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Jose Garces: The Blessing Of Hispanic Visibility

Catapulted to fame by awards and TV, and using that to promote more Hispanic talent.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Zagat Stories asked Latinx chefs from across the United States about their experiences being Hispanic in the restaurant industry, how it has shaped them, and what needs work.

Jose Garces is an American chef born to Ecuadorian parents. He was raised in Chicago and went to Kendall College School of Culinary Arts. In 2005, Garces opened his first restaurant, Amada, an Andalusian tapas bar in Philadelphia. He has worked across restaurants in New York City and Philadelphia, where he developed his namesake Garces Group. The group has restaurants in Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, California, and New Jersey. Garces is a 2009 winner of the James Beard Foundation “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” award—when he also won the “Iron Chef” title—and is the author of The Latin Road and Latin Evolution.

I’ve been very lucky in my career, in that I’ve cooked Ecuadorian and Peruvian food for years. Winning the James Beard award was a huge honor for me. I’d first cooked at the Beard House in 2006—which in and of itself had been a longtime dream—shortly after opening my first restaurant in Old City, Philadelphia. As a chef, the acclaim of your peers is always going to be a driving force, even if you’re unaware.

I was one of the few Hispanic chefs to win Best Chef, following in the steps of José Andrés in 2003. To win this award—not just as a chef, but as an Hispanic chef cooking Spanish food—meant a lot to me. It was the start of a period of heightened fame and success.

After being nominated for a Beard award in 2007 and 2008, I didn’t have any expectations for 2009. I was actually in Tokyo taping the finale episodes of the Next Iron Chef competition when I learned that I’d won.

Winning Iron Chef was wild. I was up against nine other amazing chefs at the top of their game. I believe that I was the only Hispanic chef in that particular competition. It was a pretty diverse crew, and the finale came down to me and Jehangir Mehta from New York. The finale challenge was “Ribs and Racks,” and I won with a Latin-inspired take on the secret ingredient. I’d been utilizing a lot of Latin flavors during the competition, and I think that helped propel me to victory.

Both of these awards changed my life and the trajectory of my career significantly. Winning the James Beard award elevated me among my peers in the industry and created a lot of opportunities for me to grow as a chef. Becoming an Iron Chef was a different animal in that it increased my visibility far beyond the normal bounds of the industry and catapulted me to a national stage with the Food Network. I have to admit, it did take some getting used to. I’m very blessed.

I’ve seen a lot of Hispanic kitchen workers primarily as dishwashers, prep cooks, and so on. I’ve always tried to promote from within to get them into sous and executive chef positions as their skills grow. In the kitchen, we’re all on the line together. I think the biggest thing might be that we can communicate really efficiently. Everyone learns Spanish on the line. I would love to see more Hispanic chefs in leadership positions in the kitchen and restaurant industry in general.

I never felt that I wasn’t able to openly cook my culture’s food. I had Chifa in Philadelphia, which was Peruvian-Chinese food. And I currently have Olon at the Tropicana in New Jersey, which is named after an Ecuadorian beach town. I’ve become an ambassador of Latin cooking in America, and it’s been an honor to be able to bring our culture to the mainstream.