Jose Garces in Crisis: The Trials of a Celebrity Chef
Beginning with a single restaurant in Philadelphia, Jose Garces turned himself into one of America’s culinary superstars. Then the hits stopped coming.
There was no point in standing around waiting for a reaction, so Jose Garces stayed in the kitchen. He served plates of piquillo peppers, brochettes and garlic shrimp for the Spanish tapas concept he was pitching, and chicken ropa tacos and fried mahimahi for the Mexican idea. Stephen Starr ate.
Starr, a former entertainment promoter, was just growing into his legend in early 2003, with the breakout hits Continental and Buddakan signaling his skill. He came into the lounge at another of his restaurants, Alma de Cuba, twice, with “an entourage of whoever he felt like eating with that day,” remembers Garces. Dressed in his signature black, Starr ate one forkful of each dish. Garces had two possible restaurants in the offing when, about a day later, his phone rang.
“I loved the food,” Starr told Garces. “And I’d like to go forward with the Mexican concept. But I don’t think Philadelphia is ready for a Spanish tapas bar.”
The “Mexican concept” turned out to be El Vez, a restaurant that helped cement Starr’s reputation. But Garces’s reputation was growing, too. He was already executive chef at Alma, and El Vez gave him a second kitchen to run. The Spanish tapas place, though, felt personal. The food Garces prepared was an homage to his grandmother, who had helped him, as a child of Ecuadorean parents who was growing up in Illinois, to understand and taste his roots. So in 2004, Garces scouted for a building that might house the dream Starr rejected.
He thought he found it on the 200 block of Chestnut Street in Old City. “Good bones,” he remembers. “It just felt right.”
He called Starr, who knew of his ambitions, and asked for his advice. “That stretch of Chestnut was kind of a dreary block in those days,” Starr says, “and there had been some other places that failed there. I’m sure I advised him against it.”
The rest is city culinary history. Garces pressed forward, naming his restaurant Amada, Spanish for “beloved.” When the doors opened in 2005, the food was a marvel, a rush of “tapas,” or small plates, with dramatic flavors Philadelphians hadn’t encountered before. The total experience was transporting. The “dreary” block worked in Garces’s favor, fostering the illusion that Amada really was a step into something other, even illicit. Entering the front door was like embarking on an evening’s vacation in Southern Europe. The decor was dark and rustic, worn just so; giant hams hung from the ceiling; the prematurely aged tables and wine barrels suggested that something old and distant had been conjured anew.
“It was hugely exciting,” says Philly food writer Drew Lazor. “They brought in a flamenco dancer, and music, and there was this tremendous stomping you could hear outside its doors. … It was a very personal, chef-driven restaurant, and it seemed tremendously important.”
Jose Garces, the chef, had the vision to see what Stephen Starr, the great restaurateur, had not: Philadelphia was ready for this Spanish tapas place.
A dizzy run of success followed. Garces, over the next four years, opened three additional hit restaurants in Philadelphia. By 2010, he wasn’t just one of the leaders in Philly’s second restaurant revolution; he was a face, nationwide, on television. He became one of the Food Network’s Iron Chefs, an esteemed role in the firmament of TV cooking stars, and went right on expanding — opening more than a dozen additional restaurants here, in Atlantic City, in New York and Chicago and beyond.
Failure seemed unimaginable, till it didn’t. By March of this year, Garces was making headlines for all the wrong reasons: closings, lawsuits, signs that his restaurant group teetered on the brink of ruin. His relationship with his investors grew so fraught that one even filed an over-the-top lawsuit alleging that Garces’s restaurant group was in fact a “Ponzi scheme.” The news provoked obvious questions: Just where was Jose Garces headed, and how did he wind up in such a precarious position? The answers, it turns out, don’t just explain Garces’s predicament. They reveal the absurdity behind our fascination with celebrity chefs, people who by definition do one thing so well — cook! — that they somehow become responsible for everything else that makes a restaurant work.
