Published in Fourteenth Street Magazine:
Photo credit: Food Network & Steve Legato
Iron Chef Jose Garces: Latin Flavor
Jose Garces can’t think of anything else he would rather do besides cooking. Garces is the executive chef and owner of four—soon to be five—Philly restaurants.
Fortunately for local fans, Garces is committed to his work and will always show off his true flavors.
While growing up in Chicago, he vividly recalls preparing traditional Latin cuisine with his Ecuadorian mother and grandmother who recognizes his “great capacity to harness flavor.” As a young boy, he spent countless hours in the kitchen observing and preparing items like ceviche, a raw seafood dish that is marinated in citrus and lime juices and is hugely popular in Latin American countries.
Although Garces found his niche in cooking at an early age, he wasn’t always sure that he wanted to be a chef. He pursued a business degree at Hunter College in New York City, but wasn’t excited about the major. Before long, he returned to his roots and to his passion—in the kitchen. “It’s probably just in my blood,” says Garces. After graduating in the to five of his class at Kendall College Culinary School in Chicago, he packed his belongings and flew to Europe where heinterned at La Taberna del Alabarero, a restaurant in Marbella, Spain. There he learned to harness his Spanish flavors before heading to New York City. Under the guidance of Douglas Rodriguez, the New York City based pioneer of Nuevo Latino cooking, Garces learned how to polish his culinary techniques. “I learned a lot from him,” admits Garces. “He was very influential to my career.”
Two years later, Garces settled in Philadelphia, where he opened Alma de Cuba and El Vez as executive chef with mega restaurateur, Stephen Starr. Later, while exploring contemporary Mexican and Cuban-inspired cuisine. Garces kicked off his solo career with the launch of high-end, authentic Spanish restaurant, Amada, in Old City.
Garces’ number one rule when it comes to cooking? “Flavors are meant to mix together,” he explains. “There’s something wrong if one stands out above all the rest.” Cooking times, he continues, are often very long in order to achieve the intricate balance of savory flavors, while also ensuring that each ingredient pops. “You need a good palette,” he explains. “If you have sweet, salty, savory and sour components down pat, any dish will have an equal balance.”
Once he was involved, Garces found a natural fit in the restaurant industry. He grew hungry with ambition following the launch of Amada, and soon after opened a basque-inspired restaurant and wine bar, Tinto, in the Rittenhouse Square vicinity; a West Philly Mexican hot-spot, Distrito; and his newest addition, a Peruvian-Cantonese fusion masterpiece, Chifa, located on 7th and Chestnut streets. “I love all my ideas,” admits an extremely proud Garces.
While our economy declines, Garces’ culinary empire expands rapidly. This summer, he will tap into a new culinary trend at Villiage Whiskey, a high-end whiskey and oyster bar at 20th and Sansom streets with an extensive cocktail list and wallet-friendly menu. He hopes to add a spark to this posh corner with something new and exciting.
“I will be done with restaurants someday,” Garces says with a shrug. A family man who always finds time to spend with his wife and two kids, Garces says that so long as his restaurants do not impede his quality of life, he will keep going. “Philadelphia is my home,” declares Garces. “And Amada is where I started my journey and probably where I will finish.”
The Avocado (for amateurs)
Unknown to most, the avocado was dubbed “aguacate” by Spanish explorers who could not pronounce the word “ahuacatl,” which translates—literally—to “testicle tree.” But don’t be put off by the vulgar name. While according to the myth, the avocado was believed to be an aphrodisiac, it has been proven otherwise. It won’t rev your libido, but it’s one healthy treat you’ll love to indulge in. The green wonder’s packed with fiber, folate, potassium, vitamins B6, C and E, lutein and monounsaturated fats. The only challenge with avocado? Portion control—especially when it comes in the form of guacamole.
Once an avocado is picked from a tree, it takes from 7 to 10 days to ripen. Look for one that’s both firm and unblemished. Remove the stem to test for ripeness. If it’s green, it’s ready to eat. Remove the large pit in the center, and leave it at room temperature to soften. It can only be refrigerated after it’s ripened. To keep a sliced avocado from browning, dip it in lemon juice and cover it with plastic wrap. You can also purée an avocado and freeze it for later.
Is there anything an avocado doesn’t do well with? It’s great on salads, seafood, burgers, breads and even ice cream or gelato. Just don’t attempt to pair it with a double chocolate cake. What will work is a sweet, chilled avocado dip that is perfect for spring.
Prep Talk: You must have a functioning blender, ripe avocados, strong muscles to squeeze fruit, ample time and no fear of getting messy. This tasty recipe explodes with flavors that will last you for days and days of dip. You’ll have fun making it with your amigos, or swinging it solo.
Recipe: Sweet Acocado Dip (Recipe courtesy of Chef Matthew Levin)
6 ripe Haas avocado
1 in. piece of ginger
1 clove garlic
3 small ripe bananas
1/2 jalapeño pepper (seeds removed)
1/2 bulb fennel
15 basil leaves
10 cilantro leaves
1 orange juiced
3 limes juiced
sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
Method: Chop the shallot, garlic, and bulb fennel. In a blender, combine all ingredients. Blend on high for 3-5 minutes. Remove and season with salt and pepper. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes tightly covered. Serve in a chilled bowl. Ole!
BEST RESTAURANT TO GET GUACAMOLE: XOCHITL 408 S. 2nd Street
This guacamole will have you speaking Spanish by the first bite. “Una mas, por favor!” It’s hard to be unhappy when dining at at the south-of-the-border gem Xochitl (pronounded “so-cheet”). Our food runner, Silvano Sandoval, uses a molcajete—a heavy mortar and pestle fashioned from porous, rough lava stone—to mash the three creamy avocados tableside as he sprinkles jalapeños, fresh cilantro, and chopped onion into the mix. Next, he squeezes a lime and adds a pinch or two of salt for flavor. He mashes the ingredients with the pestle for 30 seconds until it looks like textured, chunky guac. Finally, he grades fresh cotija cheese to the guacamole to give it a really pungent flavor. With some delicious chips, this addictive guacamole really does our neighbors south-of-the-border justice.
Not only can you use avocado as a great dip, but you can use its many nutrients to moisturize and rejuvenate dry skin. Add 3-4 drops of almond oil to one mashed avocado, then spread the cream on your face and even your hair! Leave the spread on your face for approximately 30 minutes. Wash the avocado off in lukewarm water.