Meet a Health Hero VIP: How Jose Garces is Advancing Philly’s Immigrant Community
Five years ago, the owner and chef of restaurants across the city, including Tinto, Village Whiskey and JG Domestic, started a foundation to assist Philadelphia’s immigrant community gain access to affordable healthcare. The Top Chef winner, who was born in Chicago to first-generation Ecuadorian immigrant parents, set up the nonprofit so that the same people who helped him grow his own career could gain the educational and language resources to get ahead of their own.
The Very Influential Philadelphian (VIP)? Jose Garces.
Each week through October 9th, we’re highlighting three Health Hero VIPs who are making the city a better, healthier place through their charitable organizations and efforts. To coincide with our sixth annual Be Well Philly Health Hero Challenge, presented by Independence Blue Cross, our VIPs will be going head to head in the finals in hopes of winning a $2,500 for charity. Starting October 23rd, you can vote for your favorite Health Hero Challenge finalist—and put your bid in for this year’s VIP–right here.
Below, we speak to the chef, restaurant owner, author and educator about his strong ties to the community The Garces Foundation is aiding, how the current issue of immigration reform has strengthened the nonprofit’s volunteer support system, and why any donation is a good donation.
Can you explain the mission, history and programs of the Garces Foundation?
The Garces Foundation holds 11 English classes a week, including a book club for our advanced students. These are immigrants who are already working two jobs but still take the time to learn and develop their skills. The other program we have is our quarterly Community Health Day, where we provide hundreds, if not thousands, of immigrants with free, comprehensive healthcare.
I’ve been in the hospitality business for over 25 years. When I looked around the landscape of our industry and the immigrant workforce that is there, it was eye-opening. We’re committed to supporting immigrants, the people who have made Philadelphia such a dynamic and unique city. At this point, we’re really looking at a time of uncertainty, so we’re there for them.
How has today’s current political climate affected the foundation?
I think we definitely see a growth in interest in terms of help, volunteers and people supporting the mission. I think that this community is more fearful than ever about mass deportation — it’s an odd time. It’s something I’ve never felt in my whole life living in the United States. Thus far, it hasn’t impacted the work that we’re doing, and I think that’s a good sign.
Can you talk about your personal ties to the immigrant community?
My parents both immigrated from Ecuador in the late 1960s. I was born in Chicago, and through my birth, they were able to gain resident status and eventually become citizens, so I grew up living this kind of immigrant story. My parents were new to this country. They were wanting to educate us in the best way and create a lifestyle that was better than what they had back in Ecuador. That, and working in kitchens and understanding the struggles that the immigrant workforce faces every day… it’s all really personal to me.
What is the best way to donate to The Garces Foundation — through time, money or attending fundraising events?
I think all of those things in the nonprofit world are all helpful, so we’ll take whatever help we can get! It really is a tough climate to raise money and really provide these services. We’ve found that fundraising should never really end. To continue to keep the programs alive, there are always funds that are needed.
What are some of your favorite success stories?
In the kitchens that I’ve worked in, you see hard-working immigrants who are smart and eager to advance professionally, but their language skills hold them back. By developing the ESL program and adding a workforce training program, we’re teaching English and, at the same time, showing them how to be better at the job they do so they can advance.
The beauty of it is you see people advancing, going from dishwashers to front-of-house folks to managers to chefs. We’ve had a bunch of folks who have taken the time to learn the language, immerse themselves in the community and start to think about this not just as a job but as a career and a lifestyle. A lot of that just comes with feeling good about yourself and feeling confident. Some of those dishwasher to chef stories are some of my favorites. I have a chef who has been with me for a long time and he’s worked his way up. He was in the program, and now he’s the Chef de Cuisine at Tinto. He makes a good living, supports his family and works really hard. Stories like this make me feel like we’ve made an impact on somebody’s life.
Read more about this year’s Health Hero challenge now.This is a paid partnership between Independence Blue Cross and Philadelphia Magazine's City/Studio