In 2005, Jose Garces opened a tapas bar in Philadelphia. Today, the Garces Group operates 15 award-winning restaurants in Philadelphia, Chicago, Scottsdale, Palm Springs and Atlantic City. From Latin-Asian fusion at Chifa and Basque tapas at Tinto, to burgers and bourbon at Village Whiskey, the Garces Group takes diners on a tour of global cuisine. Pork plays a large role on the Garces Group menus – Amada’s roasted suckling pig is a specialty, and the smoky carnitas from the Guapos Tacos truck are a fan favorite.
Jose Garces, a James Beard award-winner, Iron Chef, Pork Celebrated Chef alum and author of two cookbooks, is Ecuadorian by birth and credits his heritage with inspiring him to start cooking. We caught up with Jose to talk about his culinary journey and what he’s planning next.
NPB: Tell us about the Garces Group. What philosophy connects your establishments?
Chef: Garces Group is a family of devoted, talented hospitality professionals working together to bring our guests exceptional dining experiences.
NPB: Your first restaurant, Amada, opened in 2005. When did you know you were ready to expand?
Chef: I opened Tinto, a Basque tapas restaurant, less than two years after Amada. After that, expansion came quickly; we now operate 15 restaurants in five cities.
NPB: Amada offers Cochinillo Asado – roasted suckling pig served with grilled green onions, herb-roasted fingerlings, garbanzos with spinach, and rosemary white beans on the specialty menu. What inspired this popular offering?
Chef: Whole-roasted suckling pig is a delicacy in Spain, and I had long wanted to bring it to America. It’s been on our menu from day one, and remains one of our most popular and celebrated dishes.
NPB: In seven years, Garces Group has grown from one restaurant to a group of fifteen award-winning restaurants, food trucks and catering. What’s the secret to your success?
Chef: I owe equal credit to all the members of my incredibly dedicated and gifted team. I could never have done it without them.
NPB: The Garces Group operations range in style of cuisine – serving tapas and tequila at Distrito and a unique hybrid of Peruvian and Cantonese cuisines at Chifa. Tell us about the impact of global cuisine and how the Garces Group has carved such a niche in this market?
Chef: Most of our restaurants focus on Latin cuisines, but my cooking is ingredient-driven. I believe that if you work with the best, you will make the best meals, and that has expanded our reach to a market-cafe (Garces Trading Company), a farm-to-table restaurant (JG Domestic) and even a bar focused on burgers, pickled items and my favorite spirit, whiskey (Village Whiskey).
NPB: How does your Ecuadorian background play a role in the cuisine?
Chef: My familial roots inspired me to start cooking and eventually led me to cook professionally. I owe a debt of experience and inspiration to my mother and grandmother, Mamita Amada, for whom Amada is named.
NPB: Pork is prevalent across the Garces Group restaurant menus, including carnitas, Chinese five-spiced pork, char sui pork, barbecue pork sammy, and Tocino Con Cidra – slow-cooked pork belly – why do you think pork menus so well?
Chef: Pork is among my own personal favorite proteins; there is a versatility there that simply can’t be found anywhere else. From cured artisanal hams and smoky bacon to tenderloin and slow-braised carnitas, it affords me great flexibility as a chef. And it’s vital to so many of the cuisines that our restaurants represent, from Spanish to Mexican to American.
NPB: You are a past National Pork Board Celebrated Chef. Has the partnership changed the Group’s approach to menuing pork?
Chef: I have always been a pork lover, and I’m proud to work with the National Pork Board to celebrate this exceptional ingredient.
NPB: Does the Garces Group have a signature pork dish? What’s most popular with your customers?
Chef: It would be virtually impossible to select just one pork dish from among our many restaurants, but the Cochinillo Asado, or roasted suckling pig, at Amada comes immediately to mind because of the dramatic presentation (we hand-carve the pig to order on a cart tableside) and the enduring popularity of the dish.
NPB: What’s the most innovative way to utilize pork products?
Chef: Curing and smoking captivate me. Craft hams and bacons inspire me, and I love to feature them on my menus.
NPB: How does social media play a role in your restaurant group’s success?
Chef: We use social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to alert our fans of specials, events and new or different offerings in the restaurants. It’s also a great way for them to follow me as I travel from city to city.
NPB: When seeking out talent and managing over 1,150 employees across the nation, how does the Garces Group ensure each chef will uphold the Group’s standards and philosophy?
