Q&A with Iron Chef Jose Garces

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Jose Garces. Photo credit: Jason Varney
Chef Jose Garces. Photo credit: Jason Varney

Iron Chef fans, you may want to keep those peepers on high alert. This week, the Bay Area hosts Iron Chef and James Beard Award-winning Chef Jose Garces, who will be in San Francisco touting his second book, Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru. The book is a "travelogue and literary food memoir" with chapters and recipes from each country. Many of his recipes have ingredients that can be found in, say, your favorite Mission bodega, and Garces gives tips on ingredients for newbies. Garces authored his first cookbook, Latin Evolution, in 2008 and will be at Omnivore Books on Thursday night at 6PM.

His eponymous Garces Group has 15 restaurants in Philadelphia (Amada, Chifa, Tinto, and Distrito), Chicago, Palm Springs, Arizona, and Atlantic City. An American born to Ecuadorian parents and raised in Chicago, Garces started culinary training as a youngster with his paternal grandmother and later graduated from Chicago’s Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. Chef Garces lives in Philadelphia with his wife and two children and this year created the Garces Family Foundation, a non-profit to help underserved immigrants.

Bay Area Bites: How did the second book project come about?
Garces: I knew for a long time that I wanted to work on a second cookbook after finishing my first one, Latin Evolution. When I started coming up with recipes that I thought I might want to include in a second book, they all carried with them specific stories about how I learned to make them or made them my own. Those stories took on as much life as the recipes themselves, and it quickly became obvious that my next book should bring them both together and share not only how to prepare certain dishes but also why I love to prepare them and what they mean to me.

Bay Area Bites: Do you have any good stories from the book tour?
Garces: Up to this point everything has been running very smoothly! It was great to be back at my alma mater, Kendall College in Chicago and I had a blast at the Arizona Taco Fest in Scottsdale where Distrito took home a few trophies.


Bay Area Bites: What are you most passionate about food-wise?
Garces: I’m devoted to finding and preparing the best, freshest ingredients. To me, it is the surest way to make a dish truly special. If you refuse to compromise on the quality of your ingredients, you will always be working with the best raw materials, and by extension, you will always create the best version of a dish that you can.

Bay Area Bites: Who are your culinary mentors?
Garces: I owe a debt of experience and faith to Douglas Rodriguez, both for his trust in me and for bringing me to my adopted hometown of Philadelphia. My fellow Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto, never fails to inspire me with his creativity and masterful techniques. The Spanish trailblazer in American has long been Jose Andrés, and I am proud to follow in his footsteps of bringing the best of Spain to America.

Bay Area Bites: What are the best things about being a chef and restaurateur? And the worst?
Garces: I am lucky to be able to say that I truly love my job. Perhaps the best part of being a chef and restaurateur is using food as a way of bringing people together, whether for just one meal, as guests, or as a team working in one of my restaurants, caring for those guests night after night. Food creates community in a way that nothing else can. There are stresses, as there are in any job, and they can be magnified because every meal in a restaurant should be special, but those stresses pale in comparison to the benefits.

Bay Area Bites: You are relatively young yet appear to be a success. What are the lessons you’ve learned on the way?
Garces: The biggest lesson that I have learned, and one that I try to carry with me and to impart on those who ask me for advice, is to surround yourself with talented, passionate, capable people and learn all you can from them. If you are constantly around people you admire, you can’t help but study their approach, and often, you’ll discover a better or more effective way of doing something.

Bay Area Bites: Do you have any favorite Bay Area food spots?
Garces: Mission Chinese by Danny Bowien is a favorite and I’ll order anything on that menu! I also like Boulevard and Piperade. I’m going to Manresa during this trip.

Bay Area Bites: Where do you think the U.S. is for appreciation of other cultures?
Garces: It’s often said that the U.S. is a melting pot, therefore I believe it’s impossible for us to not appreciate all of the cultures that now make up American culture.

Bay Area Bites: Have you ever experienced racism in the kitchen?
Garces: In many ways, I think of the kitchen as the great equalizer -- especially because often, our ‘audience,’ or our diners, can’t actually see us. If your food is good, it’s good, and that’s really all there is to it at the end of the day.