In person, Jose Garces retains his defining character traits — exotic looks, heavy brow and wavy black hair, offset by a regular-guy, beer-drinkin’ demeanor. TV chefs generally boast outsize personalities; picture Gordon Ramsay yelling cruel invective. But even on TV as an Iron Chef, Garces managed to remain amiable and chill. Famously, he expects his managers to be kind, too, encouraging them to read Setting the Table, a book by legendary New York operator Danny Meyer, who argues that the hospitality industry must be hospitable, first, toward employees.
That’s the Garces — the chef Philly adopted and rooted for — who shakes my hand when I enter his offices at 24th and Walnut streets, where his pizza restaurant, 24, is also located. His demeanor is warm, keynoted by an ingratiating and expressive smile, and he sits me down to talk in an office made cheery by natural light and bookshelves loaded with cooking tomes. But there’s little time for get-to-know-you chatter. Garces is scrambling between various meetings associated with running his restaurants and saving them, too. And once the conversation starts in earnest, a new aspect of Garces’s personality, a side never seen on television, emerges.
Lawsuits have been landing: At this stage, his restaurants face claims by three produce suppliers, for instance, alleging failure to pay more than $220,000 in bills.
While Garces remains bullish — “I’m optimistic,” he says. “I’m proud of the catering business we’ve developed, and there are new restaurants in the pipeline that I hope to be able to tell people about soon” — he’s also in clear crisis mode. His voice takes on a slight whinge, his face scrunched, almond eyes pleading, when the subject turns to his restaurant group’s debts. If he appears a touch wounded, defensive, who can blame him? The Jose Garces I’m meeting has been shouldering financial challenges for years.
In 2014, the Revel casino in Atlantic City closed, shuttering four of Garces’s most profitable restaurants at once. Further, his efforts in other markets — D.C. and Chicago and Scottsdale, Arizona — have failed. His New York version of Amada chalked up approximately $1.3 million in construction overruns, according to Garces; one week after I meet him, he announces that restaurant is folding, too.
The result, for Garces, is a professional near-death experience with personal ramifications. According to public records, in summer 2017, Garces signed over the deeds to his $2 million Philadelphia home and a 40-acre Bucks County farm as collateral against a $7 million loan from M&T Bank. In that same time frame, according to people with knowledge of the restaurant group’s operations, M&T Bank asked Garces to bring in a financial adviser — a turnaround specialist named John Fioretti — whose role included the power to make financial decisions for the restaurants. Last summer, Garces’s CEO, Rob Keddie, and CFO, Yousuf Hasan, left the company for undisclosed reasons. By this spring, the suits against him, including one from an investor, began to stack up, seeking damages of more than $5 million.
“I’m working to recapitalize the company,” Garces tells me, “and fix this.”
Fixing it, of course, would be good for Philadelphia. Garces’s best restaurants help comprise the fabric of the neighborhoods they occupy. His restaurants employ about 750 people — in the kinds of manager, server and bartending jobs people rely on to support families — and give business to other outfits, like those produce companies. In short, bankruptcy and/or closings aren’t something anyone in Philadelphia wants, and even the possibility of failure probably comes as a surprise.
Jose Garces is no ordinary business operator, after all. He is, within modern American culture, exalted, a celebrity chef. His rise and this steep dip in his fortunes serve as a cautionary tale — an object lesson in the distorted nature of our current cultural obsession with celebrity chefs.
For starters, says Yale professor Paul Freedman, whose expertise extends to ancient eating habits, the number of chefs now called “celebrities” surpasses reason. “It used to be,” says Freedman, “that when Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the ’70s, or when Thomas Keller opened the French Laundry, and they became stars, you knew it was because they’d achieved something truly significant. But now, what makes a chef a celebrity? Is it a culture-changing restaurant or just appearing on TV?”
At the same time, our culture’s focus on chefs obscures the effort required to sustain a great restaurant. Moguls of every stripe are losing money betting on food. A 2014 study by a Berkeley statistician using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that restaurants shutter in their first year 17 percent of the time. The median lifespan for restaurants is under five years, rendering opening one something like a cancer diagnosis.
