If you ask Iron Chef Jose Garces, there aren’t many great Spanish restaurants in this country. Chefs underestimate what diners can handle, he says, and often water down the regions’ bold cuisines. He does it a little differently at his restaurants. “I want to pay an homage to tradition,” he says. “I look to Argentinean and regional Mexican and regional Spanish food for inspiration, and then bring that together with modern techniques and fresh ingredients. That formula has been working for me, so Iʼm going to stick to it for awhile.”
You could say the formula works: Garces runs 18 successful Latin restaurants (including a taco truck) across six cities: Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Moorestown, New Jersey, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Palm Springs, Calif. His Philadelphia flagship, the tapas restaurant Amada, has now been open for more than a decade. He also operates a 40-acre organic farm in Bucks County, Penn., where he grows food for his restaurants and educates immigrant families about healthy eating.
In the spring Garces will open Village Whiskey, a bourbon and burger bar, in Washington, D.C., and early next year he will open an Amada in New York—his first restaurant in the city. We talked to Garces about what took him so long to return to New York, why there are so many vegetables on his menus now, and why helping non-English speakers in the U.S. is so important to him.
What finally brought you to New York?
Well I lived in New York for five years about 15 years ago, prior to moving to Philly. That’s where I got my cooking chops. I met my mentor, Douglas Rodriguez, and I worked as a line cook at the Rainbow Room. So it was a really special time in my life when I was there. When I left, I always knew I would come back, but I wasn’t sure about the timing. The time just feels right to go back to New York.
You’re opening Amada in Battery Park. Do you think that area, lower-lower Manhattan, is turning into a dining destination?
It seems that way! It feels like it’s pulling from Tribeca and the West Village a little bit. There’s a good movement of chefs going there and it’s starting to develop its own character. Tourists will always be there and we’re happy to serve them tapas if they’d like, but with time it’s going to appeal to locals more. Honestly I’ve always felt that was one of the most beautiful parts of Manhattan, so I’m really happy we’ll be there.
What can people expect from Amada New York?
We’ll have some new riffs on Andalusian classics or Spanish tapas classics. My good friend Justin Bogle is going to be the chef there. He was a Michelin-stared chef at Gilt in New York and I’m really looking forward to seeing what his influence on the food will do for the concept.
There are also a few specialty things that we’re doing differently than what we’ve done at our original Amada in Philadelphia. One is a higher emphasis on vegetables. We’re taking local, seasonal vegetables and putting our Spanish riffs on them to make it feel like it’s actually from Andalusia. The other thing that’s different is that we’re really going to take our suckling pig program to another level. One of the specialties at Amada is the pig program. You have to call the restaurant 48 hours in advance and then we go to market and pick out the pig that you’d like. We roast it for you all day long and when you come to dinner, we carve it for you tableside. In New York we’re going to add some options on where we might go get the pig from. So it could be from a pig farmer in Spain or a local pig farmer. And we’ll have varying degrees of pork product that you can get during this experience.
Do diners in New York want more vegetable-focused dishes?
Yeah. I mean, when I go out, I want great vegetables now. That’s what I’m looking for and I feel like diners are looking for it as well. I’m personally trying to cook more healthy and find creative ways to make food taste really good without being really rich. That’s on the top of my mind these days. We have a farm out in Bucks County, and learning about soil conditions and the labor it takes to grow vegetables and raise livestock were really rich lessons for me. These have really given me a pretty fond appreciation of food. So that’s at the core of where my style is heading.
How do you keep your menus fresh when they are so rooted in traditional cuisines?
It’s important in your craft to continue to look for inspirations. I’m a traveler. I wrote a cookbook called The Latin Road Home and I dedicated five chapters to five Spanish-speaking countries: Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and Spain. I loved traveling in Spain so much that I created three regional concepts. Our fist one Amada, was Andalusian. Our second, Tinto, was more Basque. In Chicago we opened Mercat, which is Catalan. All of the food is vastly different. I like for guests to feel like they’re transported. Often times we get that at Amada. A guest will say to me, hey, I really felt like I was back in Spain eating chorizo.
I’ve eaten at a lot of other tapas places around the country and some of the experiences to me just feel a little too watered down. It’s an aspect that should be enjoyed, not shunned. That’s where I think chefs miss the mark with doing really good Spanish food. They’re underestimating the market. Diners are so much more educated than they were 20 years ago, 10 years ago. They’re looking for that experience.
Your charity organization, Garces Family Foundation, educates inner-city children and immigrant families about healthy eating. Why are these causes so important to you?
For us it’s really about helping those folks who are in the restaurant industry and construction industry in our community. I’ve been in this industry for a long time, 20-plus years. I’ve been in so many different kitchens in our country and the immigrant workforce there is so strong. I really wanted to help these folks and I felt this was the best way to do that.
We have a few programs. We have community health day, where this community can get free dental, cholesterol and diabetes screenings, and information on healthcare and nutrition. The second program is an English-as-a-second-language program with on-the-job training. We offer restaurant and hospitality training and we teach literacy. And then the third is Luna Farms. We bring 10 to 20 inner-city kids out there and teach them how food is grown, we harvest it and then we cook it. It’s a great day for the kids. We see the program growing. This is something that could go to other markets outside of Philadelphia pretty easily. I think that’s all I should talk about. Otherwise Iʼll get in trouble.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. Find her on Twitter: @amshep