A Chef’s All-American Thanksgiving
Conversation swirls through chef Jose Garces’s Philadelphia kitchen in three languages.
Jose Garces and daughter. © Petrina Tinslay
Jose’s daughter coos at her baby brother in Spanish. Friends chat in Croatian over glasses of cinnamon-spiced cranberry sangria. And Jose’s brother Chris scolds him in English—“Stay away from the gravy!”—worried that he will take more than his share, just like when they were kids.
This is Thanksgiving for the Garces family: There are chewy bits of chorizo in the stuffing and chipotle-spiced pecans on the marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes. Ever since Jose’s parents emigrated from Ecuador to Chicago in 1967 so his father could attend college, the family has eagerly celebrated Thanksgiving. “My mother looked to the holiday as a way of melding into the culture here,” says Jose, who was born six years after his parents arrived. His mother’s menus mixed American and Ecuadoran traditions: Turkey and mashed potatoes shared the table with empanadas and hominy salad. Jose prefers to incorporate Latin-American and Spanish ingredients into his recipes.
© Petrina Tinslay
Jose’s Thanksgiving menu reflects his background as well as the culinary focus of his restaurant empire. In addition to his Philadelphia properties—Spanish tapas bar Amada, Basque-centric Tinto and modern-Mexican Distrito—the 36-year-old chef opened the Catalan-focused Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago this past March. Last month he published his first cookbook, Latin Evolution, and a Latin-Asian restaurant in Philadelphia is in the works for 2009. And it all started in his mother’s kitchen.
Doing his homework at the kitchen table of their Chicago home, Jose would watch his mother, Magdalena—known by the endearment “Mamita”—cook his father’s favorite dishes. Eventually, she allowed Jose to measure ingredients for tamales and chop herbs. For Jose, who felt like an outsider in the largely Polish and Irish neighborhood, the kitchen was a refuge.
After culinary school at Chicago’s Kendall College, Jose followed a more traditional chef’s path, training in French techniques and taking jobs in New American restaurants like the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. “But I realized that the foods I truly craved were the ones my mother cooked,” he recalls, which led him to seek out a job with Nuevo Latino pioneer Douglas Rodriguez. In 2001, Jose opened Alma de Cuba and then El Vez with restaurateur Stephen Starr before setting out on his own with Amada in 2005.
Thanksgiving is Jose’s favorite holiday, and every year he closes all his restaurants for lunch the day before to celebrate with his employees. There’s deep-fried turkey for 150 and a potluck of side dishes that reflect the dozens of cultures in his kitchens.
Even as Jose finishes this meal, the next day’s bird is already marinating at home in a Yucatán-style rub of orange juice, chipotles and annatto paste, a mix of achiote seeds, oregano and other spices.
Dinner guests. © Petrina Tinslay
On Thanksgiving Day, Jose starts the meal with a chunky white-bean soup, scented with rosemary and thyme, that’s an adaptation of the Spanish caldo gallego he serves at Amada.
Jose won’t compete with his mother’s buttery mashed potatoes, so he reimagines them as a rich potato gratin layered with two of his favorite Spanish cheeses, smoky San Simón and nutty aged Manchego. But he always bakes her creamy vanilla-orange flan for dessert. He also pays tribute to his mother another way: After calling everyone to the dining room, he leads her to the head of the table. She protests, but he won’t hear it: “That’s where you belong, Mamita.”
April White, the food editor at Philadelphia magazine, co-authored chef Jose Garces’s cookbook, Latin Evolution.