For: Jose Garces

"Iron Chef of America's" winner talks about creating a memorable dining experience.

Jose Garces is the owner and executive chef for the nine restaurants that make up the Garces Restaurant Group, and he is the latest winner of the Next Iron Chef competition on The Food Network’s "Iron Chef America." Garces will be one of the keynote speakers at the 2011 national conference of the Society for Foodservice Management, which will be held Oct 3-6 in Philadelphia. SFM posed five questions to Jose to introduce him to conference attendees.

Q. What is the most essential prerequisite for working for the Garces Restaurant Group?

I expect a lot from my employees, but nothing is more critical than ambition. A positive, upbeat attitude and a willingness to always step up to the plate will win me over every time. And in general, I find that people who display that kind of ambition have the talent to back it up, which makes them even more valuable.

Q. What are the essential components to creating a comfortable, memorable and signature dining experience?

A dining experience is more than just a plate of food. It’s an experience, one that should involve all the senses. The challenge as a chef and restaurateur is using all the tools available to ensure that all of my guests’ senses are overwhelmed—in a good way—by their meal. Delicious food, served properly and efficiently by a polite and capable server, is only one piece; the aromas from the kitchen, the temperature of the room, the volume of the music, even the comfort of their seat (and so much more) contribute to a truly great meal.

With regard to creating a “signature” experience, I think it’s important to innovate and introduce my guests to new things, but not solely for innovation’s sake. Changes to a traditional dining experience have to make the meal more comfortable and memorable for them. To that end, many of my restaurants serve small plates. That was unusual when we opened Amada in 2005, but we didn’t do it to be unusual; it was true to our concept (Andalusian tapas) and also allowed our guests to experience more flavors and dishes over the course of their meal, rather than limiting themselves to one appetizer and one entrée. It’s small modifications such as that that can take a meal from “delicious” to a “signature” experience, giving people that much more value and exposing them to something new in a thoughtful and unexpected way.

Q. What do you consider to be the most overrated foodservice trend?

I have never been a fan of compromising the quality of ingredients in order to prepare food more quickly. This “trend” has been around for a long time, but I think people are finally beginning to question it. Where our food comes from is important—often, more important than how quickly we can wrap it up and devour it—and the increasing availability of farm-fresh produce, even in the heart of our big cities, is a testament to people’s renewed interest in eating better, not just faster or cheaper. And inexpensive, on-the-go food doesn’t have to be preprocessed, frozen or reheated. Part of my mission with my Mexican street food truck, Guapos Tacos, is serving fresh, locally sourced ingredients in a quick, convenient way, and so far I don’t think that any of our customers would trade in their hand-crafted corn tortilla or fresh-made guacamole for frozen-then-fried food.

Q. What was the hardest 'mystery ingredient' you had to cook with on Iron Chef?

This may surprise you, but the hardest mystery ingredients have actually been battles that I’ve ultimately won: blue cheese and passion fruit. Ingredients with powerful flavor profiles such as those are most challenging because it’s difficult to transform them and create five distinct dishes for a complete meal. Blue cheese is incredibly rich, and passion fruit’s potent tartness is both an asset, in small doses, and a liability, because it can overwhelm a dish quickly. But I do love the challenge of working blue cheese into a dessert or adjusting the texture and temperature of recognizable tastes such as passion fruit to make it new and exciting in each course.

Q. If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be and what would be served?

I would love to host a dinner party for Jacques Cousteau and his team; I’ve always been enamored with the ocean and I often think that if I had to choose another career I might have wanted to be a marine biologist. It would be tough to design a menu, though, because I’m not sure what such an avid lover of sea life would be comfortable eating from the sea. We would probably start with a toast of French champagne, and then I think he’d enjoy a hearty meat-focused entrée, perhaps my signature roast suckling pig with roasted fingerling potatoes and charred green onions.

Then again, as busy as I am these days, it would be really nice to have a simple dinner with my wife and children at home. We love to cook together, old recipes that my mother and grandmother taught me to make such as arepas and empanadas, and spending time in the kitchen with my family, then sitting down to a meal and just enjoying each others’ company, sounds like a pretty perfect evening to me.

For more information on the upcoming SFM conference, visit sfm.conference2011.org

Photo credit: Garces Restaurant Group