Jose Garces, cultivating the best of two worlds through food
As a chef and restaurateur, Jose Garces is able to connect both his American culture and Ecuadorian roots through food.
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The immigrant experience is one that Jose Garces is very familiar with.
He is the child of Ecuadorian immigrants who came to the United States during their early adulthood, in search of a better life.
His father was 19, his mother just 18.
“When they got here, it was very much about making ends meet,” Garces said in an interview with AL DÍA.
Garces’ father was trying to earn his degree, while his mother worked to take care of him and his older brother.
“That kind of immigrant experience, which is one where there’s a lot of struggle and I think financial hardship that occurs during that time,” he explained.
However, for Garces, it was about assimilating to and immersing himself in American culture, while also not losing sight of his Latino heritage.
“I had gained a huge appreciation for that,” Garces said. “So, the combination of the two things was really what formed me and my opinions and who I am today.”
Finding a Cultural Balance
As a first-generation Ecuadorian-American born in Chicago, Garces’ natural instinct was to be more Americanized.
“Whether it be speaking the language, speaking English in a more regional tone, working on my tone and inflections, really trying to understand American pop culture and history,” he said.
Garces also played football and participated in wrestling, two sports that aren’t prevalent in Ecuador.
However, Garces’ parents made sure to tell him stories of the past, and keep him grounded in Latin American and Ecuadorian culture. He even spent a year of school in Ecuador, in between annual family trips to the South American nation.
During his annual trips, his grandmother would often travel by bus to take him and his brother to see different parts of the country.
Through those experiences, Garces gained a love and appreciation for Latin American culture, and really started to delve deeper into that part of his heritage.
However, one other invaluable and significant way that he was able to connect to his heritage was through food.
From an early age, Garces was often in the kitchen cooking with his mother — and when she would visit — his grandmother, as well.
His father comes from a family of Agrarians, who owned a lot of farmland and had access to fresh ingredients and livestock. Due to that, cooking was very prevalent to the Garces family.
However, while the family featured good cooks, there wasn’t anyone who took that path as a career venture.
A Culinary Discovery
While it didn’t come to immediate fruition, Garces became the one who decided to take on the path.
As an undergraduate student, Garces went through a period of time when he was unsure of his calling.
His mindset was to find a job, learn a trade to achieve the financial goals he had for himself.
While working a summer as a lifeguard at a beach in Chicago, he discovered Kendall College, a culinary arts school in the city.
“I just saw the crisp white uniforms, the white hats, I saw the rigidity to it and the kitchen brigade, and I knew that was an environment that suited my personality well,” said Garces, noting whatever path he took, he needed structure and discipline.
That same Fall, he enrolled and was accepted. It didn’t take long for his instructors to discover his skill and creativity that he often displayed in his cooking.
“That was my discovery in cooking school,” Garces said. “That I had some talent that I didn’t know was buried within me.”
This opened up a whole new world of opportunities for him.
Two Great Mentors
After graduating from Kendall College, Garces decided to travel to Spain to cook and gain a sense of what it was like there. He initially wanted to go to France, as during his time in college, he was classically-trained in French cooking.
However, already armed with knowledge of the Spanish language and cuisine, he was confident in his ability to achieve a high level of culinary success.
In going to Spain, he thought that the experience would make him more well-rounded and help diversify his techniques by adding European-style cooking and cuisine to his arsenal.
After working at the Michelin starred restaurant, La Taberna del Alabardero, for a few years and gaining “a European experience in a Spanish kitchen,” he returned to the states to take the next step in his training.
“At that point, I realized I was just a cook, not quite a chef,” he said.
Therefore, he needed to continue to learn how to perfect his craft and improve his cooking skills.
Garces then arrived in New York City with the intention of working in one-year increments at different establishments across the city, gaining as much experience as he could and continuing educating himself through this manner.
After working at a handful of establishments in the Big Apple, such as The Rainbow Room, The Four Seasons and Bolivar, Garces went to work for Chef Douglas Rodriguez.
Globally acclaimed as the “Father of Nuevo Latino Cuisine,” Rodriguez became one of Garces’ biggest mentors.
Already established as one of the premier chefs in New York City and having opened up two restaurants in the city — Chicama and Pipa — fellow chef Stephen Starr approached Rodriguez about potentially doing the same in Philadelphia.
When Rodriguez accepted, he personally selected Garces as his executive chef.
Together, the trio opened up Alma de Cuba; and later, Garces helped Starr open El Vez.
Since their openings, the restaurants have become staples of Latin American cuisine within Philadelphia’s culinary scene.
Taking A Step as a Restaurateur
Those experiences served as the catalysts toward Garces taking that next step in his culinary career.
“During those years with Stephen and Douglas, I really felt like I had the best of both worlds in terms of mentors,” said Garces.
With Rodriguez, whom Garces described as “an amazing food technician,” he was able to learn about how to build flavors. With Starr, Garces learned the entrepreneurial business side of the industry, along with costs and profit.
“That gave me the confidence to now go out and open my first place,” he added.
In 2005, Garces opened his first restaurant, Amada, which he named after his grandmother.
Since arriving in Philadelphia, Garces has established himself as among the most prominent and well-known Latino chefs and restaurateurs in the city.
After Amada, he has since opened Distrito, Tinto, Volvér, Buena Onda and many others, with an eye toward sharing Latin American culture and cuisine.
“I realized that I had to really specialize in a craft because if I didn’t do that, I was going to just be a journeyman,” he said. “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
“So, I decided that Latin cuisine would be the thing because I had it in my blood, in my roots,” Garces added.
The Power of Food
Throughout his journey, Garces has learned a lot about the power of food, namely how it is a prominent way of bringing people together.
“I’ve noticed through various events, various dinners I’ve hosted, people I’ve fed throughout my career come from all different walks of life and all different backgrounds, and at the end of the day, they’re looking for something delicious to eat,” he said.
A big traveler, Garces has visited several continents and experienced that same reality in each region.
He calls the ability to travel to different places “one of the best joys of this profession.”
Traveling to different parts of the world helps him become more knowledgeable and authentic when it comes to bringing those recipes, dishes, and cuisine back to the states and later launching his latest concepts.
In addition, Garces sees cooking as a basic, fundamental skill that everyone should have.
To him, cooking is a mindful activity that can allow people to let go of persisting issues and clear their minds.
“The end result is a really pleasant experience, something you can be proud of,” he said.
Garces’ Next Chapter
As a student, cook, chef, and restaurateur, Garces is always looking at the next project or venture.
As someone who has been in the food industry now for nearly three decades, Garces has learned some very valuable lessons along the way, and strives to continue learning more.
This includes all the information there is about food consumption, and how to maintain a healthy dose of calories and intake.
Recently, Garces has been reading a lot about centenarians and what their diet looks like.
“It’s a journey I’m on to kind of really understand how food can really help fend off disease, help us live longer,” he said. “And I’m excited to apply my cooking knowledge to some of these ingredients and foods to help, hopefully, give people better health going forward.”
Promoting healthier food options is one of next ventures Garces hopes to immerse himself into.
Each venture comes down to one single quality that Garces displays in every instance: passion.
“You have to have a passion because otherwise it’s more difficult… it’s physical, it’s tiring, you’re often on your feet,” he said.
It is one of the primary qualities he shares to others who want to try their hand at the culinary industry, particularly those from diverse backgrounds.
“For me, it’s never felt like work. It’s always felt like, ‘this is something I’m really excited about,’” Garces added.
Being a chef and restaurant owner has really helped Garces fully embrace his own roots, culture and heritage, share them with others, while also learning about the many other cultures that make the United States the nation it is.
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