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Jose Garces
The top chef returns to AC with ocean views and Japanese candy
By Klein Aleardi

When Chef Jose Garces thinks back to his days visiting family in Latin America, one scene comes to mind: On the beaches of Olón, Ecuador, sunbathers rest under cabanas while ceviche carts prepare snacks just steps from the ocean. Crowds end the night with a beer at a beach-hut restaurant built beyond the sand.

He’s so fond of the memory, it inspired his newest Atlantic City restaurant. “When I walked into the space and looked out onto the ocean and the beach, it reminded me of those experiences,” says Garces.

He ran with the concept, added some long-kept family recipes and over a decade of restaurant experience to develop Olón at Tropicana Casino & Resort.

Paella ceviche at Bar Olón. Photo: Martin Buday

As if that wasn’t enough creativity for one year, the Iron Chef simultaneously developed a second restaurant to open its doors in the same building.

Featuring a Japanese menu, Okatshe was born from Garces’ culinary experiences in Tokyo – first while competing on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” and then at a slower pace during a return trip with his kids. “I wanted to bring back some of my favorite food concepts,” he says.

After 12 years in the industry, it’s safe to say Garces knows the business. Through the years, he’s seen the ups – an Iron Chef title in 2009 and 14 restaurants in five states – but he’s also seen the downs. Although you couldn’t blame him for his last set-back.

When Revel casino resort went bankrupt and closed its doors in 2014, Garces was forced to shutter his two in-house restaurants as well. Luckily for visitors and residents of Atlantic City, that hasn’t discouraged the chef. On the contrary, he’s returning with optimism.

“We had a lot of success at Revel,” Garces says. “We had a steady customer base that liked what we were doing so we thought if we did it again, we would see that loyalty.”

While on the outside, the two new rest-aurants at Tropicana seem to have little in common besides their creator, Garces built them with the same core value – family.

“The restaurant business is really a family business,” Garces says. “As part of our DNA and culture, we look to embrace that lifestyle and apply it to every aspect of our business. It’s great for our employees, and that translates to the customer too.”

Family value is part of what drew Garces to Atlantic City in the first place. As a Philadelphia-based restaurateur, he saw the lateral move as an extension of his already booming business – one that started with his family.

“Latin food is in my blood, and it all began back home,” he says. “My grandmother, Mimita Amada, lived in Ecuador but would visit regularly. I became influenced by this woman who was an amazing cook.”

The dining room at Olón will offer a Latin American menu. Photo: Martin Buday

Garces opened his first restaurant in 2005 and named it Amada, after his grandmother. He has grown his brand ever since, expanding to a 40-acre farm in Bucks County and releasing two cookbooks: “Latin Evolution” and “The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru.”

“It’s great to tell a story and share your knowledge of cooking, recipes and how the chef gets to that final place of delivering a meal,” he says. “For me, it’s also a great way to catalog all those different memories, travelogues and recipes, and I’m fortunate to be able to share that with people who are all about cooking.”

His two new Shore restaurants are his 17th and 18th openings. At this point, Garces knows what works and what doesn’t. Mainly, that collaboration is key from start to finish.

While building Okatshe’s three-part menu, Garces wanted to dedicate an entire section to sushi – and he knew exactly who to turn to for assistance.

“I enlisted my good friend from Philly, Chef Zama, to make sure the sushi part is legit,” he says. “I love throwing my hat in the ring for this great cuisine – it’s food I’ve always respected.”

But even with the help of a master sushi chef from Philadelphia, a menu can’t be constructed overnight. It takes months of experimenting to make a menu perfect, and for that monumental task, Garces visits his favorite place – his test kitchen, Estudio.

“The magic happens there,” he says. “We can take these ideas from paper to practice in a creative way without having to worry about operations or external factors.”

Estudio is where the chef developed each sushi, ramen and yakatori dish on the menu at Okatshe. It’s also where Olón’s wood-grill menu came to life. But the experimentation is far from over, says Garces.

“As we train and look at things, inevi-tably there are aspects we want to work on,” he says. “We’ll continue to hone it in, all the way to opening day and beyond.”

Inspiration for Okatshe came from Garces’ culinary experience in Tokyo. Photo: Martin Buday.

Garces hopes if guests dine at both restaurants in the same weekend, they’ll leave feeling like they’ve circled the globe – minus the air travel.

Olón’s beachfront views and oyster bar transport you to Ecuador for an evening of ceviche, oysters and a cold beer – a scene straight out of Garces’ trips to the city.

Okatshe throws you into the streets of Tokyo, starting with the functional Japanese candy store at the front of the restaurant. Here, you can chew on candy you’ve probably never heard of before the main event. “I’m trying the different products to source all the best candy from Japan,” adds Garces.

For the full menu, diners step through a trap door into the Japanese streetscape, with bright neon signs hanging above.

Both restaurants invoke a feeling of nostalgia for Garces, so it’s fitting they’ve found their home in historic Atlantic City. “The history of the town is great, and I’m glad to be a part of it,” he says. “I can feel the character of the city and the people who are passionate about it.”

Garces knows the importance of passion – it’s what inspires so many of his new dishes and restaurant concepts – but he also knows that alone won’t carry you to success.

“We feel confident this time and have a sense of how it should be done, but also know we have to do the work,” he says. “You can have all the strategy, but you have to execute it well to be successful.”

June 2017
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