Celebrity chef Jose Garces won a court victory Friday that brushed aside a challenge to his planned auction later this month of his restaurant operation to resolve his massive debts while keeping his places open for business.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler rejected a bid by unhappy investors to block the June 26 auction so they could appeal an earlier ruling that upheld a Garces boardroom maneuver that cleared the way for him to file for bankruptcy protection. The investors are unsecured creditors, meaning that they would likely receive pennies on the dollar in the auction.
Garces, 45, one of Philadelphia's best known chefs and a winner of the Iron Chef competition, saluted Kugler's decision, announced from the bench after a 90-minute hearing in Camden, N.J.
"We are vindicated once again. The ruling affirms that the way I run my business has been with the best intentions at all times," he said in a statement. "The pathway is now clear for a new beginning, one which we are excited about and will continue to provide the experiences our customers know and love."
Garces will select the winner of the auction, in consultation with secured creditor M&T Bank of Buffalo, which has lent about $9 million to Garces' operation, and a committee representing the unsecured debtors. Under bankruptcy law, he is bound to choose the bidder who makes the "highest and best" offer for his numerous enterprises, a mix of restaurants and restaurant-management concerns.
Restaurants in Philadelphia on the block include Amada, the Old City place where he secured his reputation; Tinto; Village Whiskey; the Old Bar; Volvér; and Buena Onda Callowhill.
A Louisiana restaurant company, Ballard Brands, has provided a floor for any auction, bidding $2 million in cash, money that would go primarily to M&T Bank, his biggest debtholder. Ballard also has agreed to cover about $4 million in costs, including redeeming gift cards
Two early investors in Garces' operations — insurance magnate Thomas Spinner and food purveyor Jim Sorkin — have challenged the chef in court, arguing that he improperly overrode their votes in opposition to any bankruptcy proceedings.