It was Beatriz who, in 2003, pregnant with the first of their two children, convinced her husband to finally execute on his senior project. She knew if he didn’t, he’d regret it. So he went for it. Starr countered, offering more money, more responsibility, more security. But Garces resisted. “He really wanted to do it on his own, and I don’t blame him,” says the senior restaurateur.
Once he left Starr, says Beatriz, “You couldn’t stop the man.” The Amada (Spanish for “loved one”) project was a whirlwind. There was the trip to Spain, where Garces re-schooled himself in the gastronomic charms of tapas bars and marketplace fare: hard cheeses and salty ham to be sliced bar-side, not-too-sweet white and red sangrias, and, of course, the restaurant’s famous flamenco dancing. Those were the fun parts.
The hard parts included maxing out his and Beatriz’s personal credit, raising capital, and negotiating with a difficult landlord for an existing restaurant space (the former Adriatica). Still, Garces found an amazing creative collaborator in up-and-coming Brooklyn interior designer Jun Aizaki. He snared an avuncular financial adviser in Wilmington accountant Ted Nannas (who would help him develop individual investment packages for each concept, instead of following the Starr model, in which investors buy into the whole kit and kaboodle). Garces pulled his little brother Chris from his first-ever restaurant stint, at the Moshulu, to come on board as a junior manager.
Then came the last — and most important — piece of the staffing puzzle.
When Jose talks about hiring Melissa Scully as Amada’s GM, he speaks with reverence. Of all the “nice people” he employs — because if you want to work for the Garces Restaurant Group, being nice is the first and most essential prerequisite; “No jerks” is the company’s motto — Scully (then Melissa Wentzell) is one of the nicest. She had been working for Starr for a few years, and was just finishing up a run as general manager of short-lived Angelina. She took the meeting with Garces “as a courtesy,” she remembers. It wasn’t long before she signed on: “To be honest, the idea of Amada just kind of sold me. I thought it was a pretty brilliant restaurant concept.”
There was something more, too: “When he hired me, he said, ‘I know what it’s like to be you. I was just you. I was just an executive chef in a business that wasn’t mine, and I worked really hard for that business as if it was mine, and I know what it was like to not get paid very well, to be just another soldier. I don’t want my employees to feel that way.’”