There’s a bright white tent outside the entrance to the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, site of the James Beard Awards. Inside, cameras flash as tuxedoed and cocktail-dressed celebrities air-kiss and skim the red carpet. Emeril is here, ever the robust master of ceremonies. So is Martha, tastefully resplendent in a silvery-sequined tunic and black satin capris, and her opposite, ponytailed Mario, all jaunty and cartoonish in tux and orange Crocs. Jacques Pépin, Tom Colicchio, Lidia Bastianich, Ella Brennan and Todd English dot the elegant crowd, each one larger or smaller in real life than you’d imagine from TV and magazines, all aware they are the evening’s Brads and Clints and Angelinas and Gwyneths.
Welcome to the Beards. They’re not called the “Oscars of food” for nothing.
Philadelphia’s culinary stars are here, too: Stephen Starr, Jeff Benjamin, Michael Solomonov — hoping to win “Outstanding Restaurateur,” “Outstanding Service” and “Rising Star Chef of the Year,” respectively. Only one local nominee is absent. And in a Murphy’s Law sort of way, He Who Is Not Here is the only Philadelphian who’ll receive a coveted brass medallion imprinted with Beard’s bald head. He’s nominated for “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic” in a five-person field stretching from D.C. to Hoboken, but prolific chef-restaurateur Jose Garces is nowhere to be found.
Being hard to track down isn’t entirely atypical for Garces, who turns 37 this summer. After all, over the past four years he’s debuted five Philadelphia restaurants (including his first, Amada, and this month’s Village Whiskey) and chef-consulted on another in his hometown of Chicago. Which means that since 2005, he’s opened more high-concept restaurants than any other chef in the country. On a typical weeknight, he’s in Philly. Or Chicago. Tonight, however, he isn’t.
It’s entirely possible that he’s climbing a volcano in Guatemala in search of the world’s most perfect coffee bean. Or he could be traipsing through a Basque marketplace to sample a rare version of Idiazábal cheese, or tweaking a menu atop a Las Vegas casino, or, according to a rumor floating in the tiniest of foodie circles, working on a major gig for the Food Network.
To these musings and more, Garces’s publicist, Clare Pelino, says, somewhat mysteriously, “Jose is away on important business that we can’t disclose at this time.” Hmmm …
Such is the life of our city’s most happening celebrity chef. Not that he’s always been our most likely candidate for such status. A decade ago, this burly, mild-mannered Ecuadorian-American regular-guy was working in New York as a line cook for $12 an hour. Today he’s running an eating-out empire — and being called “the next Stephen Starr,” and “the Latin Emeril.” His restaurants have consistently been critical hits — and make impressive profits. Still, when stars rise so meteorically, how long can it be before they burn out? Especially in — wait for it — this economy?