BY: Kathy Matheson
PHILADELPHIA – The heat is up and the clock is ticking down on Jose Garces and two colleagues as they feverishly chop, grill and blend their way through a top-secret practice run for Food Network’s ‘Iron Chef America.’
The genial and low-key Garces, out to defend the title he wrested from chef Bobby Flay last season, offers no hint of angst or ‘Hell’s Kitchen‘-type temper tantrums.
But inside, he is freaking out.
“The last 15 minutes — words can’t describe,” he said afterward. “Your stomach gets in a knot, you don’t know if everything’s done.”
Garces’ focus on the food, not the limelight, has served him well in TV’s Kitchen Stadium and on the streets of Philadelphia, where he has opened six popular and well-reviewed restaurants in five years. Two more are on the way, plus a cookbook and taco truck.
“He’s impressive — there’s no way around it,” said Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan. “He’s not just a Philadelphia chef anymore.”
Garces’ eateries run from Basque-inspired tapas to Peruvian-Asian cuisine to modern Mexican. Their success is a combination of imaginative menus, stylish design and the increasing culinary sophistication of urban foodies, who want authentic tastes without the stuffy atmosphere of formal dining.
“The country is ready to accept these new flavors and new ingredients,” said Mitchell Davis, vice president of the culinary James Beard Foundation. “We are coming out of our comfort-food zone.”
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The foundation named Garces best chef in the mid-Atlantic region in 2009 for Amada, the Andalusian tapas bar he opened four years earlier. LaBan describes Amada’s dishes as “little jewel boxes,” including Spanish tortilla with saffron aioli, octopus served with olive oil and paprika, and gazpacho with crab meat and avocado ice cream.
Garces grew up in what he described as an Irish-Polish-Hispanic neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. His formal culinary training came from Kendall College in Chicago, but he got his start at home with his Ecuadorean mother and grandmother, cooking dishes like green plantain empanadas, ceviches and arepas — fluffy corn cakes filled with cheese.
“I just enjoyed it and it was fun. I was always a food lover, always kind of a chunky kid,” Garces told The Associated Press. “These ladies were always making delicious food and obviously it sort of rubbed off.”
Today, Garces’ repertoire goes beyond nuevo Latino cuisine. Village Whiskey, his burgers-and-bourbon corner bar, serves up hand-ground patties of organic beef with duck-fat fries; by the end of the year, he’ll open a beer-and-brats sausage joint.
Coming in September: the opening of JG Domestic, a fine dining restaurant; the launch of Guapos Tacos, a truck that will sell street food, as well as cater special events; and an appearance on “Iron Chef America” Sept. 12. A second cookbook is planned for fall 2011. On top of all that, Garces is executive chef at Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago.
“It’s a lot,” Garces said. “Hopefully life will balance out again.”
Perhaps the only restaurateur with more name recognition — and more eateries — in Philadelphia is Stephen Starr, Garces’ one-time boss. Garces came from New York to help open Starr’s Alma de Cuba and then stayed to create the menu for his flashy Mexican eatery, El Vez.
“He was always a very conscientious, creative chef,” Starr said. “I really am very happy for Jose. It’s sort of like looking at your children growing up. I believe he learned a lot from me and my company.”
Still, in the pressure cooker of celebrity chefdom, there is always a danger of overexposure and taking on too many projects. Owners of competing BYOBs in Philadelphia are seething about a state-run wine boutique that Pennsylvania officials opened inside Garces’ gourmet market and cafe, Garces Trading Co. — essentially giving him a free liquor license.
But none of it is slowing down the 38-year-old chef. He recently bought a 40-acre farm in Ottsville, about 40 miles north of the city, which might eventually yield organic produce for JG Domestic.
The restaurant, to be housed in the lobby of the Cira Centre office building, was the site of Garces’ recent practice session for “Iron Chef.” LaBan sees a bright future for it, saying Garces has what it takes to create a national destination restaurant, like French Laundry in Northern California.
“It could happen,” LaBan said. “Or he could be more than content with what he’s built.”
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