Jose Garces, Philadelphia's "it" chef-restaurateur, was announced last night as the newest member of the Food Network's Iron Chef America team - not only earning him bragging rights, but also directing an international spotlight on his fast-growing empire run out of Old City.
On last night's episode of The Next Iron Chef, Garces, 37, won a cooking duel against New York chef Jehangir Mehta, capping a season that began Oct. 4 with 10 contestants.
Garces hosted a boisterous viewing party last night at his West Philadelphia Mexican restaurant, Distrito, that attracted several hundred fans and members of his close-knit staff who shrieked at the announcement shortly before 10 p.m.
Chef Seamus Mullen, who was eliminated on last week's show, came down from New York to see Garces and Mehta create a multicourse meal out of various ribs. Garces was assisted by his chefs Chad Williams and Tim Spinner.
"I'm slightly overwhelmed," said Garces, between poses for snapshots. "I can feel my life changing before my eyes."
The show, hosted by Alton Brown and "The Chairman" (played to a campy hilt by actor Mark Dacascos), was taped last spring, around the time that Garces was a no-show at a James Beard Awards ceremony at which he won best chef in the Mid-Atlantic region. Whispers began that Garces could not attend because he was working on something substantial.
As an Iron Chef, Garces joins the roster of Mario Batali, Cat Cora, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, and relative newcomer Michael Symon, who won the first season of The Next Iron Chef in 2007.
Garces, a low-key, Chicago-born son of Ecuadoran immigrants, seemed to be the front-runner from the premiere, when he won the first challenge: creating a comfort-food dish. Garces' effort was an Ecuadoran stew of annatto chicken broth and queso fresco. Garces swears by the mild, unaged white cheese, a staple of Latin cooking.
After stops in kitchens in Spain and New York City, Garces landed in Philadelphia in early 2001 to run the kitchen for chef/mentor Douglas Rodriguez at the Stephen Starr-owned Alma de Cuba on Walnut Street near Rittenhouse Square. Two years later, Garces added kitchen duties at El Vez, Starr's campy Mexican restaurant at 13th and Sansom Streets.
He met Beatriz Mirabal, who was waitressing at Alma while in dental school. They married and have a daughter, Olivia, 6, and a son, Andres, 3.
In 2005, Garces left the Starr orbit to open Amada, a Spanish tapas restaurant on Chestnut Street near Third (a block from his wife's dental office), followed in 2007 by Tinto, a Basque-inspired eatery at 20th and Sansom Streets.
Garces' machine revved faster in 2008: He opened Distrito, on the ground floor of a new building at 40th and Chestnut Streets; he defeated Flay in a cook-off on Iron Chef America; he popped out a cookbook, Latin Evolution; and he won "Best New Restaurant" ratings from Esquire critic John Mariani (for Distrito and Mercat a la Planxa, a Chicago Catalan restaurant where he's listed as executive chef). This year, besides winning the Beard honor, he opened Chifa, a Peruvian-Cantonese restaurant at 707 Chestnut St., and opened his first non-Latin restaurant, a tiny burger-and-booze bar called Village Whiskey, next door to Tinto.
Next up for the next Iron Chef, besides TV duels in the Food Network's Kitchen Stadium, is a prepared-foods cafe at 1111 Locust St. called Garces Trading Company, planned to open in January. Garces also is talking about a small beer-and-brats house at 13th and Chancellor Streets and a larger restaurant specializing in the farm-to-table concept at the Cira Centre, next to 30th Street Station.
After that, "we'll take a breather," Garces said.