How Jose Garces is Uplifting Underrepresented Chefs
The Beard Award winner is lending his kitchen to seven rising starsSarah Maiellano
November 19, 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the restaurant industry, permanently shuttering 17 -percent of restaurants nationwide, and revealing inequities and vulnerabilities baked into the foundations of these businesses. But there is hope on the horizon, as vaccines roll out and more food professionals are immunized. At the James Beard Foundation, we’re looking forward with optimism, while also striving to provide resources and tools to help the industry recover and rebuild with equity and sustainability at its heart.
Below, Sarah Maiellano spoke with JBF Award winner Jose Garces on how his new residency program is built on lifting minority voices.
Jose Garces has had an illustrious career in the restaurant industry. He has appeared on the hit Food Network show “Iron Chef”, won a James Beard Award, and previously led an 800-person operation with restaurants in multiple cities. But following a highly public bankruptcy in 2018, this Philadelphia chef is getting back to basics. “Smaller, leaner, more focused,” is how Garces describes his current path.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he was able to keep his restaurants running, including his flagship tapas spot Amada, while also launching two delivery-only “ghost kitchens” and a hip pizza-seafood-tiki joint. But at this point in the celebrity chef’s career, he’s focused on more than just rebuilding his business. Garces is working to craft a legacy that does more than just leave the door open—he’s handing others the keys.
In September, Garces announced that his fine-dining destination inside the Kimmel Center, Volvér, would host seven chefs from underrepresented communities for the Chefs in Residence program. Garces and his colleagues chose chefs from the Asian, Latinx, and trans communities for six-to-eight-week residencies.
“This has been in the works for many years, but COVID-19 really brought it to life,” Garces says. “For a while, I was thinking of inviting national chef friends, but then I started thinking about it on a local scale and about how we can shine a spotlight on some of the talent in Philadelphia. That was the guiding light for us.”
The inaugural program’s seven chefs include Kiki Aranita of Poi Dog Philly, Phila Lorn of Terrain Glen Mills, Jezabel Careaga of Jezabel's Cafe, Jennifer Zavala of the forthcoming Juana Tamale, Alex Yoon of Little Fish, and Dane DeMarco of Sonny's Cocktail Bar and Wine Dive. The series started this fall and will run through summer 2022.
“It’s a great opportunity,” says Yoon, who owns a petite seafood BYOB. The Korean-American restaurateur will be a chef-in-residence during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May 2022.
Each guest chef is hoping the residency brings them visibility for their cooking, their restaurant, and/or upcoming projects. Trans chef Dane DeMarco plans to open Hank’s Sandwich Co. in 2022. Describing themself as a “sandwich connoisseur and advocate for sandwich artistry,” the chef hopes to bring international sandwich flavors and styles to main street.
But more than exposure, the residency offers financial support. In partnership with the Garces Foundation, diners can add a donation to their checks. One hundred percent of those contributions will go to the chefs, plus a match of up to $5,000 per chef from the foundation. The chefs in the program have pledged to use these funds to support nonprofits and their communities, as well as boost their future business endeavors.
The program’s first chef, Kiki Aranita, is raising money to support her new line of sauces. When her celebrated Hawaiian restaurant closed early on in the pandemic, Aranita continued sharing her flavors with the world in the form of bottled Maui Lavender Ponzu, Chili Peppah Water, and Guava Katsu sauces. Her fans love the products, but “each production run is $4,000 to $5,000,” Aranita explains. Having cash up front “will speed things up a lot.”
Guest chefs will provide roughly eight dishes each that reflect “accurate representations of their cuisine, style, what they want to showcase,” says Garces. To complement each chef’s creations, Garces and his team will add eight dishes of their own. “I expect my side to evolve to reflect some of the other chefs,” he adds. “I might look at Phila’s Cambodian cuisine and try to riff off of that and he might do the same.”
For Jezabel Careaga, whose namesake cafe specializes in Northwest Argentinian fare, the residency offers a chance to show off her careful ingredient sourcing to bring the “flavors of home” to Philadelphia. Careaga’s signature empanadas, for example, are filled with beef from Happy Valley Meats, a network of small-scale, ethical family farmers in Pennsylvania. Her Volvér menu will feature cumin and pimentón sourced from Argentina in a traditional “locro” or squash stew.
With its location in a performing arts venue, Volvér sat dark from the beginning of the pandemic through fall 2021. But with vaccination cards and masks in-hand, the crowds are starting to return to the theater, and to Garces’ glass-enclosed, 80-seat restaurant.
“He’s giving us a chance to get exposure to the theater crowd, which can do a lot,” Yoon says. “I hope people can see that yes, Jose might have had some issues before, but he’s still trying to help other people, which is amazing.”
“Growing up as an Ecuadorian-American...we have a tougher hill to climb,” Garces says, adding that access to capital can be more challenging for people of color. “If I can impart some knowledge on our chefs in residence…and [some] mentoring, that just feels really good.
Sarah Maiellano is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can find more of her work at sarahmaiellano.com and follow her on Instagram at @sarahmaiellano.