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January 6, 2014

Chef Talk: Philadelphia’s Iron Chef Jose Garces Dishes On Favorite Restaurants, Best Markets, Secret Finds And More

Chef Jose Garces operates seven Philadelphia restaurants and counting, and attributes the creativity of the scene to this city's dining public. (Photo by Jason Varney for Garces Group)

[Philadelphia’s charms as an eating town are increasingly well known, but it’s also a city that harbors a fair number of hidden delights. Visit Philly asked five local food luminaries to share where they like to go on their off-hours, what they snack on late at night, their favorite low-cost meals and why they love to cook and dine in Philly. Here, we share the results.]

Jose Garces is a certified Iron Chef who’s electrified Philly’s dining scene with his innovative cooking, and is also one of its culinary leaders.

After having trained in Spain and New York, he came to Philadelphia in 2001 to work in the kitchen of Stephen Starr’s El Vez. It wasn’t long before he opened his first restaurant, Amada, and in rapid succession a host of others under his Garces Group umbrella, including Tinto, Distrito, Village Whiskey, Garces Trading Company, J.G. Domestic and Rosa Blanca, with Volver in the Kimmel Center on the way in 2014.

Though he’s gone on to open restaurants in other cities, he continues to call Philadelphia home.

What draws you to Philadelphia, and how would you characterize this city’s eaters?
The city’s eaters are actually a big part of what draws me to Philadelphia: They’re passionate about food, fiercely proud of their city and always eager to try something new. They’re also candid and honest, which makes this a great place to grow as a chef. I think the dining public here is a major factor in the current level of creativity in our dining scene; having a variety of talented, ambitious chefs engaged in friendly competition drives all of us to do better, and diners get to enjoy the results.

Where do you like to shop for food?
Reading Terminal Market is great for fresh, local, seasonal goodies. I love discovering what local producers have to offer. In the Italian Market, I hit up Esposito’s Meats for their amazing selection and Variedades Veracruzana for specialty Mexican and Latin American items that are essential for so many of my dishes.

Where’s the best place to eat on the cheap?

It’s no secret that I’m a lover of Philly’s lively Chinatown neighborhood for cheap, hearty eats—especially after a long night in the kitchen—and lately, I can’t get enough of the superior soup dumplings and succulent marinated pork at Dim Sum Garden. Recently, they moved into a new, larger space, but their authentic Shanghai-style food remains some of the best in the city and a personal favorite of mine.

What restaurant offers the ultimate Philly experience?
One visit to Franklin Fountain, Old City’s gorgeous ode to ice cream shops of yore, and you’ll have a hard time staying away. This loving period piece transports you and your sweet tooth back to the turn of the century with authentic, hand-churned ice creams, old-fashioned soda fountain treats and even mustachioed counter help from the owners themselves. It’s a love letter to the past and very much a part of Philadelphia’s present—their seasonal sundaes and shakes, like the Caramel Apple Pie Milkshake, always manage to blow me away.

Why is Philadelphia a good city for chefs to live and work?
Beyond the amazing dining audience here, Philadelphia is also surrounded by some of the nation’s oldest farmland, where family growers have been raising produce and meat for generations. We’re close enough to the Atlantic to take advantage of coastal seafood and shellfish, and our devoted local food scene includes not just ambitious and creative chefs, but also boasts a wealth of talent at every step on the food chain, from farmers and importers to wait staff and bartenders. This is a city that loves good food, and there’s nothing more exciting, energizing and satisfying than cooking for an enthusiastic crowd.

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