As luck, or more likely his impeccable timing, would have it, Garces had positioned himself perfectly. Starr’s restaurant empire was growing — fast — and the boss needed ideas for new restaurant concepts. Garces’s suggestion: Fill the city’s then-empty (extremely empty) niche for authentic and fun Mexican fare. Starr liked the idea, and invited the chef to do a tasting for the guac-peddling, fresh-margarita-slinging menu that would become the backbone for El Vez. At that first tasting, the boss balked at the food. “I yelled at him and said, ‘Come on!’” remembers Starr.
Undaunted, Garces came back with more samples. This time, “He just blew me away, totally blew me away,” says Starr. Garces had sold his first restaurant concept. He’d also become the first and, to this day, the only Starr Restaurant Organization employee to hold dual executive-chef posts, helming two kitchens at once.
Opening El Vez made Garces a busy guy. He was not, however, too busy to miss out on what was going on around him. During his four-year tenure with SRO, he watched his boss open location after location, watched Blue Angel become Angelina, watched celebrity chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Alfred Portale come, then go. He also saw Starr implement training systems, observed how he handled the press, heard him freak out over negative reviews. Then there were the details, the touches that made a Starr restaurant a Starr restaurant: temperature, noise level, lighting, music, servers’ uniforms, flatware, menu font, enormous salads. These (except maybe the salads) were the essential components to creating a comfortable, memorable — and signature — dining experience. Garces learned. He got it. And — not all of a sudden, but suddenly — he realized he was ready to do it himself.
HERE’S THE THING ABOUT Jose Garces: He might be one of our country’s most prolific, proactive, creative celebrity chefs, but he doesn’t make a big deal of his ambitions. Suggest he’s running an empire, that his career is shaping up to be quite Wolfgang Puck-ish, and he’ll pause for a moment, and then let out a throaty chuckle that seems at once surprised and accustomed. For all his projects, for all his honors, the last person Jose Garces likes to talk about is Jose Garces. Luckily, he has a charming wife to do his bragging for him.
Beatriz Mirabal Garces has roots more similar to those of Garces’s parents than to her husband’s. She grew up in Cuba, where the electricity worked intermittently, there wasn’t always enough to eat, and her parents saved up and bought a car, only to have the government take the car away. One day, her father, an internationally renowned physician, left on a business trip and sought asylum in Canada. He then made his way to Miami, where, one by one, year after year, the rest of the family came to join him. At age 19, Beatriz arrived stateside for college; she then went to dental school at Temple — at which time she took a job as one of Alma de Cuba’s first servers, met Garces, fell head-over-heels, and took “the extra-fast lane” to marriage.