The key to outliving the short-term survival rate isn’t the chef. It’s everything. “There are so many decisions required to make a restaurant work,” says Starr, “that don’t have anything to do with the chef. And you need to get them all right. Without getting spiritual, it’s a bit like an act of God. It’s magic.”
The magic act is getting more difficult. Not only do modern-day diners expect a transcendent experience; rising costs make turning a profit tougher than ever. “Maybe 15 years ago,” says Philly chef and restaurateur Michael Schulson, “you could look for profit margins of up to 15 percent. But now? Ten percent would be killing it. If you can achieve four to seven percent, you’re pretty happy.”
These realities can drown any restaurateur, and Garces is clearly gulping for air. In recent weeks, rumors swirled that he was about to sign a deal with Ballard Brands, a Louisiana-based company, to recapitalize and perhaps help manage his business. That development suggested salvation of a strange kind. Ballard, established in 2012, runs around 150 locations, like Wow Cafe, PJ’s Coffee, and a “fast casual” outlet called Boardhouse Serious Sandwiches. Ballard, it would seem, is an odd fit — an act of desperation, or at least a downward step in terms of cookery.
“I want to tell this story,” Garces says of the challenges he’s faced in the past few years. But he offers what sound like feints and evasions first: “I have to take responsibility for the position the company is in, and I do. … But I’m a chef. I’m creative. And I hired people to take care of the business side so I could focus on creating concepts for the company.”
Of course, the financial people reported to Garces; further, as PR strategies go, I accept responsibility for the fact that these other people really let me down probably isn’t found in any crisis management handbook. But over time, Garces would open up enough about his past successes and his missteps to provide a fuller, more self-aware account of his journey. And something else would emerge: a vision of the Garces Philadelphia first saw — the man who understands the magic of a great restaurant and whose transformation into a chef wasn’t just professional, but personal.
There’s a romance to Jose Garces’s beginnings. He took a job, in 1990, with his friend Joe Erlemann as a lifeguard on a Lake Michigan beach. In those days, Garces’s friends knew him as “Joe,” too; he’d taken an Americanized name to fit in.
The lifeguard group these Joes joined, mostly young men fresh from high school, often lingered on the beach after work to talk and drink beer. Someone decided they should eat. Garces volunteered to cook, and Erlemann expected him to return from a grocery run with pre-formed burger patties and hot dogs. But Garces fired up a little charcoal grill they acquired and turned out marinated skirt steak and chicken, tacos and brochettes.
Erlemann’s voice rises delightedly as he remembers those charmed evenings, Garces’s first “restaurant,” idyllic, with brilliant sunsets, slowly cooling temperatures, and a view of the water.
Garces’s life to that point was both odd and ordinary. His father, Jorge, an engineer by trade, emigrated from Ecuador at age 19 to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago. Garces’s mother, Magdalena, followed him a few years later. Both spoke heavily accented English as a second language. Jorge was a technician at a packaging firm, providing a solid middle-class life. All year long, Jose’s mother and paternal grandmother cooked, filling up the house with the aromas of South America: garlic, cilantro, and dishes like ceviche and empanadas.
Some kids know what they want to do after high school. “Joe” Garces wasn’t one of them. His dad’s packaging outfit held no appeal, and the activities he enjoyed most in school, like football and wrestling, offered no path forward. He enrolled in junior college, lifeguarding for money, and visited the culinary school at Kendall College in Evanston, Illinois, without much optimism. Then he saw a group of students parade by on campus in uniform chef’s whites.
“It appealed to me right away,” he says. “The uniforms reminded me of being on the football team and suggested structure, and I wanted that. I think I needed it.”
He enrolled a week later, keeping his lifeguard gig, making a little money and practicing his cooking chops with friends. The rest is the usual climb. He took on internships in Dallas and, after graduation, overseas in Puerto Banús, Spain. People he met in college had started to call him “Jose,” and of course in Spain everyone did, and so Jose Garces got his name back. He then moved to New York, the epicenter of America’s restaurant universe. He served as a line cook, then as a sous-chef. His nascent leadership skills were so apparent that at age 27, he received an offer to work as chef de cuisine in the Manhattan restaurant Bolivar. But he lacked experience and lost the job, then shuffled, despondent, into the biggest break of his career.
