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Mambo King

Mambo King

In the last five years Jose Garces built an empire of several dazzling restaurants, many of them with a Latin beat.

TWO IMPOSSIBLY LARGE MEN have invaded Chifa on this beautiful fall night in Philadelphia, but few seem to notice or care. This is astonishing, though, because they're being chased through the restaurant by a local camera crew pouring hot, white lights all over them.

But Stewart Bradley and Todd Herremans of the Philadelphia Eagles have been rendered nearly invisible by the star power of Jose Garces, the chef/owner of this and several other landmark restaurants in town. The young ballplayers don't stand a chance. Garces has the home field advantage, and the hoards of customers who have flooded Chifa on this night of record-breaking temperatures view him as a local treasure. In fact, Garces is now a national treasure — at least in the culinary world — because of his 2009 victory on the Food Network's grueling Next Iron Chef competition.

Philadelphia has a bona fide Iron Chef in its midst, and he has given a city that lives in the culinary shadow of Gotham the street cred for which it so badly yearns. At Chifa — a 175-seat hybrid that blends Peruvian and Cantonese cuisines — Garces can only walk so far before he signs another autograph or takes another picture with star-struck fans.

This is the life of Chicago-born Jose Garces, a gentle man with a Type-A game plan. The fame was not by design; his success is pure sweat equity. At age 38 he may be the hardest-working man in show business, opening a remarkable portfolio of seven restaurants at a break-neck pace. Garces sees inspiration everywhere and he's constantly plotting moves to expand his $25 million-plus empire. But he makes those around him nervous: nervous because they can't keep up, nervous because even stars eventually burn out. “Slow down, Jose, take a breath,” many around him urge. “I am going to slow down in 2011,” he tells me earlier amidst the construction chaos of his seventh restaurant — JG Domestic. Yet, a half-hour later, in a car heading to another of his restaurants, he talks about a Neapolitan-style pizza and wine bar swirling around in his head. So many ideas, so little time.

Garces first began to stir up media attention at Alma de Cuba, one of a dozen Stephen Starr restaurants that changed Philadelphia's culinary landscape. Garces performed so beautifully at Alma, he was asked to take on a second Latin Starr restaurant called El Vez. Named after a Chicano Elvis impersonator, El Vez is a concept so over the top (think of it as a Mexican circus at the corner of East L.A. and Tijuana) that a young chef could get lost in its insane theatrics. But reviews for Garces' food were outstanding. “Keep an eye on this kid,” Steven Starr told me way back in early 2004 as we sat in Alma enjoying the fruits of Garces' work. We at Restaurant Hospitality did just that, declaring Garces a Rising Star that year. But neither Steven Starr nor we could begin to anticipate the restaurant empire stirring inside Garces.

It began in late 2005 with his first, Amada, where he introduced Spanish tapas to Philadelphia. Years earlier, Garces had apprenticed at La Taberna del Albardero in Marbella, Spain, and it was an influence that helped shaped his cooking style. He also credits his 89-year-old grandmother for cultivating his passion for cooking and good food. Amada — meaning “loved one” in Spanish — is a culinary monument to her.

Family is a reccurring theme in his life. It shapes who he is and his behavior towards others. That night at Chifa when the siren song of the television camera called, Garces refused to turn his back on customers who wanted to meet him. This American-born son of Ecuadoran parents enjoys his notoriety with humility and the knowledge that his long-term success will be determined by the masses, not the Food Network.

A year-and-a-half after 135-seat Amada, Garces opened 110-seat Tinto, a Basque-inspired tapas and wine bar in a townhouse space reminiscent of a rustic wine cellar. Like Amada, Tinto is warm and sexy, with a decided lean toward the adult crowd. The wine list largely features varietals from vineyards in Northern Spain. At Tinto I ask its resident wine director Paul Rodriguez if Philadelphia understands what Garces is trying to do here.

“Maybe not fully, but it doesn't seem to matter. They've been very receptive to Jose's food and even our Spanish wines, though sangria is still our most popular sell,” he explaines.

And working for Garces? “No doubt he's the boss, but you don't work for Jose as much as you work with him,” he said. “He counts on you knowing your part of the business and he gives you the freedom to do what you do best while continually collaborating with you. You can't ask for much more than that.”

