When Jose Garces phones me for our scheduled chat, Philadelphia’s James Beard Award-winning and Iron Chef restaurateur is frazzled. As we talk, he’s barraged with calls about his highly anticipated Volvér, set to debut inside the Kimmel Center this week. He says he’s “fried,” he says, but you get the sense that this is nothing a dude who runs 16 restaurants and a taco truck can’t handle. From the tapas joint Amada to the Mexico City-inspired hangout Distrito, Garces’ culinary imprint is all over Philly—and he’s also made a splash in Atlantic City, Scottsdale, Palm Springs, and in his native Chicago at Mercat a la Planxa.
Reared by Ecuadorian parents, Garces was influenced by both his family’s recipes from back home and the local Chicago dining scene. “Yes, it’s a steak town,” he points out, “but there was so much diversity in terms of flavors, whether great pizza, Mexican, or Greek food.” With all the home cooking that went down in the kitchen alongside his mother and grandmother, Garces knew he enjoyed it, but wasn’t sure he wanted to do it professionally until he got to culinary school at Kendall College. “That’s when the whole industry opened up for me,” he says.
I don’t want to pigeonhole myself; I want this to be my creative platform.
After graduating, Garces headed to Spain and then New York, where his goal was just to “become a good cook” while working the line. Yet when he opened Chicama and Pipa at ABC Carpet & Home with Douglas Rodriguez, those dreams grew more ambitious. Taking a chance on Philadelphia in the early aughts, Garces joined Stephen Starr’s budding empire as executive chef at Alma de Cuba, and later El Vez. “I felt like I built a great base here and had a following, so I stayed,” he says. “The city is constantly evolving. When I opened Amada there was no tapas here. Now, so many chefs are doing their own thing.”
Embracing new directions is running theme of Garces’s breathless career. At newcomer Rosa Blanca, he pays homage to the Miami-style Cuban luncheonette, with chicken croquettes, ropa vieja, and fresh-squeezed juices.
Volvér, he promises, “will be the polar opposite.” Champagne, caviar, and a petit four cart are among the swank offerings of Bar Volvér, while Volvér will revolve around an unpredictable tasting-menu format, showcasing twists on dishes like Argentine steak and kabayaki. “I don’t want to pigeonhole myself here; I want this to be my creative platform,” says Garces. “I’ve been waiting to do this for years, and I’m almost there.”
Here, the prolific chef reveals the 10 dishes that have defined his journey through Latin cooking, from grandma’s empanadas to Mexico City-style huaraches.
My grandma used to visit us in Chicago from Ecuador for several months at a time. A few times a week, she made her empanadas. First, she would cook green plantains, then form them into dough. Typically, she would fill them with queso fresco and fry them until they were crisp. She made them perfectly then, and now, at 93, she still does. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)
Pernil asado at Alma de Cuba
When I opened Alma de Cuba back in 2000, I experimented with a crispy confit pork shank recipe. After a few months, I got it perfect and it followed me through to Amada, where I pair it with white beans, arugula, and orange. I spent a lot of time working on getting that ideal combination of crispy skin with interior fat and shank meat. To me, it’s a perfect bite, and it’s something I’m super proud of. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)
Cubanos at Rosa Blanca
Traveling to Miami for many years, I really loved the Cubanos at this restaurant called Latin American. When we opened Rosa Blanca, I knew I wanted to put a lot of time into my own version, with roast pork, smoked ham, Swiss cheese, pickles, and ballpark mustard. We found a Cuban baker who makes a perfect roll, too. A Cuban sandwich is not necessarily something you think of as mind-blowing, but there’s a certain art form involved. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)
Whiskey King Burger at Village Whiskey
The Whiskey King burger at Village Whiskey was inspired by the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal and his technique of grinding the meat to create spaghetti strands of ground beef that he packs and rolls into a sausage casing. We cook it on the griddle instead of the grill to give it a nice crust, and it’s a winner. It’s a super-decadent, over-the-top burger with maple-bourbon glazed Cipollini onions, blue cheese, bacon, and foie gras. Order it, and you won’t eat a burger for a month. (Photo via BROG)
Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche
I’ve been eating this style of ceviche with crunchy corn nuts since I was a kid. My mom would make it on Saturday mornings. It has fresh tomato, orange, lime, and herbs, and it encompasses everything about Ecuador for me. It’s a staple. My mom’s version was more home-style, but it’s a dish I’ve served in many different forms throughout my restaurants as a result—sometimes with avocado foam, tomato gel, or spiced popcorn. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)
Palamós prawns and smoked-milk ice cream at Etxebarri (Spain)
Last summer, I went to Etxebarri, outside of San Sebastián, where they cook everything over wood. I had a truly amazing meal, but these were the two dishes that stood out. The prawns were perfectly cooked in their shells and had a nice smoky flavor. They were just simple, tender, and juicy. The ice cream was unique. Its consistency was so creamy, almost like a gelato, but with a little more fat content. Both of these are dishes that will travel with me down the line. (Photos courtesy Jose Garces)
Lomo saltado at Chifa
Lomo saltado—beef stir-fry with soy sauce and crispy French fries—was one of my dad’s favorite dishes, so my mom would make it at home all the time. When I went to Lima, I ate the lomo saltado there and it inspired the version at Chifa that I put in my cookbook. Meat and potatoes: it’s one of those comforting dishes you can’t beat. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Albóndigas at Amada
I knew I wanted the traditional Spanish lamb meatballs on the menu at Amada, but these were inspired solely by what was on hand in the kitchen at the time. We cooked them in a sherry-foie gras cream sauce and it came together nicely with English peas and shaved Manchego. It’s testament to how a dish can evolve from ingredients. (Photo: Nina Cazille)
Huaraches in Mexico City
I went to Mexico City in search of great Mexican street food and stumbled upon a market, La Merced. There, I fell for the huaraches, the sandal-shaped fried masa the city is known for. It’s filled with toppings like beef, queso fresco, salsa, and onions, and the experience was fantastic. When we went back to Philly, we wanted to make our own vegetable-based version, so we did, putting together a flavor profile that just worked with huitlacoche and seasonal mushrooms. It was all triggered by that Mexican City market. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)
Fish tacos at Distrito
I wanted to find a way to transform the fish taco. Obviously, it’s something that’s been done for years, but when I was developing the menu for El Vez, I spent this year inspiring myself to find textural and flavor balance. And I did. The plantain-crusted mahi-mahi tacos at Distrito—served with chipotle remoulade, avocado, and red cabbage—are such a popular item for us. The ability to bring all these textures and flavors together successfully was a proud moment. (Photo courtesy Jose Garces)