What's new, Chef Garces?

The innovator whose Latin-flavored restaurants have been such a big success talks about his new one, his planned one, and his victory on 'Iron Chef.'

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"I'm an optimist," chef Jose Garces says of his upcoming ventures. (Eric Mencher/Staff Photographer)

At 36, Jose Garces is a certified star in the city's pantheon of chefs. A Chicago transplant (he played football in the same schoolboy league as Donovan McNabb), he spent summers in the Ecuador of his immigrant parents. Amada, his acclaimed Spanish tapas restaurant in Old City, was named for his Ecuadoran grandmother. He has quickly added other Latin dining rooms - Basque-accented Tinto, and Distrito, a polished take on Mexican street food. His newest venture, Chifa, has just debuted on Chestnut Street near Independence Mall.

Rick Nichols: You've just opened moody Chifa, featuring a style of Peruvian-Cantonese fusion. (It's also the name of places that serve it.) But this city seems to be reeling from a steak-house invasion. What's up with that?

Jose Garces: Most projects are started two years out, or more. If you look at 2006, there was no sign to indicate what's going on now. You saw Capital GrillGrille and Barclay Prime doing great business, and high check averages. There's a perceived value [in steaks] by the customer. So there can be an incentive to open a restaurant that involves less work for more money.

R.N.: Chifa is a child of Peru. You grew up as the son of Ecuadoran immgrants. How'd you hear about chifa?

J.G.: Actually, chifa is something I started cooking with [nuevo Latino pioneer] Douglas Rodriguez at Chicama in New York. That was almost 10 years ago. Also, when I first came to Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia, we had a fried quinoa-rice dish with soy-glazed tuna, favas, English peas and scallions. We called it Chifa Tuna. I always thought those flavors worked well together.

R.N.: Any surprises at the chifa places you visited in Peru on your culinary tour last year?

J.G.: One thing was that we ran into so much modern and contemporary food. As for chifa, I was shocked to find more than 4,000 chifas in Lima alone. One of the things I expected was a real marriage of the flavors [of the native Peruvians and immigrant Chinese]. But a normal chifa is really Chinese just using some local Peruvian ingredients. The real marriage is in the higher-end restaurants there.

R.N.: What about the ceviche?

J.G.: I've been a culinary traveler - to Barcelona, Mexico City and San Sebastian. I found the fish market in Lima to be one of the most pristine and freshest in the world. They say that no good Peruvian eats ceviche after 4 in the afternoon, because the fish is considered too old by 4.

R.N.: Got any new ventures up your sleeve?

J.G.: In the end space [on 20th at Sansom], where we did so much construction for Tinto, we're going to do a whiskey and burger bar called Village Whiskey. Just 40 seats. But we want to have 100 different bottles of whiskey . . . classic cocktails. A small menu: duck-fat french fries, beer-cheddar sauce, burgers, little jars of pickled tomatoes and artichokes. Maybe even a Chicago-style hot dog, a nod to my hometown.

R.N.: Do you think those projects will fly in this economy?

J.G.: I'm an optimist!

R.N.: Where do you like to grab a meal with your wife?

J.G.: David's Mai Lai Wah in Chinatown. My wife and I do the egg foo young and the salt-baked shrimp. Zento in Old City. My favorite is their dragon roll. And Xochitl [SO-Cheet], the Mexican place in Society Hill.

R.N.: You bested celebrity chef Bobby Flay in an Iron Chef America episode last year. How'd he take it?

J.G.: He was cordial. That was pretty much it.

R.N.: Some people think these cooking slapdowns on TV make a mockery of the profession. What about you?

J.G.: I think Iron Chef does the best of the lot. About some of the others, can we go off the record?

R.N.: You and your wife moved back to the city after a sojourn in the burbs. How has that worked?

J.G.: We were out in Glen Mills and decided to move back into town [after their two children were born]. My wife has a dental practice here. We live in Logan Square. We take the kids to the Franklin Institute and Free Library. We're having the best time of our lives.

R.N.: You're a big success now. Did you ever have your own setback or slapdown?

J.G.: When I was 27, I took the job of chef de cuisine at an Argentine steak house in New York called Bolivar. I was young and probably unqualified and I did a bad job. We lost business. It was the first time in my career that had happened. And that experience has driven me not to ever let that happen again.

Contact food columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.