this Iron Chef scores with fresh culinary success in Atlantic City
by Laura D.C. Kolnoski
Iron Chef-owned restaurants attract visitors to Atlantic City for their stylish design as much as their elevated cuisine (think Bobby Flay, Michael Symon, and Wolfgang Puck). Now, making his second appearance on the casino dining scene, The Next Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner Jose Garces has surpassed them all this year with not one but three restaurants, plus a fun fourth feature— a colorful candy store.
This new complex of eating options is on the main casino floor at the Tropicana Atlantic City, where his Garces Group took over a space that had been occupied by the seafood restaurant Fin, and transformed it into a visual and culinary dining duo. In the dining room of the first, named Olón, tables
facing windows offering ocean views are ringed by gauzy white curtains that create a tropical feel, with a touch of Latin flair.
The experience begins at the spacious Bar Olón, where inverted conga-drum lights suspended from the ceiling and a wall of vintage rotary fans set the mood. Comfy gold seating, a satisfying Happy Hour, and an enticing bar menu are main attractions.
“The space at Tropicana allowed us to create completely new restaurant concepts and experiences,” Garces told Industry.
“Olón is inspired by a tranquil beach town of the same name in Ecuador, which I frequented as a child, with its seaside ceviche carts and fresh seafood. It gives guests a laid-back experience centered around freshness and ocean views.”
In a hallway behind Bar Olón, an unassuming doorway leads to the other Garces restaurant in the casino—Okatshe, which the chef described as “a playful take on a traditional Japanese izakaya [a type of informal gastropub].” Guests enter through a small Japanese candy storefront, which, the chef said, “was inspired by my visits to Japan during Iron Chef and with my family.” If the lines we witnessed during three visits are any indication, the store is among Atlantic City’s most popular destinations. (All the Garces spots are open daily.)
“My personal favorites at Olón include the Empanadas de Viento, the beef anticuchos [similar to a shish kebab, and which originated in the Andes during the pre-Columbian era], and the fried whole fish,” Garces said. “At Okatshe, highlights are the pork belly yakitori, the bao buns, and the sushi and maki.”
Garces’s Tropicana experiences represent something of a resurrection. His three restaurants at the shuttered Revel— Amada, Distrito Cantina, and Village Whiskey—were among the city’s most popular. Rumors about a Revel reopening have yet to pan out, but its interior, including Garces’s venues, is reportedly still largely intact.
“Guests are thrilled to have us back,” he said. “Our Revel restaurants were very successful. When they closed, it allowed us to take a step back, to figure out who we are as a group and where we want to go. In terms of returning, if the opportunity presented itself, we would absolutely explore it. We love the area.” At the Tropicana, Maria Schmidt, a nine-year Garces veteran, is chef de cuisine. Patrick Sterr, a longtime Garces manager, is executive director of fine dining. Both were with Garces at Revel.
Born to Ecuadorian parents and raised in Chicago, the Philadelphia-based chef and owner of 15 restaurants nationwide arrived in Philly “by way of New York and Spain after graduating from Kendall College’s School of Culinary Arts in Chicago.” One of only eight American kitchen gurus to hold the Iron Chef title, he has written two cookbooks published by Lake Isle Press: Latin Evolution (2008) focuses on the history, flavors, and cooking styles of Spain, Mexico, and South America, while The Latin Road Home (2012) is a culinary and cultural tour of Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and Peru.
Garces’s culinary passion was influenced and cultivated by his grandmother, Mamita Amada, namesake of the first restaurant he opened in Philadelphia in 2005.
“The sense of community that comes from cooking and eating together really drove that passion,” Garces said. His other mentor was Executive Chef Douglas Rodriguez of Alma de Cuba, a Stephen Starr restaurant, also in Philly. “Chef Rodriguez brought me aboard to help launch Alma de Cuba and to run the place as chef de cuisine. I watched Stephen Starr’s ability to grow from two to 13 restaurants and was able to soak up some business knowledge.”
The Next Level
Garces’s comprehensive, educational approach to food and the national exposure it received caught the attention of the producers of The Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef, who approached him in 2007 about competing on the first season.
“I didn’t make the cut that time around,” he related. “They reached out again, and I was the challenger against Bobby Flay in “Battle Melon” in 2008. My success in winning that contest caught the producers’ attention again, and in 2009, I was a contestant and then the eventual winner of the second season of The Next Iron Chef.”
Despite the intensity of creating and executing flawlessly on the show, Garces said, “The most difficult part was being sequestered from my family, friends, and loved ones during taping. The pressure and stress of competing day in and day out without my usual network of support was a real challenge.”
The Garces Restaurant Group oversees the chef ’s various restaurants in Chicago, Scottsdale, Palm Springs, on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Escape, and in Manhattan, where he opened his Ortzi location inside the LUMA Hotel Times Square in April. “Ortzi is doing very well,” Garces said. “Chef de Cuisine Michael Han is leading the charge there, and we’re turning out a great selection of Basque-inspired dishes.”
The restaurant group employs about 1,000, including some who had worked at other Atlantic City establishments. Kansas City will see the next restaurant, said Garces, adding that there are “quite a few projects in the pipeline.”
Garces is also working at the Bucks County Playhouse complex on the Delaware River in New Hope, Pennsylvania, where a theater expansion and riverfront revitalization is underway. At the new Playhouse Inn, guests will enjoy the Iron Chef ’s cuisine.
“We are really excited for this project,” Garces said. “We are still in the development stage and can’t share too many details, but the space will have a restaurant and event space overlooking the river.”
Down on the Farm
The Bucks County location is perfect for Garces, who owns nearby Luna Farm. The 40-acre site has provided produce for his restaurants for some time, though it is currently undergoing two fallow seasons to help restore the soil, which should enhance the healthy food the chef advocates.
“We recently planted a perennial crop of five varieties of blueberries, which should be available starting in 2019,” he said. “We have a farmer on the property, and our hope is that we will soon be planting specialty crops specifically for the restaurants.”
The farm also supports the nonprofit Garces Foundation, which launched in 2012 and serves youth and immigrant communities in Philadelphia through health and educational services, including English classes. While discussing its efforts,
the chef pointed out that the restaurant industry is a major employer of Latinos.
“In 2016 alone, our programs served over 350 people through our quarterly Community Health Days and English for the Restaurant and Everyday Living programs,” he explained. “Immigrant communities make cities more vital and dynamic, and need support now more than ever.”
Besides the Garces Foundation, the chef has created Garces Events and Catering, which designs and executes gatherings, from casual luncheons to dramatic weddings, and Managed Services, which offers expertise and consulting on restaurant concepts and culinary development and management guidance.
“Managed Services provides great growth opportunity for our group,” Garces noted. “We look for partners that exhibit the same passion within their own industry. For us, it’s about great food and service while being operationally efficient. Our mission is to make Latin the new standard of hospitality, a concept synonymous with personal, diverse, and heartfelt service.
“Over the past 10 years, my life and career have taken off in directions I could never have anticipated, and it’s been an amazing ride,” he continued. “Each new opportunity has brought a fresh set of challenges, and it has been exhilarating to overcome them and continue to evolve and grow as a chef, a hospitality professional, and a person.”
Still residing “happily” in Philadelphia with his wife and two children, Garces enjoyed his summer at the Jersey Shore, where he hosted special events and oversaw the burgeoning operations at the new Tropicana restaurants.
“I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Atlantic City, and we’re excited to be a part of the resurgence happening there,” he said.