Jose Garces Celebrates Cinco de Mayo

PHOTO Chef Jose Garces stands in front of Amada, the Philadelphia restaurant he named for his grandmother.

When it came time for chef Jose Garces to name his first restaurant, he settled on something that embodied his food philosophy, his cooking roots, his ethnic background and his family pride.

It was a lot to pack into one name. Fortunately, it already was packed into one woman, Mamita Amada, Garces' paternal grandmother.

"My grandmother's name is Mamita Amada -- that's my dad's mom -- and she's still like an amazing cook," Garces said. "She made these empanadas called empanadas de verde, which are green plantain empanadas. My first restaurant was named after her, Amada, and I have that empanada, it's called 'Amada's Empanada,' is there on the menu. And she was over last summer, again, making these empanadas, drinking a Corona, hanging out. It's amazing. Even at 90, she's cooking incredibly, still."

Ole: Nightlines Cinco de Mayo Platelist
Ole: Nightline's Cinco de Mayo Platelist

Amada's pride in her grandson's work may surpass even that of most loving grandmothers.

At 37, Garces is one of the restaurant industry's hottest young chefs -- and most promising entrepreneurs. Since opening Amada in his home base of Philadelphia in 2005, Garces has rolled out six new restaurants, won a James Beard Award and climbed the ranks of "Iron Chef." His Philly empire -- which includes Tinto, a Basque-style wine bar and restaurant; Distrito, a Mexico City-inspired eatery; and Chifa, a Latin-Asian restaurant -- is organized under the aegis of the lucrative-sounding Garces Restaurant Group.

In the run-up to Cinco de Mayo, Garces sat down with "Nightline" at Distrito to talk about his love of Latin cuisine, his discovery of cooking as a way of life and his juggernaut career in the food industry.

"This style of cooking is actually pretty different now than when I started," said Garces of the Latin cuisine that he has made his own. "When I first started, I was French classically trained, and I did some Mediterranean cooking, some American original cooking for several years. And at a certain point, I decided I better find out what type of cuisine will be there for me in the long run. So I decided that Latin cuisine was the one. I knew that there were very few specialists out there in Latin cuisine."

Jose Garces: Passing on the Traditions

Garces was raised in Chicago by Ecuadorian parents. At first, he said, he shunned his roots, trying -- like many children of immigrants -- to become more "American."

"I think that struggle eventually led to who I am as a chef," Garces said, "because eventually I went back to becoming really a Latin chef, and someone who embraced our culture and really looked to bring it to the forefront."

The middle of three brothers, Garces learned to cook at the side of his mother, who had taken her own lessons from Mamita Amada.

"My mom was just a fabulous cook, so she cooked four or five nights a week," said Garces. "And usually I'd be the one next to her, helping her, whether it was making a cake, making a ceviche, making empanadas. I loved it. And to this day, my mom is a big part of our lives, so she's now teaching my wife how to cook. So it's really passing on the traditions, and it's been awesome."

Despite the dominance in the family home of Latin cuisine, one of Garces' earliest food memories centers on a delicacy more strongly associated today with his adopted hometown of Philadelphia.

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