Named an Iron Chef in 2009, Jose Garces has since risen to the top of the culinary arts industry. Foodies love him. His peers respect him. His kids? Well, they just like hanging out and cooking with him. But wherever he is, one thing is for sure: Chef Garces knows how to cook – and run an empire.

When you run a culinary empire – say, 14 restaurants in six states – you need continuous inspiration. Chef Jose Garces, 33, has developed the flavors and food that have shot him to stardom by using his experiences from his travels around the world – and his time in his grandmother’s kitchen.

“Before I opened the original Distrito, I traveled to Mexico City with my friend and fellow chef Tim Spinner,” he says. “We had barely dropped our bags on the ground before we headed out the door to start our eating tour.

“We followed the scent of roasted corn down the street until we hit the first – not our last – food cart, where we purchased steaming hot esquites, fresh, sweet corn with a strong Mexican herb called epazote, oregano topped off with queso fresco, mayo and a nice shake of chile pequin powder and a squeeze of lime. It was one of those pure moments of food bliss that just stays with you, the taste of real street food in the heart of one of my favorite places on earth.”

But his days cooking alongside his Ecuadorian grandmother – Mimita Amada – are what formed the foundation for Garces’ cooking prowess. “Latin food is in my blood, and it all began back home,” says Garces, who grew up in Chicago.

“She was a big part of my childhood and upbringing,” he says. “She lived in Ecuador but would visit us regularly when we were kids. She was the matriarch of the family, and she taught everyone how to cook. I picked up lessons from her and from an early stage of life, I became influenced by this woman who was an amazing cook.”

When Garces landed in Philadelphia and opened his first restaurant in 2005, he paid homage to the woman who inspired him, naming the restaurant Amada. Now 93, Mimita Amada has visited her namesake restaurant, at first not knowing of the honor.

“She was actually asking for some royalties for using her name,” jokes Garces. “We put Amada’s Empanadas on the menu, which are based on her recipe for green plantain dough empanadas. That is her favorite dish, because it’s one of the things she does really well. The name Amada is not really reflective of a Spanish tapas bar restaurant; it’s just kind of an emotional connection for me. The fact that it had so many connotations made a lot of sense.”

That family connection transferred perfectly to his latest restaurant: Distrito in Moorestown Mall, which opened in July. Garces says he worked with his kids, Olivia, 12, and Andres, 7, to develop some of the menu items, especially the kids’ menu. Acknowledging that even his own kids enjoy standard kid fare like chicken nuggets and hot dogs, Garces went a different route.

“There are more homemade touches – fresh quesadillas with fresh homemade tortillas and salsa served on the side, and homemade macaroni and cheese with the sauce made from scratch,” he says. “We are applying fresh ingredients and fresh techniques. No freezer bag stuff that you would normally find on a kids’ menu.”

Garces spent a lot of time designing the new restaurant for families, since it would be located in a mall. “It was natural for us to consider how to serve them best,” he says. “We have so many foods you can share, crowd-pleasers and finger foods that kids of all ages like to dig into. The look on kids’ and parents’ faces when a server delivers a complimentary round of shaved snow cones reminds me of why I love the hospitality industry.”

A wall of Mexcian wrestling masks at Distrito in Moorestown Mall (photo by David Michael Howarth)

A wall of Mexcian wrestling masks at Distrito in Moorestown Mall (photo by David Michael Howarth)

Even the walls of the new restaurant offer something for families. One is covered with colorful masks that definitely capture your attention. “Lucha libre is a style of professional wrestling found in Mexico, and the masks are an unmistakable element of a match,” he says. “When I was doing research for Distrito in Mexico City, we snagged tickets to a wrestling match, and we noticed that right outside of the arena, there were 30 to 40 lucha libre mask stands. They are dramatic, colorful and authentic, all elements we wanted to bring to the Distrito dining experience.”

For his family, Garces considers his 40-acre Luna Farm in Bucks County, Pa. their sanctuary. While it serves as a family haven, the four-year-old farm also supplies organic vegetables, fruits, eggs and honey to Philadelphia restaurants year-round. Distrito in Moorestown uses the fresh produce.

“I’ve gotten food delivered to the back door of my restaurants for many years as a chef, without really knowing how it got there,” says the city dweller, who lives in the Logan Square section of Philadelphia. “This has been a learning experience, getting to know what it takes to deliver food to the table.

Chef Garces checks the fresh vegetables at his Luna Farm

Chef Garces checks the fresh vegetables at his Luna Farm

“Over a weekend at Luna Farm last year, Olivia and I cranked out hundreds of cookies. She loves to bake, and it’s one of the ways we spend time together,” Garces says. “We make ice cream together, too, and Andres gets involved in that. It’s fun to let them experiment with new flavor combinations.”

Garces jokes that he can sometimes use the farm to his advantage. “If the kids are in trouble, they have some farm labor they owe me,” he says with a laugh. “Living in the city and having that ability to go out to the farm and experience nature and agriculture make it special for our family.”

Luna Farm is also instrumental in the work of the Garces Foundation, which runs a field trip program. “We teach inner-city children what the process is all about,” he says. “There are so many life lessons that occur out there. It’s a great way to live and a great way to learn.”

Last year, 160 students toured the farm, learning how to grow and harvest food, and prepare healthy meals and snacks. Each child went home with a full stomach and an easy recipe to share.

Of course, when he isn’t on the farm, Garces is the head of a major corporation, the Garces Group, which owns and manages 14 restaurants, an event planning division and a food truck, called Distrito Taco. A single day might take him from DC to NJ to PA. He says he tries to be as hands-on as possible.

“My role as the CEO of the company is to help make some of the bigger-picture decisions for the group,” he says. “I have a talented senior-level team; some great folks who help me manage, control and grow what we have going on. I built the team, so I can focus on what I do best, which is cook the food. That’s where I will be hanging my hat for several years.”

Despite having that CEO title, there are times when the acclaimed chef has to do whatever it takes. After being named the Food Network’s “Iron Chef” (he’s one of six chefs in the country to have that distinction), Garces opened Tinto in Philadelphia to great fanfare.

“There was a lot of anticipation and we had many customers who stormed our doors the first night,” he recalls. “The restaurant was like a townhouse. It was packed, and we had only two restrooms on the lower level. It came to be that the restrooms were getting a lot of use. All of a sudden there were, let’s just say, back-ups in the restrooms. Here I am, my first night, really nervous about just service in general, and our basement is basically flooded. I scrambled up to our office where there happened to be a residential bathroom and I started cleaning it myself, getting it ready for our customers who would inevitably need a bathroom. That was a moment I’ll never forget.”

Garces has also written two cookbooks: “Latin Evolution,” and more recently, “The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru.”

“I think 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 a great way to catalogue all those different memories, travelogues and recipes, and I’m fortunate to be able to share that with people who care about cooking. While I own restaurants and want people to go out to eat, I think cooking at home is also very important. I advocate that. It’s healthy; it’s good. And it’s a great activity for couples and families to do together.”

October 2014
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