Philly's celebrity chef chats with PW.
Freshly minted as the Next Iron Chef, Jose Garces talks tattoos, garden parties and the most expensive mango he's ever eaten.
PW: First, congratulations. Second, duh. We’re biased of course, but you were the clear favorite to win The Next Iron Chef. During the finale, were you as confident as we were?
JG: “Thank you very much. I think it’s safe to say that I felt confident, yes, but I was also very focused during the finale, because I knew that I had to make a good showing in order to carry off the win. Chef Mehta’s dishes were inventive, and I knew that the judges had been very impressed with some of his other unorthodox preparations throughout the competition, so it was critical that I show all my cooking chops and let my knowledge of ingredients and preparations really shine. In the end, I think that they recognized how hard I’ve worked to be able to cook the way that I do, and I think that was what convinced them that I was the right choice. And confident or not, I have to admit that it just plain feels great!”
PW: Before you were the Next Iron Chef, you were one of 10 hopefuls. How did you come to be part of the show?
JG: “I had worked with Food Network before, when I took on Bobby Flay for Iron Chef America, so we kept in touch and when they began casting for The Next Iron Chef, they approached me about joining the competition. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.”
PW: Did you have any doubts about competing?
JG: “It’s important in a competitive setting not to let your doubts overpower you, but I’d be superhuman not to feel some—those are world-class chefs I was competing against, and it was both thrilling and nerve-wracking to stand at the judges table beside them, week after week, and to hear, “You survive to cook another day,” especially knowing that once I heard it, it meant that someone else would not. I never doubted my abilities, but it was a heated competition from beginning to end.”
PW: Did you know which other chefs were competing on The Next Iron Chef beforehand, or did you find out at the last-minute?
JG: “We only knew as much as Food Network wanted us to know, so I had no real idea who would be there until I arrived at the airport in LA, where they had arranged for all of us to land around the same time and meet each other.”
PW: The first challenge was to work with ingredients from your past. You made a soup with queso fresco, which was voted the best by the other chefs. What did it feel like to be praised by your competitors?
JG: “In a word? Great! As I said on the show, I relish being on top, and to have the other competitors put me there in the first challenge of the first episode really set me up for success and made me feel immediately more confident about my chances.”
PW: At the outset, who did you think would be your biggest competition?
JG: “It’s hard to say; each of the other chefs brought serious cooking chops to the table. I don’t think I envisioned Chef Mehta making it to the finale at first, but he crept up week after week with tricks like his “American” meal served in take-out containers. Who thinks of that stuff? Chef Appleman brought a great deal of confidence to the table, which is always a little intimidating in a competition, but overall it felt like anyone’s game. And Chef Mullen won a couple of the early elimination battles; from the start, I knew that he was a force to be reckoned with.”
PW: In the second challenge, “Fearlessness,” you and the other chefs had to cook with the likes of sea cucumber, fallopian tubes, fermented tofu and other goodies. Which ingredient would you have been most freaked out to work with?
JG: “I can’t say that I would have been thrilled to try and make stinky tofu palatable; that stuff is just funky. And unlaid eggs are pretty creepy, too—I’ve never prepared fallopian tube before, so getting the texture and flavor right would have been a real challenge.”
PW: Tell us about the other chefs. Robert Treviño and Amanda Freitag seem like they’d be fun drinking buddies.
JG: “Chef Trevino came up with a lot of punchy one-liners on demand and kept the rest of us chuckling, and Chef Freitag was also a lot of fun to be around.”
PW: Is Dominique Crenn as cougarly beautiful in person as she is on TV?
JG: “Beautiful or not, she can cook.”
PW: Appleman has some crazy-ass sleeve tattoos, as do Seamus Mullen and Brad Farmerie. Your arms appear un-inked. Is Jose Garces not a tattoo guy?
JG: “It’s just not my style.”
PW: Mullen was in attendance at your Distrito finale party. Were you boys when he cooked at Striped Bass?
