Jose Garces: Tapa by delicious tapa, a true Latino empire

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Amada chef/owner Jose Garces assembles tuna toro with migas and Serrano-Verdial escabeche. His three tapas restaurants, Amada, Tinto and Distrito, and the Peruvian- Chinese Chifa on the way, tap distinct outposts of the Latino flavor world.

Jose Garces was Latino way before Latino was cool. Before it was prefixed with nuevo. Before the Chicago of his childhood had a single Latin restaurant - "zero," he recalls - though the occasional taqueria had begun to sprout.

He is a stocky, serious, focused 36 now, the toast of the town - a recent Iron Chef win under his belt, three tapas restaurants, Amada, Tinto and Distrito, climbing the charts, with one (Peruvian-Chinese Chifa) on the way.

Maybe two, if you count the low-key-burger-high-end-whiskey joint he has up his sleeve.

And, of course, there is the accessory no hot chef can do without - a gorgeous, if maddeningly complicated, new cookbook.

But it didn't come easy, or without setbacks (an early pratfall at New York's Bolivar grill), or street-corner taunts aimed at his non-Nordic skin tone, the badge of the Ecuadoran heritage that, eventually, would prove the opposite of a burden: It would be the wellspring of his success.

Indeed, Amada, his first hit single - turning three years old next month - is named after the beloved grandmother he summered with as a child in Quito.

His roots became his rock: On the corncake arepas his Spanish-speaking mother put on the kitchen table, and the ceviches of those Ecuadoran summers, he would build his palate - and an emergent restaurant empire strung, coincidentally, along Chestnut Street, from Old City to West Philadelphia, serving some of the most enchanting food in the city.

So it has come to pass that the young chef who could hardly find a moment to make a friend for a year after he moved to the city eight years ago (to oversee Alma de Cuba for nuevo Latino godfather Douglas Rodriguez and restaurateur Stephen Starr) now employs a staff of 285.

Wearing a blue-checked shirt, Garces stood behind a cooktop last week at Amada, shaking a pan of littlenecks, re-creating a dish - clams with bomba rice and confit artichokes - that he first encountered on a prospecting visit to northern Spain a few years ago. (The recipe is in Latin Evolution, his new cookbook, with April White; you can watch him making it on the video accompanying this piece.)

It is a salty, soulful, comforting dish that he came across serendipitously. He'd flown with his cooks to Madrid, and taken a seven-hour train to San Sebastian, the culinary center of Basque cookery. The object was to seek out inspiration for Tinto, the brooding Basque wine bar at 20th and Sansom. (In Spain's north, tapas are called pintxos, from the Basque meaning "to prick.")

But there on Night 1, bone-tired and hungry, he found a dish perfectly in sync with his mantra - "authentic" and "innovative" - and a chef (Juan Mari Arzak) who personified that ideal: "The best part is to travel . . .," Garces says. "And to bring back a piece of the culture."

Single-handedly, he has put a new vocabulary of flavor on local tables - Spain's silky serrano ham where once only prosciutto held sway; nutty Basque Idiazábal where once there was only parmesan; Andalusian gazpacho sparkling with crisp shards of watermelon; sublime Spanish tuna, and goat cheese, and green olives; tidy crab-stuffed piquillo peppers; and an elegant reimagining of the mushroom huarache, the Mexican street-food flatbread.

Not to mention the finesse of fresh combinations, and the arresting visuals that are the trademark of new-Latino cookery - brochettes smartly upended in shot glasses, rivulets of sunny saffron aioli, spear points of manchego.

And the welcome landfall - or footfall? - of flamenco in Old City.

Soon - Nov. 1, to be precise - he'll be off again, this time to Peru for a week, to scout its Andean and coastal cuisines, and its stylings of chifa, the Peruvian-Chinese hybrid.

The flavors of that trip, he says, should be on the plate by the new year, or shortly after, at his newest venture, Chifa, the 125-seat room taking shape daily at 707 Chestnut.

I ask to take a peek. We stroll four blocks from Amada (217 Chestnut), where Garces has been doing the cooking demonstration, to Chifa's empty room: Another restaurant recently closed in the space, so the overhaul is mostly cosmetic, including a half-moon ceviche bar.

In the kitchen, Chad Williams, a chef on loan from Amada, is already mulling the Asian end of the menu, teasing out the Latinized possibilities of pork belly, noodles, and dim sum dumplings.

It was with assists from Williams and Tinto's Will Zuchman, who has since moved on, that Garces prevailed (with dishes such as watermelon ceviche and toro tuna with coconut-habanero sauce) over New York celebrity chef Bobby Flay in a recently aired episode of the Food Network's campy Iron Chef cooking contest: As the clock ticks down, Garces' crew - in black chef's jackets - can be seen slugging down celebratory shots of Jack Daniel's.

A few days later, to celebrate the victory wholesale, Garces Restaurant Group held the best employee blow-out Garces had ever seen. At hot-pink-and-bright-green Distrito, his new, two-level modern Mexican place at 40th and Chestnut, scenes from the show played on the big screens typically reserved for reruns of Mexico's pop-culture luchadores, the masked professional wrestlers.