Rodriguez makes a great point. Garces is not one of those leaders who believe he has all the answers. He has a rare vision, but he counts on a great network of people to help him realize his goals. His willingness to collaborate led to his third restaurant opening, but this one in his hometown of Chicago. Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group hired Garces to create a Catalonian-style tapas restaurant called Mercat a la Planxa in the historic Blackstone Hotel. Sage owns the restaurant, but the culinary vision is pure Garces. The partnership has worked so well Garces recently signed a five-year extension with the restaurant group to continue his culinary oversight at Mercat.

“The very first time I met Jose I knew there was something very special about the guy,” says Peter Karpinsky, founder and c.o.o. of Sage Restaurant Group. He was corporate director of operations for Starr Restaurant Group when Garces was there, and each left the company at the same time to form their own restaurant companies. “I always believed that Jose and I would eventually work together again, and when the Mercat project came up, he was the perfect guy to assume the role of executive chef. And the fact that Mercat was named a best new restaurant by Esquire confirmed my belief in him. Jose is more than a business partner, he's a friend.”

In March 2008, Garces opened his third wholly owned restaurant, Distrito, a funky 250-seat hipster Mexican hangout that features modern Mexican cuisine. It's clearly his answer to Stephen Starr's El Vez. A stark departure from Amada and Tinto, Distrito is bathed in hallucinogenic pink paint, a mind-blowing array of tequilas, a wall showcasing dozens of outrageous Mexican wrestling masks and a Mexico City taxicab that's been converted into a booth. At first pink blush, one is compelled to just say “no” to this drug Garces is dispensing. But eventually you give in to its unabashed party atmosphere.

Walking around Distrito, Garces can't seem to stop smiling. Underneath that calm business demeanor beats the heart (and stomach) of a fiesta-loving guy who will drink your ass under the table (this I know from personal experience). There's rarely time for such frivolity these days, but he's clearly proud of this space where others can celebrate with decorum or reckless abandon. Nevertheless, it took a while for Distrito to gain momentum. Located in the University City neighborhood, Distrito's original $43 price points didn't sit well with kids attending nearby Drexel University and other surrounding places of higher learning. “We dropped the price points to $25 and the place took off. I'm convinced this is a concept that will translate anywhere,” Garces says. “People understand Mexican food.”

Apparently, so does Esquire magazine, which named Distrito to its list of The Best New Restaurants in 2008, the same year Mercat a la Planxa also made the list.

“He has a great business mind, which you don't find too often in chefs,” says Melissa Scully, v.p. of operations for The Garces Group. “Jose has a clear sense of what Philadelphia wants and he finds a way to deliver it. It's so much easier working for someone who can give precise directions about his vision.”

Scully, who met Garces when they were both working for Starr, said every Garces concept idea is pretty well cooked in his head before he presents it to the staff. “Jose doesn't ask us to come up with ideas,” she says. “Truthfully, none of us have the strength to do what he does. It we did, we'd probably do it for ourselves.”

Garces is an inexhaustible powerhouse. Following Mercat and Distrito in late 2008, and with several other restaurants brewing, he completed his first cookbook Latin Evolution (Lake Isle Press) and appeared on Iron Chef where he defeated the nearly unbeatable Bobby Flay. His victory foreshadowed his selection to compete in the Next Iron Chef competition, where he demolished more than a dozen of the country's best chefs. He's now nearing completion on a second cookbook, tentatively titled Latin Cooking: Menus and Inspiration by Jose Garces, while heading into his second season of Iron Chef. And that's just part of it.

There was a year-and-a-half gap between Amada and Tinto, points out Scully, but since then the Garces Restaurant Group has been opening restaurants at a rate of one every six months. She admits this scares her, “but we've got a system down that works.” Yet, she is among the chorus urging Garces to take a breather.

“I'm not kidding, I'm going to take it easy for a while,” says Garces as we drive to a warehouse he recently bought to store furniture and equipment for future restaurant projects. Sitting in the middle of it all is a 30-year-old vintage food truck, which he had painted and decorated with 40,000 bottle caps. Like Distrito, the festive truck is one more example of his playful side.

“For a few years I worked my ass off as a line cook at the Rainbow Room and the Four Seasons Hotel in New York. Some nights we'd do 350 pre-theater dinners. I'd sweat so much I'd have to change clothes. After work the only thing I could think of was having a cold beer and tacos. Now, I have my own taco truck,” he says grinning.

