Chef Jose Garces shares past surprises and future plans

The Iron Chef and multi-concept restaurateur welcomes a return to normalcy as he plots his next act.
Amada taps
Tapas spread at Amada/Photo courtesy of Oceans Casino Resort

Pretzels were the most-challenging ingredient Jose Garces had to cook with when he competed in—and won—the title of Iron Chef.

The award-winning Latin-American chef and restaurateur shared that tidbit during a lunch presentation at his tapas restaurant, Amada, in Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City. Although Garces operates a number of renowned restaurants in Atlantic City and Philadelphia, he is probably best known to the dining public as the second-season winner of Food Network’s Next Iron Chef.

To solve the pretzel challenge, “I finally brined them and used the pretzels to add a salty pickled flavor to a dish,” Garces said.

Garces, who restructured his restaurant company in 2018 and now runs Amada, Distrito, Village Whiskey and other full-service concepts in partnership with New Orleans-based Ballard Brands, shared a few more surprises during the lunch and in a one-on-one with Restaurant Business.

Jose Garces

Chef Jose Garces at Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City/Photo by Pat Cobe

“I wrote the business plan for Amada when I was in culinary school,” he said of his first and most-iconic restaurant. But as he worked his way up in the restaurant industry, Garces had to take several detours from this plan, finally opening Amada in 2005. It’s now a destination for Andalusian tapas in both Philadelphia and Atlantic City.

Garces also got into the fast-casual sector in 2015 with Buena Onda, a Baja-style taqueria in Philadelphia. During the pandemic, the one location was doing a brisk to-go business and he saw more potential in this model. This year, three more brick-and-mortar locations are in the works, and with Ballard Brands as a partner, he is currently franchising the concept.

“After years of tweaking and perfecting the model, I am ready to scale it and expand nationally through franchising,” Garces said.

Buena Onda has a beach shack vibe with a menu of fish tacos, margaritas and beers. Ballard Brands also franchises PJ's Coffee and Wow American Eats, a chain specializing in wings, burgers and sandwiches.

In another departure from full-service restaurants, Garces Trading Company, formerly a retail operation, is making a return engagement as an online marketplace and catering arm. It will offer workplace foodservice solutions for offices and corporate settings, as well as heat-and-serve dinners for time-pressed home cooks and virtual and hybrid meal experiences delivered to consumers’ homes.

Garces is also contributing menu selections to Cook Unity, a weekly subscription-based meal service. “Dishes such as adobo chicken burrito bowls and butternut squash rellenos are cooked in a commissary and delivered to customers’ doors,” he said. His recipes are one of many chef-created options offered, to the tune of 5,000 meals a week.

In a similar vein, Garces recently teamed up with Casa Verde, a retail food company, to develop four Latin-inspired, heat-and-eat vegan meals. The packaged, plant-based dishes include Garbanzos Al Pastor, Lentil Mole, Brazilian Coconut Chowder and Red Bean Pozole.

His latest innovation is Shokutzu, a food lab and private cooking studio, where an intimate group of guests can taste and learn along with Chef Garces as he cooks and teaches.

“Covid gave me the time to try new things and diversify,” he said. “That was a silver lining.”

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