You think you’re busy? Here’s a quick rundown of a year in the life of the guy 300 employees know simply as “Chef.” July 2008: Opens Distrito, a 250-seat University City Mexican restaurant that’s pink and neon and fun all over. August 2008: Calmly bests Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America (earning praise from esteemed Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten). September 2008: Releases complex and lovely first cookbook, Latin Evolution. October 2008: Becomes the first chef ever to receive two simultaneous “Best New Restaurant” ratings from Esquire (for Distrito and Chicago’s Mercat a la Planxa). February 2009: Opens Chifa, an elegant Peruvian-Cantonese tapas concept at 707 Chestnut. June 2009: Appears on the Today Show. July 2009: Debuts haute burger-and-shot joint Village Whiskey at 20th and Sansom, next door to his second spot, Basque restaurant Tinto.
But wait: That’s not all. Coming this fall: a food-and-wine commissary called “Garces Trading Company” in Wash West’s Western Union Building. The massive operation will include a mega prep kitchen and bakery and, out in front, the PLCB’s first-ever boutique wine shop (read: late hours! Not a Yellow Tail in sight!), stocking 200 vintages, along with the chef’s own line of fair-trade, shade-grown Guatemalan coffee, the first item in an in-the-works line of Garces-brand packaged goods. Don’t inhale just yet: The Fontainebleau Las Vegas is building a second Amada that’s twice the size of the original — and located in primo real estate next to the rooftop pool. There’s also whatever will come from this mysterious absence, which we can be assured will be big, because everything Jose Garces does is big, even when he means to do it small.
How does one man achieve so much? The secret is simple, sort of. His whole life — perhaps even before he realized what he was doing — Jose Garces has surrounded himself with mentors, successful men and women who are doing what he’d like to do, who serve as willing guides along his path. “That’s how I’ve gone about a lot of this,” he says, without a moment’s hesitation. “Asking the right people the right questions, gathering information.”
It’s one of those things that sound easier than they are. The truth is, it’s hard. But he’s good at it. In the end, no matter how many restaurants he opens, how much of a household name he becomes, Jose Garces’s starring role will always be that of a gifted student.
AN OPENING WEEK CAN make or break a new restaurant. When Chifa, Garces’s most daring concept to date, offers its indelible first impression on a chilly night in February, the press is at the door. A producer from the Today Show, a writer for Saveur, an editor from Latina, all show up hungry, ready to dish in a very public manner about what they like and what they don’t. Normally, this type of pressure would put a chef on high alert, provoking paroxysms of back-of-the-house flare-ups and excessively enthused tableside glad-handing.
Not Garces. He emerges from the kitchen calmly and inconspicuously. From a back corner, he surveys the dimly lit, vaguely Chinese-modern room before entering. He slips in unobtrusively, pausing at one booth to accept a quick congratulations, dropping by another to wordlessly remove a pair of empty dishes, stopping at another to patiently recite, for what is surely the 100th time this day, the story behind his restaurant. No, he isn’t Peruvian. Yes, he’s been to Peru. Of course, he loves Chinese food, too. When he passes the dining room’s communal table, a group of giddy Main Line mommies engages in a little whisper-down-the-lane: “I think that’s him, the owner,” one says. “No, that’s just a busboy,” says another. “No, really, I think that’s him. Is it?”