Jose Garces Celebrates Cinco de Mayo

"My mom was a good, she was a great baker," said Garces, "and she made a lot of cheesecakes. So I remember initially she would make batter, and I would always be licking the bowl. But at one point, I remember eating so much batter that I got sick to my stomach, passed out, and my mom was like, 'I told you to stop licking the bowl!'"

Another portion of Garces' food education was filled in on the backyard grill under the watchful eye of his father. This, Garces said, is where the flavors and smells of his parents' native cuisine took over.

"[Dad] was a big grill guy," Garces said. "He would prepare like skirt steaks, steaks, and he had these awesome marinades, whether it was papaya and garlic. He believed in the citrus breaking down the fibers in the meat. ... He used to do an Ecuadorian specialty, basically like tripe on the grill, which you don't see that much. But when you cook tripe on the grill, all the fat kind of sizzles off and eventually you get this really crispy, kind of fatty deliciousness that's really tasty."

The chef said that he still is learning about his parents' home country.

"Being Ecuadorian is, I don't want to say it's tough but it's ... something special to me," Garces said. "Going back to Ecuador and really seeing what it's all about these days is pretty enlightening. There is a big Andean population. Obviously it was colonized by the Spanish, so there's a mixture of Spanish with the Andean cultures. So to me it's always a study in how I came about, in how I became this person, who I am ... it's still a journey to me, it's still enlightening. ... I'll be honest with you, I'm still discovering."

Jose Garces: Working on a Line

When Garces wasn't soaking up everything he could in the kitchen, he was often working, even as a boy.

"I had a paper route when I was 7 years old, and my parents always told me I'd get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, go push this giant wooden cart around Chicago and, you know -- I think I wanted to get a pair of shoes or something," he said. "From the time I was 8 until now, I've been working. My Social Security is looking solid. Hopefully it's still there!"

The work continued after high school. Garces enrolled in a community college and took business courses for two years. He was not, however, on his way to graduation. His attention was continuously drawn back to the kitchen. The answer, for him, was culinary school.

"I went to culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago," Garces said. "And the light switched on and I was like, 'Whoa, there are a ton of opportunities here and this could be a lot of fun.' That was pretty much it."

Garces was sold on cooking. But there was still a lot of work standing between him and his destiny. So he moved to New York and got busy.

"I spent several years cooking on a line," Garces said. "One of my first jobs actually was in New York, in the Rainbow Room, and I remember having to change my clothes after two hours of being on the line because I had sweat them all the way through. So that was eye-opening. I was like, 'Wow, I am going to be doing this for how long? And those experiences are what pushed me to want to become a sous chef, want to become an executive chef, want to become an owner. Each experience helps you in this business, to push you further."

It would take years of pushing, Garces said, before he got to the point where he thought he might actually be good at the business -- not just the cooking, but the business.

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