Jose Garces Celebrates Cinco de Mayo

On Cinco de Mayo, young master of Latin cuisine talks about food and roots.

May 5, 2010 — -- 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."

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.

"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.

"I knew that I was good at this when I opened Amada, my first restaurant, in 2005," he said. "And I always knew that I had a talent in the kitchen, but I never knew that my business acumen was what it is. To be in this business long-term, you got to have a good amount of creativity and have a good personal business acumen. So when I knew that we could succeed on a business level, I knew that we'd be good for a while."

Garces does not seem to have looked back. He is the executive chef and owner of every restaurant in his stable. The Garces Restaurant Group employs 500 people. He is back in the middle of another season of "Iron Chef." In 2008, he came out with a cookbook, "Latin Evolution."

"I carry a lot of weight on these shoulders day in and day out," Garces said. "[I am] just someone who's trying to do good, be creative and really live a fulfilling life."

Jose Garces: Kids in the Kitchen

True to the model set by his parents and grandparents, Garces' fulfilling life is built in large part around his family.

"I have a daughter and son -- daughter Olivia, son Andres," he said. "Being around the dinner table with my kids is a really special environment for them to grow up in -- around food, around family. And they're very appreciative of what they have. And I mean eating and cooking with them, 'cause they're very interested in cooking as well, is special, just a special place to be.

"If Olivia and Andres came to me and said 'Daddy, we want to be in the restaurant business,' I would absolutely welcome it, because I'm not doing this for myself, I'm doing it for them. But at the same time, you know, they need to decide what they want to do and be happy in whatever that is. But I would welcome it."

We asked Garces what was next: Does he plan on taking over the world?

"If we could do it positively, and we could do it well, then it works," he said. "It's really not financially motivated, it's about what works. ... Positivity, that's one of the things I try to spread throughout my company and really anyone I come in contact with. Because as you know, life's too short. You got to keep it positive and keep it fun."