Chef: The most important thing I have learned is to surround myself with talented, like-minded professionals. In doing that, I ensure that each of our restaurants operates as though I’m in the kitchen even though I can’t be 15+ places at once!
NPB: Your second book, The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico, and Peru focuses on your culinary journey. Tell us about some of these global influences.
Chef: The book traces my career thus far, from my family’s ancestral home in Ecuador to Spain, where I studied after graduating culinary school. We move on to Cuba, where my personal and professional paths intersect: while working in a Cuban restaurant in Philadelphia, I met my Cuban-bred wife, Dr. Beatriz Garces, who was putting herself through dental school at the time. Mexico is a necessary inclusion for the ways that it continues to inspire me, and the story wraps up for now in Peru, my current obsession and a cuisine that I believe is ripe for further exploration.
NPB: You are also launching the Garces Family Foundation. Can you tell us about this new endeavor?
Chef: The Garces Family Foundation is dedicated to providing critical support to underserved immigrant communities, especially in Philadelphia. We work with several other like-minded groups to raise funds and host educational and health-oriented workshops for immigrants contributing to our vibrant industry and city.
NPB: What do you think the next undertaking will be for the Garces Group?
Chef: To be honest, part of the fun is not knowing what’s next! We’ll be opening a restaurant in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia this coming year, one where I look forward to cooking and interacting with my guests. Beyond that, I think it is safe to say that we are always open to what’s next, whatever that may be.
Burger King, the fast food giant best known for the Whopper, found new success in 2010 with the BK Fire-Grilled Rib limited time offer. The fall-off-the-bone ribs were an example of how quick service restaurants can successfully menu fresh pork. “We are excited to be the first national fast food hamburger restaurant to offer our guests an authentic bone-in rib menu offering,” said John Schaufelberger, Senior Vice President, Global Product Marketing and Innovation at Burger King Corp.
The journey to the BK Fire-Grilled Ribs took over a year, but the investment in time paid off in spades. “It’s a huge risk to add a new item to a menu – it has to meet an unfilled need,” said Jarrod Sutton, Assistant Vice President of Channel Marketing for the National Pork Board. It’s a high-stakes enterprise, reflected in the length of time required to get an idea out of brainstorm and on to the menu. The National Pork Board encourages restaurants like Burger King to include pork on the menu through sponsored immersion workshops in which attendees learn how pork can positively influence their menu mix. The best ideas to emerge from brainstorming sessions go through extensive research and production in test kitchens to ensure they are viable for restaurant investment. In the case of the BK Fire-Grilled Rib, development and in-house trials led to a yearlong test in four markets. Only after success in Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Greensboro, NC, and Orlando were the ribs offered to customers nationwide.
The spring LTO began on May 24, 2010, and was slated to run through the end of June. However, customer demand for the ribs was so high that the chain ran out of ribs over a week before the LTO was scheduled to end. With over 27 million ribs sold, the LTO was considered a smashing success. With an eight-piece combo meal selling for as much as $8.99, Burger King customers weren’t driven away by the higher price point. “Burger King deserves credit for trying something hard and making a success of it,” wrote Josh Ozersky in the “Taste of America” column for a July 2010 edition of Time Magazine. “The company did something it didn’t have to, and Americans stepped up too, paying more for less food because they liked it better.”
Enthusiastic consumer response to the ribs was driven in part by a national ad campaign that Burger King unveiled in May, featuring a winged pig convincing customers that the BK ribs were not only real, but also delicious. “Retailers across the country have told us that they’ve sold a lot of pork ribs this year, and we think much of this can be attributed to Burger King’s promotion, including an aggressive national ad campaign on television,” said Sutton.
“We’re very, very excited with the success of Ribs. It’s a game changer,” said Kevin Anderson, Burger King Corporation’s Director of Core Product Innovation at the time of the LTO. Burger King’s customers wanted great quality food for a fair price, and the BK Ribs offered that. “[It’s] a product you can’t really get in QSR, a product that’s a great value, that’s more of a casual dining kind of menu item.”
The popularity and success of Burger King’s Fire-Grilled Ribs has thrown open the door for others in the foodservice industry to menu fresh pork. Sutton adds, “We anticipate other operators trying to do something similar in the future and we encourage them to reach out to the National Pork Board to assist with the process.”