This year gave me my first opportunity to judge Iron Chef Jose Garces in Kitchen Stadium. Although I already knew he has always been held in high regard in the culinary world, it was great to experience, first hand, how he combines his superb technical skills with an ability to make seriously delicious food.
I hope I have many more opportunities to sample his dishes again in the future. In the meantime, I caught up with him for a few moments to ask 10 questions about his culinary background and beliefs.
Given that you have been on one of the most-eclectic culinary journeys of any of the Iron Chefs, en route to Kitchen Stadium, how would you describe your cooking?
JG: My cooking has evolved as I have grown as a chef and a person, but it remains true to certain principles: It’s ingredient-driven, authentic and innovative. By that I mean that I always strive to source and prepare the finest available ingredients; I try to understand a dish’s roots and background and stay true to the most-critical qualities; and I incorporate the best techniques in preparing every plate, whether classical or contemporary. Obviously, my Latin heritage has played a huge role in my development, but the older I get, the more driven I am to seek out new and different cuisines — and mine them for fresh inspirations. My culinary curiosity, if anything, has only gotten deeper with time.
In your latest book, The Latin Road Home, you talk about your Ecuadorian roots. Do you think the cuisine of that country is due for more recognition, and if so, why?
JG: Ecuadorian food is brilliant in its simplicity, and I’m often surprised that it doesn’t attract more attention, both from diners and from other chefs. I love to prepare the staples of Ecuador at home for my family, and many of those preparations have influenced what I serve and how I serve it in my restaurants.
You began to learn about cooking from your father’s mother. Do any of the lessons she taught you still apply, even now that you are such a highly acclaimed chef?
JG: In a word: absolutely. Mamita Amada is a perfectionist, even to this day — but not so rigid that she won’t indulge in a beer (and does, almost every evening, even at age 91!). Her attention to detail inspires me, and her love of life, and of her family, help remind me to enjoy every moment and savor my time with the ones I love, just as I would savor a great meal.
Have you yet been given your perfect ingredient to battle with in Kitchen Stadium? If not, what would it be?
JG: I had a great deal of fun with Battle: Sparkling Wine, but some of my favorite ingredients have actually been ones I wouldn’t have expected to enjoy. Both Battle: Bleu Cheese and Battle: Passion Fruit stand out in my mind because of the distinctive flavors and qualities of the Secret Ingredients, which I never would have chosen — but that drove me to use them in new and unexpected ways. So rather than suggesting an ingredient that might appeal to me, I will simply say that I appreciate all of the Chairman’s choices and look forward to any challenge that he sends my way.
You own so many restaurants, how hard is it to maintain the very high standards you set across the group?
JG: I’ve said time and time again that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my team, and it’s as true today as when I opened my first restaurant in 2005. A talented, devoted team of professionals operates my restaurants, and I know that I can trust them to care for our guests just the way that I would, whether I am there in person or not.
The Cookery Police are going to raid your house and take all of your books. They allow you to save one. Which would it be?
JG: I would definitely save The Art of South American Cooking by Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. The book has a sentimental value to me, as it’s one of the first books I explored as a young chef.
If a chef came to you looking for a position in one of your restaurants, what would be the one test you would give them to test their culinary chops?
JG: Make me an omelet. An omelet can tell a lot about a cook, from the complexity of the fillings to the doneness of the egg, to how they serve the dish.
Who is the one chef you would love to battle in Kitchen Stadium and why?
JG: I really enjoyed battling fellow Philadelphian Michael Solomonov, whose style differs from mine, but whose dedication to ingredients and technique made for a lively episode. I liked the “hometown pride” aspect of it, so another Philadelphia chef — maybe bring Chef Marc Vetri back for a battle? That would be a lot of fun.
What would your three desert island ingredients be?
JG: High-quality olive oil, rice and bourbon. With those three, plus foraging for ingredients, I could turn that desert island into a heck of a restaurant.