Garces spent $20,000 on the truck, which was already equipped to cook on the road, and another $10,000 to clean and decorate it with the bottle caps and a cartoon figure of a handsome, albeit cheesy Mexican character (think pencil mustache). When the weather permits, the Guapos Tacos truck will show up at events and areas where there are late-night bars. “After 15 or 20 events the truck will pay for itself,” he says again smiling, “and that's not bad.”

Back in a car, Garces gets a call from Douglas Rodriguez, who is in town for an event at Alma de Cuba. Considered the father of Nuevo Latino cuisine, Rodriguez was hired by Stephen Starr as a managing partner to guide the menus at Alma and El Vez. It was Rodriguez who hired Garces to head the kitchens at both. As we drive toward Alma, Garces continually scans the landscape. Every vacant building is a possible location to expand the Garces brand. He points at buildings that may be future Garces restaurants and he talks about his days in Chicago, where he ate more than his share of “great” bratwurst. He wants badly to introduce his version of a brat house to Philly, and on the horizon is another new concept, Froman's Wursthause, which will be located on 13th Street in the Washington Square neighborhood.

“I love Philadelphia, but I'm a Chicago kid,” he explains. “I grew up eating sausage and I even cooked at an Italian beef spot.” He's already preparing and selling a variety of high-level sausage at Garces Trading Co. — his gourmet market, café and wine store — but wants to open a sausage “joint” that will complement Philly's “very good beer scene.” And he's going to name it after Abe Froman, The Sausage King of Chicago, who never really existed except for a reference in the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off. This makes Garces laugh.

While he takes great pride in his more full-blown restaurant concepts, Garces loves little “joints” that serve great comfort food in a casual setting. Froman's will be one of them; another is his 36-seat Village Whiskey, which can only be described as a classic American bar that features what many consider to be the city's best burger. Just two doors down from Tinto, Village Whiskey gets its free-range Angus beef from a farm in Maine. It's mixed with Kobe fat to keep the burger moist. A visit to Village later that night and a handful of napkins later suggest that it may indeed be the city's best burger. And its deep list of classic American whiskeys is icing on the cake.

Perhaps its was this versatility and willingness to stretch beyond his Latin roots that led to the James Beard Foundation naming Garces Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2009.

We arrive at Alma de Cuba, where I'm shocked to see a 70-pound lighter version of Rodriguez. “I lost the weight, but I couldn't shake my cigarette habit,” he says as we head to an alley behind Alma for a smoke. Technically, Rodriguez and Garces are now competitors, though Garces views him as a mentor and a friend.

“Jose is unbelievable. He's got something a lot of chefs don't have — balance and a great business mind,” he says puffing on a cigarette. “He also has an excellent management style. He never yells and he's very respectful of everyone. I know his parents. He was raised right. Jose is going to get bigger and bigger.”

And what about a showdown some day on Iron Chef?

“We've been trying to set up an Iron Chef competition and hopefully it will happen soon,” says Rodriguez. “Jose told me when it does that he would let me win. Isn't that nice of him?” he says with a big laugh, adding “you know he's too competitive for that … and so am I.”

Despite his calm demeanor, Garces is as driven and as competitive as anyone. Every move he makes is designed for a big win, which explains why many of his later projects have been so ambitious. He doesn't believe he can lose, and everything he's done to this point reinforces that self-confidence.

Consider Garces Trading Co., which features a 75-seat café, a vast takeout area that offers exceptional boil-in-a-bag meals, a bakery, a fresh-cut flower stall, a coffee shop and a shopping market where customers can buy Garces' own line of coffee, honey, olive oil, vinegar and charcuterie. His store also offers one of the best cheese and wine selections around. The home meal replacement component may sell some of the best takeout food anywhere. For around $25, customers can take home meals such as Beef Bourguignon, Camerone Enchildadas or Coq au Vin. When the boil-in-bag meals hit the hot tub for 10 minutes, one is treated to a near restaurant-level meal. “The home meal replacement idea came from my trips to Whole Foods Market. I knew there had to be a better way to offer prepared meals, and there is. We're offering them.”