“I really admired Douglas Rodriguez, a chef who was known as a leader in the ‘New Latin cuisine,’ and I called him,” he says.
Garces was honest about his failure, and Rodriguez took him on board at his restaurant Chicama. “There was just something about Jose from the moment I met him,” says Rodriguez. “He had very quiet, natural leadership qualities. Immediately, the other chefs just seemed to gravitate to him and follow his lead. And he never raised his voice.”
Rodriguez was more than impressed. “I was like, ‘This guy is gonna be huge,’” he says. “And I started thinking of ways I could put him to work for me.”
The pair became close friends, and after Rodriguez got a call from Stephen Starr, in 2000, about helping to develop what would become Alma de Cuba, he took his protégé to Philly with him. “I was a sponge, all that time,” says Garces, “just trying to learn everything I could.”
He worked with Starr for a couple of years, developing his own reputation. But all the while, he held onto a business plan he’d developed back at Kendall. It was for a Spanish tapas place, and it described what would become Amada.
Chefs are often compared with great artists, a conceit that can seem — and probably is — overblown. But in Garces’s case, the comparison seems apt. His business plan and recipes, carted from job to job, functioned like the notebooks filled with songs that Dylan and Springsteen developed as they gigged around New York and New Jersey, angling for their big chances. By 2004, when Garces decided to ignore Starr’s advice and open Amada, he was ready: a unique talent, itching to put his carefully crafted songs out into the world.
There was a time, more than a decade ago, when Jose Garces claimed he’d stop. In summer 2006, when he was just 33 years old and Amada was brand-new, he let reporter Karen Heller of the Inquirer follow him through a dinner shift. He’d open four places, he told her, establish himself as an authority in Latin cuisine, and be satisfied.
His mentor, Douglas Rodriguez, happened to be in town after a shift at Alma de Cuba. “He’ll do more,” Rodriguez told Heller. “It won’t be enough.”
“Watch,” Garces responded. “I’ll be very happy.”
That night, Garces and Rodriguez were the epitome of high-flying chefs, chatting amiably, eating paella and dry-aged rib eye for two at the tremendously European hour of 10 p.m. Want to step back in time and encourage Jose Garces to trust his instincts? This would be the night to visit. Because his best restaurants — in Philly, at least — were the early ones. Between 2005 and 2009, the food scene’s new darling suffered but one miss — Chifa, a Peruvian flavored restaurant — which was quickly forgotten among his wave of hits: the iconic Amada; Tinto, a luxe Spanish wine bar; Distrito, a temple of Mexican street food served in a dizzying blitz of bright colors; and Village Whiskey, an old-timey cocktail hang.
Fusty old food castles, like Georges Perrier’s Le Bec-Fin, demanded that customers dress up. Garces’s restaurants, like Starr’s, were joints: They swung, flamenco-danced, and dazzled us with color.
As Garces pushed out hit after hit, his personal life blossomed. He married Beatriz Mirabal, a woman he met at Alma de Cuba while she was waitressing her way through dental school. She’d encouraged him to open Amada, and together they comprised a modern “it” couple: she, the learned dentist of Cuban descent; he, the dreamy-eyed restaurateur of Ecuadorean parentage, the emperor of empanadas.
They had two kids, a girl and a boy, and started the Garces Foundation, a small nonprofit that provides medical care and English tutoring for the city’s immigrant community. And the momentum just kept building. In August 2008, with five Philly restaurants either open or in the pipeline, Garces appeared as a challenger on Iron Chef America — and bested the renowned Bobby Flay. The next year, Garces won a multi-week competition to become an Iron Chef himself, one of the culinary masters — Flay, Masaharu Morimoto, Cat Cora — who pose at the show’s start, arms folded, daring challengers to call them out for a five-course cooking duel.
The show is silly. Even stupid. But it’s on TV. That’s enough to make a guy president and bring 1,001 opportunities to a chef’s door. But is that making it, or a path to destruction? The answer is a field of probabilities — the five-year survival rate, and a million looming choices flickering into view.
