The Untold Truth Of Iron Chef Jose Garces

Have you ever heard of chef Jose Garces? If you've ever watched the Food Network show "Iron Chef America," you probably have. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philly-based chef won the Food Network series "The Next Iron Chef" back in 2009, making him one of only eight chefs in the United States to become an Iron Chef (via Food Network). Since 2010, Garces has appeared regularly on the cooking competition, besting fellow chefs including Carolynn Spence and Jamie Bissonnette.

Known for the Latin flair he brings to menus at his Philadelphia restaurants including Volvér, Amada, Buena Onda, and Distrito (via Garces Group), Garces was born to Ecuadorian immigrant parents and grew up in Chicago (via Food Network). There, he graduated from the Kendall College School of Culinary Arts before going on to work in restaurants in New York City. The chef then relocated to Philadelphia, where today he bounces between his many restaurants and where he lives with his wife and two children (via Food Network). Let's learn more about this impressive chef.

Learning to cook in Chicago

Growing up in Chicago, Illinois alongside two brothers, chef Jose Garces learned to love cooking — but was initially hesitant to embrace the Ecuadorian heritage of his two parents, he told ABC News in 2010. "I think that struggle eventually led to who I am as a chef," Garces said, "because eventually I went back to becoming really a Latin chef, and someone who embraced our culture and really looked to bring it to the forefront."

As a child, Garces learned to cook at the side of his mother, whom he said was a talent in the kitchen. "My mom was just a fabulous cook, so she cooked four or five nights a week," the chef told ABC News. "And usually I'd be the one next to her, helping her, whether it was making a cake, making a ceviche, making empanadas. I loved it."

Garces also learned a thing or two from his father, who loved to grill. "He used to do an Ecuadorian specialty, basically like tripe on the grill, which you don't see that much," Garces recalled to ABC News. "When you cook tripe on the grill, all the fat kind of sizzles off and eventually you get this really crispy, kind of fatty deliciousness that's really tasty."

On to culinary school -- and beyond

Philadelphia restaurateur and Iron Chef Jose Garces grew up cooking beside his mother and father, eventually deciding to pursue a formal culinary education after two years of business courses at a Chicago community college failed to capture his imagination. "I went to culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago," Garces told ABC News. "And the light switched on and I was like, 'Whoa, there are a ton of opportunities here and this could be a lot of fun.' That was pretty much it."

After graduating from Kendall, Garces decided to try his luck in a bigger city, moving to New York to start his culinary career. One of his first cooking jobs, he told ABC News, was working the line at Rockefeller Plaza's the Rainbow Room, where his initiation into the cooking world was... sweaty.

"I remember having to change my clothes after two hours of being on the line because I had sweat them all the way through," he told ABC News. "So that was eye-opening. I was like, 'Wow, I am going to be doing this for how long?" Garces told ABC News that he kept pushing his way up the culinary ladder, eventually opening his first restaurant, Amada, in Philadelphia in 2005.

Garces' first restaurant: Philadelphia's Amada

For his first restaurant, Amada, which he opened in Philadelphia in 2005, chef Jose Garces decided to focus on classic Spanish food, with a special emphasis on tapas (via Amada Restaurant). Menu items include bites such as aged Manchego cheese with truffled lavender honey; Serrano ham with cornichons and mustard; lamb meatballs, and a quintessential Spanish tortilla with eggs and potatoes (via Amada Restaurant). The eatery also serves larger plates, such as grilled red snapper, roast pork with white beans, and a Valencian paella (via Amada Restaurant).

As Garces told ABC News, his success at Amada — not only in the kitchen but on the business end of things — proved to him that he had chosen the right career. "I knew that I was good at this when I opened Amada," he said. "To be in this business long-term, you got to have a good amount of creativity and have a good personal business acumen. So when I knew that we could succeed on a business level, I knew that we'd be good for a while."

Garces went on to open a variety of restaurants in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New York, including fish taco joint Buena Onda; contemporary American spot J.G. Domestic; and burger counter Village Whiskey (via Garces Group).

More fame comes with a "The Next Iron Chef" win

After steadily gaining acclaim for his Philadelphia restaurant mini-empire, chef Jose Garces achieved a new level of fame in 2009, when he competed on the Food Network series "Next Iron Chef" (via The Philadelphia Inquirer). As the name implies, "The Next Iron Chef" is a culinary competition that pits well-known American chefs against each other in culinary battles to determine the winner, who will become an Iron Chef and be able to compete on "Iron Chef America" (via Food Network).

In his winning episode, Garces competed against New York chef Jehangir Metha, who at the time ran Graffiti in the East Village (via The Philadelphia Inquirer). Squaring off in a ribs and racks battle, Garces prepared a multi-course menu including beef short rib pizza with balsamic marmalade and baby back ribs with spicy barbecue sauce, which netted him the important win (via Game Show News Net). In an "icing on the cake" type of moment, in the same year, Garces was also recognized by the James Beard Foundation, winning Best Chef in America (via James Beard).

The ups and downs of being a professional chef

As many professional chefs have experienced firsthand, their career of choice can be anything but stable. Among chef Jose Garces' many ups, there have been some downs, as well. In 2017 and 2018, the Philadelphia chef was hit with a string of lawsuits, as early investors in his restaurants claimed defaults on the returns they were owed (via The Philadelphia Inquirer). In the most serious of the suits, investors in Amada, Garces' first restaurant, claimed the chef eventually ended cash distributions of repayment towards their $2.5 million investment. Garce's "wrongful actions," the suit claimed, constituted "a massive, self-interested and continuing fraud -– in substance and operation a Ponzi scheme – at the expense of his investors." A New Jersey judge eventually ruled in Garces' favor in that case (via PhillyVoice).

These days, Garces is back on up and up, focusing on reopening restaurants that had shuttered during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Philly's Volvér (via Philadelphia Business Journal) and a takeout-only D.C.-area branch of his Baja taqueria Buena Onda (via Washingtonian). If we've learned anything from Garces' past, we can expect to see him open more and more spots over the coming years.