Born in Chicago to Ecuadorian parents, Jose Garces got his early culinary chops down in Spain and New York City. In 2001, he moved to Philadelphia, where in 2005 Amada, named for his grandmother, was his first venture.
“My love for cooking began in her kitchen,” said Garces, who won the James Beard Award for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” in 2009. “Invoking her spirit gave me the confidence to open my own restaurant, trust my instincts and follow my heart.”
Rooted in Latin cuisine, culture and hospitality, his multi-concept Garces Group has since evolved to encompass 12-plus restaurants, a catering and event division, a nonprofit organization and a 40-acre organic farm just west of Philadelphia. Mamita Amada, his family and heritage remain guiding lights, along with travel.
“Like a book unfolding chapter by chapter, travel awakens my curiosity and excitement for discovering what’s ahead, and then sharing what I have learned and tasted once back home,” said Garces, with two cookbooks, The Latin Road Home and Latin Evolution, to his name.
Concentrated in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York City, his event-capable restaurants, each with unique identity and personality, reflect his flavorsome interweave of Latin and international influences.
Philadelphia experiences include Spanish tapas at Amada; tacos, tequilas and other treats at Mexico City-inspired Distrito; European-style bistro food at Garces Trading Company; classic American burgers at Village Whiskey; and “Italian-inspired wood-fired fare” at 24. New York City groups have the tastes of Northern Spain’s Basque Country at Ortzi, while in Atlantic City (Also see this month’s destination coverage), Garces takes attendees to Japan and Ecuador at new concepts inside Tropicana Atlantic City.
“Okatshe is a traditional Japanese izakaya featuring Tokyo street fare” Garces said. “Guests are transported to the streets of Tokyo through a small Japanese candy storefront before entering the restaurant, creating a special experience right from the start. Olon, meanwhile, offers a serene seaside escape inspired by a coastal town in my parents’ native Ecuador. At all our restaurants, it’s about warm Latin hospitality, authentic flavors and transporting our guests through great food and drink.”
Happiest when “seeing a room full of people enjoying a great meal together,” Garces celebrates the increasingly popular U.S. trend of communal dining.
“Encouraging people to graze and try new dishes with friends often leads to a more enjoyable evening all around,” he said. “Meeting planners understanding group dynamics know how choosing the right mix of food and drink can spark conversation and make a gathering truly memorable.”
Education and interaction, such as chef-led demos and hands-on cooking experiences, are also top requests.
“Very knowledgeable about food, they want to know more about new ingredients or classic techniques,” he said. “Planners, meanwhile, are seeking a holistic experience, such as dinner and a show. Benefiting from partnerships with extraordinary venues such as the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and Tropicana Atlantic City, we can offer groups a fantastic night out combining a great meal with top-notch entertainment.”