Becoming a celebrity chef didn’t propel Garces into a downward spiral. But the show did heighten his profile, affording him more opportunities, not just to succeed, but also to fuck up in a field where each project requires multitudinous decisions and the margin for error is minimal.
“It’s hard,” says Schulson. “I’ve done the TV thing, and it brings a lot of opportunities. In general, you need to remember that you can only do so much.”
That’s a challenge. Local chef Kevin Sbraga, who briefly served as Garces’s
culinary director, exploded out of Top Chef in 2010, opened five well-reviewed restaurants of his own, and ultimately closed them all — in just six years. Celeb chef Luke Palladino blew up the Borgata with his twists on Italian cooking, opened a series of his own places (including a namesake restaurant on Passyunk), then closed them and filed for personal bankruptcy protection, claiming $59,000 in assets and more than $1 million in debts.
Both men work now as executive-chef employees. Sbraga, who accepted a post at Philly’s new Fitler Club, declined to be interviewed for this article but has said that if he had it to do over again, he wouldn’t have grown so quickly.
By March of 2014, Garces, too, had grown quickly — a chef rock star with 16 restaurants around the country, including in his old home, Chicago, and far-flung locations like Scottsdale and Palm Springs. He’d also become entrenched in Philadelphia, opening the combo package store and restaurant Garces Trading Company, and rustic JG Domestic in the Cira Centre lobby. He’d opened four additional restaurants in one spot, the Revel casino and resort in Atlantic City. And Philly was about to view perhaps his most ambitious outlet ever: Volvér, with a tasting menu, planned near-nightly personal appearances by Garces and a policy requiring would-be diners to pay up front, like theatergoers.
The growth rate was spectacular, and it masked problems. Yes, Garces was opening new restaurants at a wicked clip. But he wasn’t necessarily making good decisions about them. For a while, that didn’t matter. The financials looked good.
Then, in September 2014, Revel closed. Garces admits those four Atlantic City restaurants raked in a disproportionate share of his restaurant group’s profits. “We made plans, and hires, in late 2013 and early 2014 based on the amount of revenue we were generating,” he says. “Then those places were gone but we still had those people and those obligations.”
The cascade of problems brought on by Revel’s closure illuminates the kind of high-wire act that even the most successful restaurateurs must sometimes perform. Garces’s old boss, Stephen Starr, could have become an example. “I did something once I had never done and never thought I’d do,” says Starr. “I signed a loan, personally, to get a couple of restaurants opened.”
It was in 2006, and Starr’s Buddakan and Morimoto restaurants in New York’s meatpacking district had construction costs so large, he had no other choice. “If those restaurants hadn’t been hits,” he says, “I could have lost everything. It could have all been over.”
Revel’s closure brought Garces this same brand of stress — a financial reversal, wholly unrelated to being a chef, that threatened his entire enterprise.
There had been rumors that Revel’s owners might declare bankruptcy pretty much from the moment the $2.4 billion resort and casino opened. Perhaps Garces should have planned accordingly? He argues, fairly convincingly, that back then, casinos generally stayed open even after declaring bankruptcy. “Someone usually steps in and buys the place, or they recapitalize,” he says. “We figured the same thing would happen here.”
Someone did step in to buy Revel — Florida developer Glenn Straub. But he never reopened it, and the closing left Garces and his team scrambling to make up the lost revenue they’d projected. And the chef became perhaps even less discerning in the opportunities he chose.
“We knew we needed ways to make up that shortfall,” says Garces, “so when we got a call about bringing a ‘Jose Garces concept’ to New York, we went for it.”
That New York Amada, in Battery Park City, opened in spring 2016. But just like Starr’s first New York ventures, it incurred large construction costs. It also never hit, failing to earn enough money to keep itself afloat even as a Stephen Starr El Vez (whose original menu had been developed years earlier by … Jose Garces) continued to chug along right across the street.
