Jose Garces has been busy. He added two new restaurants, Tinto and Distrito, to his acclaimed signature restaurant, Amada, in Philadelphia, and another, Mercat a la Planxa, in his hometown of Chicago. He beat out Bobby Flay in an August episode of Iron Chef America, and his cookbook, Latin Evolution, came off press in September 2008. Often hailed as a leader in creating modern interpretations of Latin food, Garces is as comfortable with a humble chicken taco, freshly prepared, as he is with a 24-course tasting menu.
The Herb Companion: Your parents are from Ecuador and you were raised in Chicago, a favorite city of foodies. How have these influences shaped your palate and professional career?
Jose Garces: Growing up in an Ecuadorian household was a formative influence on my palate, because I was eating Latin foods for so many years. Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods broadened my horizons, especially with Mexican food. There are taquerías on every corner in Chicago.
HC: You’ve said that your first love is Latin cuisine, with a focus on authenticity. How does this love translate for ingredients and preparations?
JG: Sometimes it doesn’t translate, but for the most part, methods and techniques are something I aspire to keep whole. Ingredients are better when they are local and fresh. For example, I’d love to find a farmer in Lancaster who grows fresh huitlacoche (a fungal growth on corn, sometimes called “Mexican truffle”). Sometimes it’s better to substitute a fresh local product than to import an “authentic” product.
HC: Do you have a personal garden? If so, what do you grow?
JG: I always have an herb garden. I just moved into a new home in April, and I plan on having another herb garden next spring, which will certainly include basil, rosemary, thyme and mint.
HC: Tell us about the role herbs play in your cooking.
JG: Herbs are essential for brightening flavors as well as providing distinct flavor profiles. I often use fresh tarragon with seafood, incorporating it into cream sauces at the very end of the cooking process. I also use it for crab fillings. Sage is perfect for the fall season, and I typically use it with fall root vegetables, especially from the squash family. I like to use both Thai basil and huacatay (a flavorful, aromatic Peruvian cousin of the marigold, also known as black mint) in ceviches and salads.
HC: What’s your favorite herb? Can you describe a dish that is transformed by the addition of a single herb?
JG: Cilantro. I make a coconut lobster chowder with fresh cilantro, and the flavor of the cilantro ties all of the other flavors together just beautifully.
HC: With herbs, is fresh always better?
JG: Not always—sometimes a dried herb can add depth and an underlying flavor. An example would be using dried oregano in black bean soup.
HC: What trends will influence the way we eat in the future?
JG: Hopefully vegetarianism, eating locally, and being mindful of our resources will shape how we eat in the future.
HC: Can you tell us about your most memorable meal?
JG: Most recently at Alinea in Chicago, I had a 24-course tasting menu and the meal lasted three-and-a-half hours. The meal was very whimsical and creative. In this age of molecular gastronomy, they really pull it off the best. The creations don’t take away from the integrity of the ingredients, and you still feel like you’re getting real food. Achieving those two things takes real talent.
HC: Which meal do you love to prepare for friends and family?
JG: I love making tacos of any nature, really—chicken, shrimp or sirloin. I set up a buffet with all of the fixings: avocado, grated queso fresco, refried beans, fresh salsa, and a choice of flour or corn tortillas. I also make a veggie stew with sweet peppers and cremini mushrooms for veggie tacos. It’s always been a huge hit, and it’s what I like to eat.
Linda Shockley, based in New York City, takes delight in the option of dining at a top chef’s signature restaurant or sampling the eats at a Hell’s Kitchen street fair.