His career’s first hiccup came when he took a step too far, too fast. In 1999, he accepted the executive-chef job at Bolivar in Midtown Manhattan, and the restaurant went from hot spot to nearly dead under his command. “It was my first failure in my career,” he says. “I took the job, I took the money, but I didn’t have the experience or leadership.” Garces had just returned from vacation when Bolivar’s owners told him they’d decided to change the restaurant’s concept from Argentine and Peruvian to Mexican. “At the time, I didn’t do Mexican food,” he says. It was a de facto firing, his career’s most humbling moment. Humbling, but not halting.
Garces’s next move: return to go, via a $12-an-hour job as a line cook for a chef-restaurateur the young chef had admired from afar — Douglas Rodriguez, known as the “godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine.” In his new, junior post, Garces shuttled between Rodriguez’s Peruvian-chic Chicama and elegant tapas taproom Pipa, before quickly securing a sous-chef position at Chicama. He was easy to promote, says Rodriguez: “A smart kid, level-headed. He knew the rules of life. He partied, but he didn’t party like the other guys.”
In Rodriguez, Garces saw a culinary mentor, someone who’d grown up a lot like he had, who valued family, who treated employees fairly, who transformed traditional Latino home cooking into cuisine that seemed fresh and modern. “I was a sponge, just learning everything I could from him,” says Garces. “I respected his food knowledge a lot — I still respect it a lot. … In many ways, we were — and we are — a lot alike.”
To Garces, Rodriguez wasn’t just a boss: He was someone who had made it, someone who one day he himself could be.
But not before Stephen Starr got a hold of him. In 2001, Starr owned five restaurants: Continental, Pod, Blue Angel, Buddakan and Tangerine. His sixth, Walnut Street’s Alma de Cuba, would be a collaboration with Rodriguez, who tapped Garces to run the place. Coming to Philadelphia was a big deal for the young chef. He’d be back in charge of a kitchen, a kitchen where he’d know almost no one. Still, his aspirations were apparent.
Even before Alma’s doors opened, Garces made it known that one day, he’d be the guy in charge. “I can picture him sitting in our old apartment on Pine Street,” says Aimee Olexy, another Starr employee; she went on, along with her chef-husband Bryan Sikora, to open groundbreaking BYOBs Django, then Talula’s Table. “He would talk about his goal. He always wanted to be a restaurateur.”