The tequila flowed like a river.

On the streets of Chicago's northwest side, traditionally Irish Catholic (and German and Polish), to be a first-generation Latino in the '70s wasn't to find the Welcome Wagon at the door: "The spic word was thrown around a lot," Garces recalls. "I got the feeling that, gosh, I'm going to work twice as hard to get ahead here."

Not that he spent much time crying in his milk. He played varsity football (guard and linebacker on the Gordon Tech Rams), and in 1990 was the wrestling champ, 178-pound class, in Chicago's Catholic League where, just a few years later, Donovan McNabb lit up the field.

For his final project at Kendall College's culinary school, Garces created the business plan for a Spanish tapas restaurant "strikingly similar," he notes, to the place that became Amada. (A brainstorming idea for a Peruvian-Asian place that he came up with later while cooking at El Vez for Stephen Starr is, likewise, strikingly similar to the embryonic Chifa.)

Still, not everything came up roses. He apprenticed in Spain. Worked at the Four Seasons. But by his own account he got in over his head by talking his way into the top chef's job at Bolivar, the Argentine-themed grill in New York, about 10 years ago: He was 27 - still green. The job was a disaster. Bolivar went from busy to dead. It was a painful lesson in overreaching, one he says he mentions as an object lesson to young cooks.

It was after that brief tenure that he swallowed his pride and went to work - this time as a $12-an-hour line cook - for Douglas Rodriguez's sizzling nuevo Latino restaurants, finding a mentor and learning moves that serve him to this day.

It was, he says now, a godsend of a demotion.

To visit Garces now is to find a chef in full, his cup running over: He spends a few days a month flying out to check on his Mercat a La Planxa in the Chicago's Blackstone Hotel. That comes with a bonus. He gets to visit his father, George, who still lives in the city. (His mother, Magdalena, has moved to Philadelphia, where she helps watch the two preschoolers Garces has with his wife, Beatriz, a dentist whose office is a block from Amada.)

Taking a cue from the Starr restaurant group, he has a fully staffed corporate office behind Amada in a former hair salon on Strawberry Street. On a given day, you can spot a culinary director, director of operations, two large-party booking agents, controller, maintenance chief, and personal assistant. Garces can lapse into corporate-speak himself: "Lease-negotiating" has been added to his culinary vocabulary.

Strolling down Chestnut, he volunteers that his family feels complete now, with a little boy and a little girl. And the sudden - it has emerged in the space of three years - restaurant group, representing the four distinct Latin cuisines he set out to master? That too seems complete, he says. For now.

Most of 2009 will be spent tuning up his places, doing quality control, scootering from one spot to another, managing; and although offers keep coming, "no more expansion."

In his exposed-brick office, a drafting table is draped with the blueprints and schematics (by his longtime designer Jun Aizaki) for Chifa.

Beside it is a still-stiff baseball glove Garces uses to play catch, now and then, outside on Strawberry Street.

If he sticks to his plan, next year could be the time, finally, that it gets properly broken in.

 


Watch Jose Garces prepare his tuna escabeche and clam rice, and Marc Vetri prepare fazzoletti with duck ragu, at www.philly.com/philly/restaurants


Tuna Toro With Migas and Serrano Ham-Verdial Olive Escabeche

Makes 4 servings

3/4 pound tuna toro (or any sushi-grade tuna)

3/4 cup serrano ham-verdial olive escabeche (see accompanying recipe)

2 tablespoons migas (see note below on croutons)

1 ounce dried serrano ham,  zested

Sea salt, to taste

Extra virgin olive oil, to taste

1. Dice tuna (toro, ahi or yellowtail) in quarter-inch cube.

2. Toss tuna with escabeche and divide between four rocks glasses.

3. Garnish with migas, dried serrano ham zest, and sea salt. Drizzle with olive oil. Serve with cocktail forks.

- Adapted from Latin Evolution by Jose Garces (Lake Isle Press, 2008)

Note: To make the migas or croutons, remove crust from half-day-old French baguette; dice into 1/4-inch cubes. In saute pan, combine two tablespoons of olive oil, 1 mashed clove of garlic, 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Warm over medium heat. Add bread, tossing to coat. Toast until crisp, light golden. Sprinkle with smoked paprika. (Discard garlic. Drain bread cubes on paper towels or brown bag. Cubes may be stored at room temperature in dry area for up to a week.)

Per serving: 397 calories, 27 grams protein, 27 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 19 grams fat, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 800 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Serrano Ham-Verdial Olive Escabeche

Makes 3/4 cup

1/4 cup finely diced serrano ham

1/4 cup finely diced green Spanish olives

1 tablespoon finely diced bottled piquillo peppers

1/2 shallot, finely diced

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar

Kosher salt, to taste

   In a bowl, combine all ingredients.

- Adapted from Latin Evolution by Jose Garces (Lake Isle Press, 2008)

Per serving (based on 4): 108 calories, 1 gram protein, 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram sugar, 11 grams fat, 2 milligrams cholesterol, 151 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.