Fresh start: Jose Garces nearly lost his restaurant empire. How the threat of failure re-ignited his passion for the kitchen

I saw two sides of Jose Garces over the course of preparing for this story.

I saw two sides of Jose Garces over the course of preparing for this story.

The side that needed to provide honest answers at where his restaurant empire stands today, the side that needed to dispel rumors of his business savvy being not up to par, or as one writer who chose to remain anonymous described him as the “Donald Trump of the restaurant industry.”

See right around this time last year, shit was really starting to hit the fan for the celebrity chef whose whirlwind rise as an Iron Chef and James Beard award winner resulted in a string ribbon-cuttings for new restaurants in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Chicago in less than a decade. By the end of last year, Garces was being called out, accused of running a “Ponzi-scheme,” his restaurant group allegedly cheating suppliers and investors out of close to tens of millions, forcing him to sell off three restaurants along with some other  personal assets to remain even-keel.

That side emerged from the ballroom at Olde Bar, one of Garces’ 13 remaining restaurants dressed the part of a restaurateur – an expensive button-down and Patagonia puffer vest and his classic bespectacled square-framed eyeglasses.

This iteration of Garces bit the bullet, called no one out by name (not even on background, when asked) and took all the claims against him from pissed-off providers of his rapid fame on the shoulder.

“At the end of the day, I stand fully accountable for where we’ve landed,” said Garces sinking into the big black, leather chairs in the foyer of his Old City establishment. “Our business model is complicated. I think public facing it’s a little tough to understand some of the business decisions that are being made and I think to get into that [today], we’d have to have a much longer lunch and I could really break it down. But what I will say is we had a couple of events that took place that were really tough as a business, losing all that we lost with the close of [the] Revel [Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City]. When that closed we lost four restaurants through no fault of our own. I’m not making excuses, but I think public-facing there was a lot of impact to that. We’ve certainly learned from our past and know that we need to be more strategic.”

I was there to try the quasi-new menu at Olde Bar, the seafood-inspired establishment now with a New Orleans-inspired twist. Inspiration for the new menu came from trips to Louisiana to meet with the group that would ultimately become Garces’ new business partners in Ballard Brands, an award-winning culinary operations team that Garces sought to help pick him up by his proverbial bootstraps when everything around him, his executive teams and his restaurants were crumbling.

“To be here in 2019 and to still be a big part of what I built and to have these great new partners from Louisiana [in Ballard], that’s all inspiring,” said Garces. “[Ballard] has essentially said, ‘we believe in you, we love your brand, we love what you do, so go do what you do.’ [From that aspect] it’s really made heading into 2019 feel really good. I think we are going to do great things together and what’s in the past is in the past.”

It’s not quite in the past as there are still lawsuits pending against his empire, but Garces straightened his glasses and affirmed: “I think for the most part things are all being settled and we’re really looking forward at this point.”

I’m no foodie, and I’ve been to a Garces restaurant before, I didn’t need to be convinced that the food was good. On this day, the shrimp po’boy and its reduction inspired by a Garces family secret is on the table and yeah, it was damn good. No surprise there. In fact there’s never been a surprise in Jose’s chops in the kitchen and his ability to inspire other up-and-coming chefs. It’s what got him to this point and where in 2019 he plans to return, leaving the restaurant portion in what he calls “extremely capable hands,” in the Ballard team.

The second time I met Jose Garces the first thing I was met with was a smile.

The setting was the kitchen at Volver, the test kitchen for much of what’s created across Garces’ slimmed down empire. Dressed in an Amada chef’s jacket, the Spanish-inspired Philly staple that started all this, Garces and his executive vice president of culinary operations, Gregg Ciprioni pull out the biggest prawn I’ve ever seen and start talking about the glaze the duo plan to lay across it.

“Amazing, right?” joked Ciprioni as he looks at my jaw on the floor and this shrimp on steroids.

