with hominy salad; I’ve made variations on all of these items throughout my career on various menus,” he says.

Garces says his culinary style is heavily influenced by both his classical training in French techniques and cookery, as well as his travels. “I spent a few years out of culinary school working in Spain and picked up so many small twists from cooks there that I’ve added to my repertoire.” He says his adventures in Peru, Ecuador, Mexico, and Japan have exposed him to new foods, techniques, and concepts. “I feel like everything I do is filtered through the depth and breadth of my experiences, so while something may be primarily Latin-inspired, you may see a French technique or a Japanese presentation floating around.”

Chef Jose Garces stays busy overseeing several East Coast restaurants, a culinary-focused foundation, and a chef residency program in Philadelphia.

Chef Jose Garces stays busy overseeing several East Coast restaurants, a culinary-focused foundation, and a chef residency program in Philadelphia.

His passion extends beyond the kitchen to his non-profit organization, the Garces Foundation. “For the past ten years, we have been actively involved in providing much-needed support for the immigrant community in Philadelphia,” he says. “From medical clinics, dental care, and access to education and food resources, we’ve been able to make tangible impacts in the lives of our community members.”

Garces is also deeply involved in a chef residency program at Volvér, his restaurant at the Kimmel Center for The Performing Arts in Center City, Philadelphia. “We are currently in the process of vetting potential chefs for our second cohort,” he says. “It’s been really exciting to get to work with this variety of talented chefs and give them a platform to reach a different market.”

Seizing opportunities is a concept familiar to the winning contestant on the fiercely competitive Iron Chef. “I’d actually tried out for the previous season of Next Iron Chef but wasn’t selected at the time,” he says. “After appearing on the regular season of Iron Chef as a contestant and beating Bobby Flay, I was invited to compete in the second season of NIC. It was a lot of fun, but it was also hard to be away from home.”

Despite the time apart from family, he appreciated having the amazing experience of cooking in Tokyo for the finale and the pleasure of being one of the few culinarians to reach the title of Iron Chef. However, he finds even more value in the recognition granted via the James Beard Award. “While becoming an Iron Chef certainly increased my visibility to the masses, winning a James Beard Award was special because it is awarded by your peers,” he says. “Knowing that I had garnered that level of recognition for my work was amazing and humbling.”

Recently he has reflected on what he loves the most about his work. “I started thinking about what the ‘sweet spot’ is in all that I do,” he says. “For me, it is practicing my craft at a high level, with the best-sourced ingredients I can get my hands on, and cooking for people who really appreciate the art. That experience of cooking, serving, and letting others enjoy, is where I’m happiest.”

Throughout it all, Garces has stayed true to his Latin American roots. He recognizes the depth, diversity, and history in these cuisines that often aren’t seen in mainstream culinary culture. “It’s part of who I am,” he says. “When I think about my experiences coming up in the culinary world, my focus on Spanish and Latin cuisines, and my desire to really master them, I think that sets me apart from other chefs.”

“Everything I do is filtered through the depth and breadth of my experiences.”
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