These woes laid some of Garces’s financial agreements bare, in dramatic fashion. The business entanglements of chef-operators are usually byzantine. Publicly, the Garces Restaurant Group appears to be the umbrella organization overseeing the workings of Garces’s restaurants. But each restaurant could be owned by any one of over a dozen different LLCs, each of which might include any number of possible investors. Garces has worked primarily with two: Jim Sorkin, a co-owner of Julius Silvert, Garces’s major food supplier; and Spinner Family Holdings, an investor group that includes Thomas Spinner, the father of Tim Spinner, a chef who once worked with Garces at El Vez.
Spinner Family Holdings, one of those initial investors, filed a suit earlier this year alleging that Garces had been funneling money from these separate LLCs to the overarching restaurant group. The suit is a tempest, raging that Garces committed “fraud” and was running that “Ponzi scheme.” But it is curiously absent of detail. Garces called the allegations “unfounded,” but there is real pain in them: restaurant dreams, gone unrealized.
Garces might overcome all this. But the financial stresses have revealed something else that cropped up after he became an Iron Chef: a weakness that had developed in his overall body of work.
The story of Jose Garces will always be different from that of someone like Kevin Sbraga. Garces enjoyed real success, boasting four restaurants that have been open for nine years or more. But the early, inspired visions, the precise marriages of location and concept that conjured dining magic, have given way to spots mired at meh.
Mercat a la Planxa and Rural Society in Chicago.
A Rural Society in Washington, D.C.
Old Town Whiskey and Distrito in a Scottsdale, Arizona hotel.
Tinto and the El Jefe bar in Palm Springs, California.
Amada in New York.
Chifa and Rosa Blanca in Philly.
The Buena Onda taco shop in the King of Prussia mall.
Eleven restaurants. All conceived, developed and touted under the Jose Garces brand. All closed or marching on without him. The problem was never the food, which almost always earned good, even great, reviews. The problem was that great restaurants require something more — that gift of discernment, the devotion to detail that gives rise to the restaurant as art form.
Tom Sietsema, food critic at the Washington Post, and Pete Wells, of the New York Times, say essentially the same things about Garces and the restaurants he opened and shut in their cities: The food was very good. The locations were difficult. In neither case did Garces create a restaurant that could overcome that challenge.
The truth is cruel, and it’s this: Outside the Philadelphia region, Jose Garces has mostly flopped. And locally, it’s been nine years since he offered up a bona fide hit.
Garces gives a vigorous but limited defense of his later work. He firmly believes in his taco concept, Buena Onda, which still has a Philly outlet near Logan Square. The mall version he closed this spring was just something they decided to “give a shot.” His pizza restaurant, 24, was constructed “in collaboration,” he says, with the owner of the building where he leases office space. But his defense also amounts to a confession: His heart hasn’t been filled with a burning desire to open many of these restaurants. He’s been chasing lost revenue, throwing up outlets rather than measuring every choice against an unyielding aesthetic.
Lazor, the food writer, remembers the opening of Village Whiskey as a major event. His phone lit up with messages from people dying to get the scoop. “To hear the time frame out loud,” he says, “and realize it’s been almost a decade since he had a big hit — that’s a staggeringly long time ago.”
The realization triggers a kind of reverie from Lazor, who muses that Garces’s continuing allure is a testament to the strength of his first four hit restaurants. “But the question becomes,” he says, “when have you made it? Aren’t four successful restaurants enough?”
Greg Vernick opened his namesake restaurant in Rittenhouse Square in 2012, winning plaudits in the New York Times and Food & Wine and a coveted James Beard award. But he didn’t announce his second restaurant until he’d spent five years perfecting his first.
When people asked Vernick about a second restaurant, Lazor says, “He would say he had some new development, and it would turn out to be a new set of plates for Vernick. … It just speaks to the necessity of obsessing over every detail. I don’t think Jose has done that for a while.”
Obsessing is the right word. Think Stephen Starr, testing seats throughout every new restaurant to understand each customer’s experience. Maybe obsession doesn’t sit so well with Garces. He and Beatriz separated in 2012 and are now divorced, but they remain amicable, co-parenting their kids and foundation. Garces takes his kids, now 15 and 11, for a week at a time and still delights in cooking them chef-quality breakfasts. He also has a long-term girlfriend, Jill Schmeltzer, who used to work in sales at Garces Group. Perhaps the ordinary guy in him has been dragged along on the celebrity-chef ride.
