Iron Chef Jose Garces on City Snacking and the Lost Art of Hospitality

by  Paul Eisenberg | Jun 5, 2012
Gourmet meal
Gourmet meal / triocean/iStock

Shortly after schooling me and a bunch of other drooling foodies last month about how to fix a proper pan of paella, Iron Chef Jose Garces sat down with me at Revel resort, where he’s operating three eateries – Amada, Village Whiskey, and Distrito Cantina.

When Garces isn't in Atlantic City or Kitchen Stadium he's often traveling between major cities to tend to his other restaurants, so we began our chat by touching on some quintessential city snacks.

Philadelphia is associated with cheese steak, but I feel like you can easily leave there and miss something else. What would that something else be?

If you’re in Philadelphia, the roast pork sandwich – there’s a place called John’s Roast Pork – in my opinion the pork supersedes the cheese steak. It has more flavor, it’s got broccoli rabe, sharp provolone. That’s pretty solid.

What about Chicago?

I was just there two weeks ago and was with my kids. I had [also] brought them there about a year ago, and they said they wanted to go back to the Weiner’s Circle. They wanted the char dog with all the fixings. That to me is a food memory they’ll carry with them their whole lives, and we went there and it was amazing.

Marc Forgione said that for him having a cart hot dog in New York is not just about the hot dog, it’s about the memory and the smells and whatever else is around you. For you in New York is there something like that?

A week ago I was in between meetings and on my way to Atlantic City so there was very little time to have a true New York restaurant experience, but I didn't want to leave town without having that experience, so I had a hot sausage with the slow cooked onions, sauerkraut, and mustard, and it was delicious. I had my normal heartburn that occurs about 15 minutes later, so that made it really connect with that New York experience – something delicious but in the end, it burns your heart a little bit.

As you travel around, is there something you find that hotels or restaurants do that makes you nuts that you think may be easily fixable?

I think hospitality in general is sometimes a lost art. Something that’s forgotten. As I've expanded to other markets – not only Chicago, Philadelphia, and Atlantic City, but now we’re also in Scottsdale and in Palm Springs – I’m trying to import our culture and how we view hospitality to a different marketplace and to different people. We've really worked hard at ingraining our level of service and hospitality [into our staff], so that anyone who has an experience in Atlantic City or Philadelphia is going to have a very similar experience [at one of our places] elsewhere, and there have been challenges to that.

What I've done to take [hospitality] a step further is deem one of our service managers as the ultimate host [telling him] all I want you to do is be a host. One of the things I teach our folks is, we want to treat our customers like they’re guests in our homes. And unfortunately that’s not always the case when you travel.

Do you suspect having this host in place will help avoid certain problems that befall other restaurants?

This is a new dynamic that I’m trying out. Having that person with that aura will hopefully rub off on [the rest of] the restaurant staff and I’m hopeful there’s a trickle-down effect.

What has travel done for you as a person and as a chef?

Travel is the key to my career and how I've been able to build it. I was born and raised in Chicago and lived there for 22 years. I was landlocked to this town. My parents really didn't travel that much – vacation was getting in the station wagon and going to the Indiana Dunes. And I felt like maybe I had been locked in for a long period of time. So having the opportunity to travel and further my education and career made all the sense in the world.

Travel has been an essential part of my growth as a chef, as a culinarian, as a person who can recognize that different cultures have different things to teach you. And that you can learn from just about everybody and every place, whether it has been traveling to Mexico City, Lima, Peru, many different cities in SpainBarcelona, San Sebastian, Madrid, Seville, or traveling to Tokyo for Next Iron Chef. A lot of these places have been a huge influence on me not just as a chef but as a person. It’s a great way to enrich yourself.

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