Garces looks off points down to the sizable shrimp and says, “This has always been my bread and butter. This is where my passion for this business has always come from, it’s always really been about the food.”

A return to his creative roots means more time to cook up new dishes in the kitchen. Olde Bar and Volver have already received a revamp, switching the latter to also offering an a la carte in addition to its traditional tasting menu, and plans are in the works to unveil a new menu at his Rittenhouse eatery, Tinto alongside a “grassroots rollout of new fare at Amada over the course of the year.

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“We lost four restaurants through no fault of our own. I’m not making excuses, but I think public-facing there was a lot of impact to that. [But] at the end of the day, I stand fully accountable for where we’ve landed.”

– Celebrity chef and restaurateur Jose Garces

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“Recently revamping all of Volver’s menu was really special,” said Garces. “It’s an iconic jewel box restaurant and a place where I can express my creativity without any concept barriers. Before it was just a tasting menu only and now it’s an a la carte menu in addition to a tasting menu. That takes the handcuffs off our guests and allows them to just come in and try a few dishes. Likewise, there’s a lot of development going on at Tinto and Amada, where we’re really looking to revamp the format and content at Tinto. We’ve created at least 20 new dishes for Tinto and Amada, so there’s sizable change coming to both establishments.”

It’s a unique time to be a chef, turned restaurateur, turned chef in Philadelphia. The food landscape now, is just different. There are other famous celebrity chefs here from television shows and James Beard award-winners that boast restaurants here too, that make Garces, who started his beginnings in 2005 a the O.G. on the block. The man who used to work for Steven Starr, arguably Philadelphia’s biggest and most prominent restaurateur – who also proved Starr wrong with the sensation that was Amada – says that innovation is the only way to ensure his chains don’t become relics. 

“Yeah, the restaurant scene has evolved a great deal since I started, but I think that’s exciting for us [as a group here at Garces],” Garces said. “It has evolved and grown so much that staying relevant and constantly looking to innovate is something that has always been a trait I and this team takes a lot of pride in. I’ve been doing this for over 25 years, so being turned on, being in tune with what’s happening in the scene is crucial to what we do.”

His beginnings started out as a classically trained chef in French cuisine at a time where Garces didn’t know if cooking was even something he wanted to pursue as a lifelong career. What he did know was that it was lucrative and that if he was good at it and could link up with the right team, there was a chance to make some serious dough in the business (pun intended).

But he wasn’t going to get there being all Type A in the kitchen.

“When I was in cooking school, it was kind of a means to an end,” said Garces. “I was like, ‘yeah, I want to be a chef, but I’m not sure,’ you know? I just wanted to be exposed to the industry and opportunity, but I didn’t realize I had a creative passion for cooking…I was French-classically trained but all of a sudden I’m looking at the ingredients and the ideas just started to turn on. I was like ‘I bet I can do a twist on all of these dishes,’ and I did. My start and where I am today really all arrived kind of fortuitously.”

With fortune amassed and fame relative, Garces tells me moving forward it’s going to be the bright fluorescent kitchen lighting that will serve as his kliegs. He tells me that his confidence comes from a strong team and nucleus of support that for the first time feels genuine.

“With the role I’m in now, with not having to focus so much on the back office business end, I’ve been able to focus on the food and hospitality, and that’s where I need to be,” said Garces. “Over the past 2-3 years, I’d say being in the back office was more of a focus, and it was a large focus. I had highly motivated teams in [my] restaurants that I relied on a lot as we grew, but the beauty of it now is that they are going to get more of me. I can’t wait to see what those results look like, and what it looks like for our guests in our restaurants.”

It’s a wait and see approach for many critics around town. I know because I asked many of them for comment, and in the aftermath of Garces’ fall, very few wanted to specify on record what the future for his empire holds. However, it’s been documented that he’s proved people wrong before, so until that happens, Jose Garces will continue to straighten his square-framed glasses towards a laser focus on what’s coming out of his kitchen.

For him at this stage in his career, that alone serves as a full plate.

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