JG: “We didn’t know each other when he was at Striped Bass. I’ve always admired Chef Mullen’s skill in the kitchen, and I was touched that he came out to support me at Distrito.”
PW: You and three other finalists flew to Japan toward the end of the series. That’s a helluva flight. How was it? This TV show kept telling us how wonderful American Airlines is.
JG: “I think we can all agree that wonderful or not, a trans-Pacific flight is a long haul, period. I tried to spend as much of it as possible focusing on what was to come, rather than where I was. I was very excited to have come so far, so I had a lot to think about before we landed and got back to competing.”
PW: Did you get much time to check out Tokyo, or did the Chairman have you on lock?
JG: “What the Chairman wants, the Chairman gets. We were there at his request, and of course, if a member of the press had gotten wind of why we were there—and which of us had made the trip—it could have been a big spoiler for the show. We did get two days of free time to check out the sights and take in the city; I spent one of mine at a Dragons vs. Tigers baseball game, which was quite an event.”
PW: What was the most memorable thing you ate in Japan?
JG: “I had a $300 mango from Takashimaya, a department store; any $300 fruit is memorable! I also loved the takoyaki, an octopus fritter that I’ve been craving ever since.”
PW: And the single most delicious dish from another chef that you ate during the show …
JG: “In Episode Two’s “Vessel” challenge, Chef Farmerie prepared a Thai clam dish with coconut broth that was spicy, savory and loaded with umami. It was delicious.”
PW: Take us to the final battle. That dome goes up, and … RIBS! What goes through your head?
JG: “SCORE! Not only did I get to choose from a variety of meats (pork, beef, buffalo), but the ribs and racks offered a huge variety of cuts to prepare, which meant that I could show the depth of my cooking knowledge.”
PW: Did already besting Bobby Flay in Kitchen Stadium [episode re-airs January 17 at 9 p.m.] give you an edge in this battle?
JG: “Absolutely. Having already competed on Iron Chef America meant that I was already familiar with Kitchen Stadium and the pressures and demands of the competition—as was my sous chef, Chad Williams. In some ways, it just felt great to be back there; the adrenaline is contagious, and it’s an incredibly exciting place to prepare a meal. Of course, Chef Mehta had been there before, as well, when he battled Iron Chef Morimoto, so I wouldn’t say that I was more experienced than he was, just that it was nice that it was familiar to me.”
PW: You themed your rib dishes around the multiethnic neighborhoods of your hometown, Chicago, which made our ears bleed a little. You still consider Philly your home, right? Right? Right?
JG: “Chicago is my hometown. Philly is my home. I was born in Chicago, and I love it, but I live here in Philly because it’s the place that I chose for my family and my career. I’m not going anywhere.”
PW: [Judge and restaurateur] Donnatella Arpaia seemed to be crushing you the whole competition, but in the finale she thought you played it safe. Agree or disagree?
JG: “Donnatella is entitled to her opinion, but I thought that Iron Chef Symon expressed my intentions better: my dishes were less safe than just properly executed. Chef Mehta made some mistakes in the way that simple items (French fries, pork burger) were prepared; that doesn’t make his dishes edgy, it makes them improperly executed. I was really proud of my menu, and I think I was right—after all, it made me the next Iron Chef.”
PW: Which course in your finale were you most proud of?
JG: “There’s a special place in my heart for the ‘Short Rib Pizza,’ which was really just an interpretation of my Short Rib Coca at Amada. I’ve always been particularly proud of that dish, and it was great to showcase it in such a high-profile setting. Plus, I love that fans who were watching the show might have recognized the dish and been able to say, ‘Hey, I’ve had that! It’s great!’”
PW: Since the finale wrapped months ago, did Food Network make you sign some classified, top-secret confidentiality agreement? Swear on a bible? Pledge your first-born?
