Men's Health : Iron Chef Jose Garces: The Rich Flavors of Culture

Renowned chef Jose Garces imparts a passion for regional cuisine that has catapulted him into the realm of celebrity. He opened his first restaurant in 2005, and today he owns and operates 15 highly successful restaurants in five cities. Garces is a 2009 winner of the James Beard Foundation’s prestigious Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic award and one of few chefs in the country to hold the title of Iron Chef, appearing regularly on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. He has been featured prominently on top TV shows and in major media, including The Today Show, Dr. Oz, the New York Times, Esquire, Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and the Wall Street Journal.

The Flavors of Region

If you happen to dine at one of Chef Garces’ restaurants, you’ll find specialties in some unique cuisines—among them Catalan, Andalusian, Peruvian, and of course his familial Ecuadorian. If you ask Garces why he specializes in these types of cuisines, his answer is simple. “You can find out so much about people and places by eating with them,” he tells Organic Connections. “All of the places you mention are locales where I’ve made it a point to try and eat like a local, soaking up the culture and the cuisine.”

Garces highlights venues that share vibrant, proud and deep identities. For example, Catalonia and Andalusia—now autonomous communities of Spain—have made their own vital cultural contributions to the world. Both have produced legendary artists; Catalonia was the birthplace of luminary painter Salvador Dalí and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, while Andalusia gave us Pablo Picasso. Andalusia has also contributed cultural elements most usually associated with Spain itself, such as flamenco music and dancing, bullfighting, and the famous Andalusian (also known as “pure Spanish”) horse. It would only make sense that the cuisine of such places would be as singularly rich.

The eclectic restaurants opened by Chef Garces span the globe in terms of palate. In Philadelphia, the city he now makes his home, Amada is an authentic Andalusian tapas bar and restaurant, where Garces goes beyond tradition, interpreting centuries-old tapas recipes. His Tinto wine bar is inspired by the Basque region of northern Spain and south­ern France. Distrito brings the cul­ture and cui­sine of Mexico City, and Chifa is a Latin-Asian restau­rant named after the Chino-Peruvian eater­ies that serve this unique fusion of foods. In his native Chicago, he helms a renowned Catalan restau­rant called Mercat a la Planxa. There are also exam­ples of these and other cul­ture cuisines in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Palm Springs, California.

From His Childhood Kitchen

Garces was born and raised in Chicago, to Ecuadorian par ents. He grad­u­ated from Chicago’s Kendall College School of Culinary Arts and then spent sev­eral years study­ing dif­fer­ent cuisines in top-rated pro­fes­sional kitchens, from Spain to New York City.

The warmth Chef Garces expresses through his cui­sine and the atmos­phere of his restau­rants has roots in his child­hood. “I loved being in the kitchen from a young age, mostly as a sup­port­ing role to my Mamita Amada (pater­nal grand­mother) and my mother, who were the culi­nary stars in our house,” Garces recalls. “Cooking along­side them, I saw first­hand how food can bring peo­ple together as a family—literally and figuratively—and that stuck with me. When I started con­sid­er­ing a career, it took me some time to return to that idea, but ulti­mately I enrolled in culi­nary school and I haven’t looked back since.”

Local, Sustainable—and Flavorful

Being a top chef, Garces knows that ingredient flavor is of para­mount impor­tance to a culi­nary cre­ation. For him, this has meant uti­liz­ing ingre­di­ents grown locally and sus­tain­ably, when­ever pos­si­ble. “My cook­ing has always been about using the best avail­able ingre­di­ents, which is another legacy from Mamita Amada,” Garces con­tin­ues. “To this day, she insists that there is no American equal for some of the cheeses she cooks with in Ecuador—and I’m cer­tain she’d smug­gle them into the coun­try if she thought she could! So using local, sea­sonal and sus­tain­ably pro­duced ingre­di­ents, which tend to be raised and sold with greater care than mass-produced equiv­a­lents, is a nat­ural for me.

“I’m of the opin­ion that using the best pos­si­ble com­po­nents will yield the best pos­si­ble results. And it’s been proven true again and again, every time I bite into a salad with local veg­eta­bles or cut into a butter-tender humanely raised steak.”

