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

More From FoodService Director

Sponsored Content
Roasted Beet Salad Pickled Blueberries
From Blueberry Council.

What’s trending in the culinary world? The basics! According to the NRA, diners today are craving authenticity, simplicity and freshness on menus. But basic ingredients don’t have to lead to boring menu options.

It’s easy to fall into the latest craze to capture consumer attention and drive sales. But we’ve learned it’s not always about novelty. Instilling a feeling of nostalgia and familiarity by using well-known and well-loved ingredients in new, experimental dishes can lead to an increase in adventurous dining decisions, while staying in your customers’...

Ideas and Innovation
lettuce dirt

Savor at McCormick Place developed the Green Thumb brand for menu items and products featuring its rooftop bounty; the latest is a pale ale made with the first crop of hops grown on the roof. Promoting that branding and the convention center’s green certification has brought in business from groups with a sustainability focus.

Menu Development
pho bowl

Achieving authenticity can be tricky. Late last year, Oberlin College landed in the news when students protested the way dining services at the Ohio school was botching ethnic food, serving up inauthentic versions of Asian and Middle Eastern dishes. It’s a challenge other operators are confronting, too, often tapping staff and patrons for inspiration.

At 260-bed Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Scottish Rite, Executive Chef Bradley Czajka, himself of Polish-Ukrainian descent, started Global Stations as a way to recognize the diversity of cultures at the hospital. “We have such an...

Ideas and Innovation
business pamphlet fair show

As we struggle to recruit and retain millennials, we had our current millennial employees invite friends who don’t work for our organization to a Q&A session where we find out why our organization is or isn’t appealing to them, and what they are looking for in an employer. I recommend doing this off-site in a casual environment so you can get honest and open feedback that could be useful for better marketing.

FSD Resources