“Since Amada, I’ve opened basically one restaurant a year. Each one of those openings, I work 20, 25, 30 days straight,” says Garces. “I’m on watch.”
Garces grew up on Chicago’s northwest side. His father, an engineer by trade who owns a packaging firm, emigrated from Ecuador to the U.S. at age 19 to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his wife joined him a few years later. Sometimes Jose’s paternal grandmother would pay an extended visit from Ecuador. She’d take over the Garceses’ kitchen to prepare Ecuadorian specialties: arepas, ceviches and empanadas that would later appear on Garces’s menus.
There weren’t many empanada-making families in the Garceses’ Irish-Polish-Catholic neighborhood, but Jose felt like a pretty regular kid. He worked a paper route from age nine, did a stint as a busboy at an Italian banquet hall from age 13 to 16, became a star football player and wrestler at his Catholic high school, and attended a pair of Chicago junior colleges before enrolling in the culinary program at Kendall College.
Garces doesn’t cite going to cooking school as the fulfillment of a dream — that banquet-hall gig was by no means gastronomic inspiration, and his abuela’s cooking didn’t seem all that haute at the time. But the program, with its courses in catering, hotel operations, restaurant management and cooking, appealed on a concrete level. This was something he could do, something, in his words, “to hang my hat on.”
It wasn’t until a second-year externship at Dallas’s acclaimed Star Canyon that the culinary bug bit big. Garces had planned to stay at the $7-an-hour job for three, maybe six months. He wound up sticking around for a year, fascinated by the ins and outs of the restaurant business. Upon his return to school, he began his senior project: creating a business plan for a tapas restaurant and bar. It bears a striking resemblance to his first (and still busiest) restaurant, Amada. Something about petite plates appealed to him, he says: “I felt food was better presented in a smaller format, rather than gargantuan portions.”
That project, which also included a complete menu and a demographic study, stayed in the back — and at times, the front — of his mind, past graduation from Kendall, through a six-month stage at Taberna del Alabardero in Marbella, Spain, and several jobs in New York. Garces was doing well, moving up in the kitchens where he worked, enjoying spending his free days and nights off eating out in the city.