In an effort to bring an increas­ing num­ber of local and sus­tain­able ingre­di­ents to his restau­rants, sev­eral years ago Chef Garces bought Luna Farm in Ottsville, Pennsylvania. He had it con­verted so that any­thing pro­duced there would be organic and sus­tain­able. “When I acquired Luna Farm, it was in dis­re­pair; so our ‘con­ver­sion’ was less about adapt­ing the old pieces to new tech­nol­ogy than start­ing from scratch to cre­ate a ‘green’ farm,” he relates. “We built green­houses that uti­lize solar energy for heat and light, built a rain­wa­ter irri­ga­tion sys­tem, and set up the con­ver­sion of used fryer oil from the restau­rants into biodiesel. We also raise hon­ey­bees, for nat­ural pol­li­na­tion and to pre­serve an endan­gered local species.”

The 40-acre farm pro­vides organic veg­eta­bles, fruits, eggs and honey year-round to sev­eral of Garces’ East Coast restau­rants. The crops grown include sweet corn, squash, beans, sweet pota­toes, beets, turnips, car­rots, radishes, arugula, spinach and let­tuces, and there are many vari­eties of toma­toes, pep­pers, egg­plants and mel­ons as well.

“Operating the farm in con­junc­tion with the restau­rants actu­ally presents sev­eral oppor­tu­ni­ties to ‘green’ our entire enter­prise,” Garces points out. “We com­post waste from the restau­rants and use it to fer­til­ize the farm. We power the trac­tor with biodiesel that we con­vert from used fryer oil from the local restau­rants. And obvi­ously, when­ever pos­si­ble, we serve the veg­eta­bles, herbs, fruits, nuts and mush­rooms that we grow.”

The farm also serves another pur­pose in Garces’ con­sid­er­ably busy life. “Luna Farm’s role in my life is twofold: it’s both a rural escape for me and my fam­ily and a source of excep­tional pro­duce for my restau­rants,” he says. “And in both those pur­poses, it has exceeded my expec­ta­tions. I can’t imag­ine a more beau­ti­ful, rest­ful place to spend time with my wife and our chil­dren, and I can’t fathom find­ing fresher pro­duce to serve to my guests.”

Exporting His Joy of Cooking

In an effort to share the joys of cul­ture and cook­ing with oth­ers, Chef Garces has just pub­lished his sec­ond book, The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru. This book chrono­log­i­cally tells the story of Garces’ food jour­ney, with each chap­ter ded­i­cated to a place that influ­enced his style, begin­ning in Ecuador with tra­di­tional recipes of his child­hood. For each coun­try, Garces writes four din­ner menus high­light­ing his favorite dishes and cul­tural “essen­tials.” The book includes more than 100 recipes accom­pa­nied by beau­ti­ful food and travel pho­tos, along with his per­sonal memories.

“The Latin Road Home is a record of my life as a chef so far: where I came from, how I got here, and where I think I might be going,” Garces explains. “I hope that peo­ple will enjoy it as much for the jour­ney as for the recipes. “Learning to cook was, for me, a for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence, one that bonded me with my fam­ily and helped me to find my life’s call­ing. It may not be that for every­one, but it’s a skill that will never not be in demand and is a worth­while one to exam­ine, if not to master.”

Expansive and Intimate

While Chef Garces has played a pub­lic role in chang­ing our food land­scape, he main­tains humil­ity and an authen­tic­ity born of ded­i­ca­tion and hard work. “I tend not to really look that far into things,” he says. “I’m a chef, which means that I pre­pare and serve food for a liv­ing. If I can also man­age to intro­duce peo­ple to some­thing new or help them cel­e­brate a mile­stone occa­sion, that’s about all I ask. I will say that work­ing in restau­rants has given me a deep insight into the chal­lenges faced by immi­grants in this coun­try, and I founded my Garces Family Foundation to help pro­vide crit­i­cal finan­cial and prac­ti­cal sup­port to those who need it in order to con­tribute to the rich fab­ric of our national landscape.

“My mis­sion is to pre­pare the best food that I can in the most wel­com­ing envi­ron­ment that I can cre­ate, and to give back to those who help me to do so in any way that I can,” Garces con­cludes. “Food brings peo­ple together in the most lit­eral of ways: we gather around the table to eat; we cook for each other; we raise our glasses in a toast. There is per­haps no more social act than cook­ing and eat­ing together.”

For more information, check out

Chef Jose Garces’ book The Latin Road Home is avail­able from the Organic Connections book­store.
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