JG: “They can’t have my daughter, but yes—pretty close. Reality TV hangs its hat on the excitement of not knowing the outcome, so if any of us had spilled the beans, the show would have been essentially meaningless. That’s a pretty big liability—imagine that you’re Food Network, and you’ve spent the money to produce and promote this show, only to have no one watch it because they already know the ending. It’s not a good scenario for them.”
PW: Were you allowed to tell anyone?
JG: “Not a soul.”
PW: Chad Williams and Tim Spinner, your chefs at Chifa and Distrito were your right-hand men in the final battle. Which two executive chefs from other Philly restaurants would you pick to be your sous in an Iron Chef America battle?
JG: “Chad and Tim have been on my team for a long time, beginning when I opened Amada. I trust them implicitly. But any of my chefs de cuisine—Chef Dave Conn or Chef MacGregor Mann—could join me in Kitchen Stadium any time. That goes for my pastry chef, Chef Anne Giles, too. There are a host of other talented chefs in Philadelphia, as well; I can think of many who I would be glad to have by my side.”
PW: And locally whom would you most like to battle?
JG: “No comment.”
PW: Now that you’re a Food Network chef, which chef there are you most excited to work with?
JG: “I’ve always admired the way that Iron Chef Mario Batali prepares food; he’s not afraid to be docked points on originality and presentation because he always blows the judges away with the taste of his dishes, and that’s what matters most.”
PW: Say you get invited to one of Ina Garten’s fabulous fetes in the Hamptons. What gift do you bring the hostess?
JG: “A copy of Latin Evolution for her cookbook collection and a great bottle of Priorat.”
PW: Another hypothetical, considering Scripps [owner of Food Network] recently bought the Travel Channel. Tony Bourdain and [archnemesis] Sandra Lee throw down at the Christmas party. Who’s your money on?
JG: “Tony’s a tough cat, but Sandra seems scrappy. I think the outcome depends a lot on how much punch each of them has had.”
PW: There’s been a lot of back and forth on the possibility of an Amada in New York. Please put an end to the controversy.
JG: “Why? Controversy is great. Let’s go with ‘never say never.’”
PW: And how about Garces Trading Company and the farm-to-fork and beer-and-brats concepts you’re developing here?
JG: “Garces Trading Company will be opening in early 2010; expect simple, straightforward interpretations of European café classics in a marketplace setting that features a heavy focus on items imported or hand-crafted by the Garces Trading Company. As for the rest, my team and I are always developing ideas for other locations.”
PW: That’ll make eight restaurants in Philly. Is being compared to Stephen Starr flattering or insulting?
JG: “Neither. It is what it is. Stephen is a gifted businessman, but I think the main difference between us is that I’m a chef first and a restaurateur second. I do what I do because I love to cook.”
PW: In Philly’s eyes, you’ve been a celebrity-chef for some time, but now the rest of the country is about to be all up in our shit. Should, we don’t know, a protective food writer, with good intentions of course, go all Misery on you, are you the pressing-charges type?
JG: “You’re nowhere near as scary as Kathy Bates. Plus, I’m pretty sure I could take you. There’s plenty of me to go around, and as I said before, Philly is my home.”
PW: Yikes, we just called you a ‘celebrity-chef.’ Are you among the school that considers that a dirty word?
JG: “Nah, just a hyphenate that has gotten a bad rap. With me, it’s always been about the food first. That a lot of people know my name is a side effect.”
PW: So what’s the secret to being a good businessman without forgetting your roots as a cook?
JG: “Learn from people you admire, and hire people you trust. Simple as that.”
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Philadelphia’s Latin superstar, Chef Jose Garces, will appear on NBC’s Today show on Tuesday, June 16 at 8:50 a.m. The 2009 James Beard Award winner for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” will discuss his first cookbook, Latin Evolution, and prepare Halibut Fish Tacos from the book.
Jose Garces made his halibut tacos on the "Today" show this morning. We have the video.