But that doesn’t seem exactly right. After all, he chased down that ride, and despite his steady, down-to-earth demeanor, he has an ego to satisfy. Even when it opened, Volvér — that ode to chefly ambition he announced when all seemed swell in 2014 — bore a whiff of self-important bloat. It didn’t just require diners to pay in advance; they were subjected to servers who accompanied dishes with stories about … Jose Garces.
One might suspect that today, Garces, with his house and farm signed over against debts, would be willing to admit his younger self had been prescient. Four! That was a good number. Still, over the course of about six hours of interviews, conducted in August 2016 (after he’d already begun to hemorrhage revenue) and in March of this year (as his restaurant group hung over the abyss), he resisted — for a while, anyway — any meaningful admission of his own mistakes. “It wasn’t just me sitting there in a vacuum, making these decisions by myself,” he says. “When we were reviewing opportunities, it was our entire team, and our investors, saying, ‘This looks good. Let’s go forward.’”
Finally, though, he seems to cave, his voice lowering a measure as he tires of denying the obvious. “I think it’s been location more than anything else,” he says. “We picked some locations that weren’t great, and I think in general, things became too opportunity-focused, just looking at whatever opportunities were presented rather than being strategic and asking, ‘How does this fit in with the larger vision or goal?’”
He even admitted that sometimes, he does think he should have stopped at four, or even at one — after Amada. “I think it’s natural to think about that,” he says, “but the truth is, because I’m a chef, and I always want to find new ways to express that, I don’t think it was ever in me to stop at four.”
The admission is an indicator that the Jose Garces who first thrilled this city isn’t gone. He can discern his own mistakes, knowledge he can put to use preserving what he still has: a future.
Perhaps, even in the midst of failing, closing restaurants in seven states, Garces has just been figuring out how to succeed. He’s kept up appearances at chef- and food-related events, for instance, smiling and shaking hands even while in arrears. This might sound difficult to most of us; to Garces, it’s just another Tuesday — a great chef maintaining his brand and saving his businesses.
In this light, Garces, one of America’s too-many celebrity chefs, actually begins to look like CEO material. He was even “right” about Revel — just four years late. Recently, Colorado developer Bruce Deifik stepped
in to buy the old Revel location from Glenn Straub; he has since committed to letting Garces reopen three of his old A.C. spots, which just might turn on a powerful money spigot. And the Ballard fit — if it happens — could be better than it first appears. Garces was talking about further exploring the “fast casual space” back in August 2016, when the crisis only loomed; he says Buena Onda is “perfect” for Ballard, and a project for which he feels “real passion.”
He might not know everything, but he’s learning, and he’s got the ramrod spine necessary to hold up under weight that would bow most people’s backs. “I do think I’m getting better at this, and I’ll be better going forward,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot.”
Garces reinvented himself after a failure once before, rising up after he lost his first chef de cuisine job at Bolivar to become a celebrity chef. Could he do something like that again?
Starr, his old mentor, still speaks highly of him, declaring that he has “a good business mind, a better business mind than most chefs.” And even his ex, Beatriz, says his restaurant group’s current turmoil will ultimately “look like a bump in the road. … Jose is tremendously talented … this will all work out.”
“Jose will always have another idea,” says Douglas Rodriguez, the mentor who first introduced Garces to Starr so many years ago. “He wants to achieve and do a lot. He’s a quiet guy, but he’s very ambitious. That’s really who he is, and I don’t see anything changing that.”
Whatever happens, Jose Garces will still be Jose Garces. Failure might batter his brand. But America also loves a good comeback story. He can carry the lessons he’s learned forward, yes. But regardless, he’ll always have talent at a pursuit we prize. He’s a chef. That means he’ll be able to cook, and people will come, and they’ll eat.
The rest, without getting too spiritual about it, is just hard work and acts of God.
Published as “The Hard Days of a Celebrity Chef” in the May 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.