His most recent big-time concept is JG Domestic, a 160-seat restaurant and bar serving artisanal American food and drink. It's there where I meet v.p. of operations Scully, who was trying to create order out of chaos while it was under construction. Filled with dozens of craftsmen, JG Domestic is located in West Philadelphia's landmark Cira Center, adjacent to the Amtrak 30th Street Station. It's an ultra modern office building with institutional white walls and an interior that lacks as much personality as the security guards who work there. But in a corner of its huge lobby, Garces is creating a warm oasis where one can enjoy an American heartland menu of items such as Roasted Suckling Pennsylvania Lamb.

“My other restaurants have culinary themes, but here at JG I just want to get the best ingredients and let them simply shine with a minimum of interference,” says Garces. “When I serve green beans I want them to be perfect and I want to serve them only with a little olive oil and salt.” To me, it doesn't get much better.

Clearly, when Garces began his quest to dominate Philly's restaurant scene, he laid down his Latin roots with Amada, Tinto, Distrito and Chifa. But now he's free to take other culinary directions that reflect what he likes to cook and eat. The Trading Company, JG Domestic and Village Whiskey reflect this new direction. But this freedom haunts Garces, because he has so many ideas and so many directions he wants to explore. A lot of very good companies have sunk because they grew far too quickly, and Garces is mindful of this point.

Yet, on this fall day amid the buzz of circular saws and construction chaos, Garces remains calm while others are on the verge of losing their cool. As opening day deadlines near, he is not pleased with the way JG Domestic will be lit. “This office building is cold, and I don't want it to carry on into this restaurant. And while this place will never be as sexy as I'd like it to be, we're going to find a way to make it a bit more moody and relaxing.”

During a tasting to determine what items make it to the menu, he also expresses his dissatisfaction with a house-cured pastrami sandwich one of his chefs concocted. “The pastrami is too thick and there isn't enough of it piled on the bread,” he says, as the sandwich is whisked away for repair. “There's a legendary deli downtown (4th Street Deli),” he says to me as we leave the kitchen. “I'm not going to serve a sandwich that would pale in comparison to one you could buy there.”

JG is the only restaurant in his stable that is considered a dinner-time destination spot, though free parking and the nearby Amtrak station helped seal the deal. With 2,000 office workers in the building, success at lunch appears to be assured. Ironically, in a cold office building at the exit of a train stop, customers will enjoy some of America's best bounty and Garces has found a new home for his corporate headquarters. He's now only five minutes from his home.

Back in the car, with JG in our rear view mirror, Garces explains how he has purchased a 40-acre farm in Bucks County where he will grow those perfect green beans, other vegetables and perhaps raise bees and livestock for his restaurants. “But, honestly, I also bought the farm because I live in town and I desperately want to get out of the city on weekends with my family. We need to breathe some fresh air.”

He has been married eight years to Beatriz, who was going to dental school while working as a server at Alma de Cuba. They have a seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, and a three-year-old son, Andres. Beatriz is now a dentist and about 50 percent of her clients are restaurant industry people, and those who work for Garces get a 20 percent discount. Garces employees also receive full health benefits and he's says he's looking into a retirement plan. His pension comment is not merely lip service for a nosy reporter. He cares deeply for those who assist his quest.

“I have a core of Mexican and Latin employees who have been with me for eight or nine years since my days at Alma,” he says. “We have a tight bond, which is why I'm so distressed by this country's immigration laws.”

He explained how he had one undocumented employee who was lying in his apartment dying of cancer because he feared deportation if he saw a doctor. So Garces and his wife helped this man through the system. They are now working with others to create a community center for Mexican immigrants who can get health care, nutrition information and learn English.

“I love coffee, and the fact that I could partner with a roaster and create my own brand of organic coffee with my name on the bag is amazing to me. Success has allowed me to do this and make a lot of my other dreams come true,” he explains. “But none of it works if I ignore the less fortunate around me. I want to give back.”

This comment tells you everything you need to know about the man Garces has become. But his best missionary work will be done feeding the hungry masses who crave his spectacular food and restaurants. Because of his national presence on Iron Chef, he'll likely be spreading The Gospel According to Jose far beyond Philadelphia's borders. He's eyeing Manhattan, Chicago and Washington, D.C. “And when I go into a market, I'm gong to go in full boat,” he says with the forceful conviction of someone who is prepared to take on the world.

Nearly everyone laughs when Garces utters his “I will slow down” mantra. Only a few believe he will, and those poor saps also believe Abe Froman really is The Sausage King of Chicago.