Chef Jose Garces shares what Hispanic Heritage month means to him
Hispanic Heritage month spans Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, but for Latinos of all nationalities, every day is a reason to celebrate culture. Jose Garces is an Ecuadorian American chef, restaurateur, cookbook author and Iron Chef. Born in to Chicago to Ecuadorian parents, food and heritage played a vital role in his upbringing and is something that the chef instills in his own children.
“Hispanic Heritage month is important to me for many reasons. For one, because it’s an opportunity to teach my children to be proud of their heritage, to get to know our family tree and to talk about our history,” said Garces of the many lessons he is passing on to his family. “From celebrating my parents’ native Ecuador to sharing with them my favorite foods and music that I grew up with, it’s a wonderful way to be proud of your culture.”
The James Beard award-winner has several successful restaurants dotted around the country, including eateries in New York, Atlantic City, Washington D.C., and his home base in Philadelphia. Each one is a nod to his Latin roots and ensures that the best part of any culinary experience is who you share it with.
“In my house, regardless of the month, Sunday nights are a time for gathering everyone around the table for a family meal,” he said. “It’s the perfect opportunity to check in with everyone, tell stories, and share laughs.”
To Garces, being Hispanic means so many things, especially when it came to inspiring his career.
“From the very beginning…learning culinary traditions from my grandmother to opening restaurants that reflect the wildly diverse Latin flavors that span the globe, it’s impossible to sum up in just a few words, but it is ingrained in my identity and continues to be a source of inspiration for me,” he said on how his heritage has shaped who he is today.
Like any chef, it’s hard to have a favorite dish. So many creations fly in and out of the kitchen and even the most simple homecooked meals could occupy dozens of pages in a book. So how does a chef pick a special dish for this culturally significant month? For Garces, the selection is his grandmother Mamita Amada’s empanadas.
“I learned to make empanadas from my grandmother. I have fond memories of being a kid in her kitchen and watching her peel and boil green plantains, knead the rice into a starchy dough, roll into small rounds, dollop with queso de Chone, form into half-moons and then deep fry until they’re crisp and golden brown,” he recalled of his childhood. “For special occasions and family gatherings, empanadas are always on the table.”
Garces shares Mamita Amada’s recipe for empanadas from his cookbook The Latin Road Home, but if you find yourself in the area and want to pop in for your own, a version of the dish is served at both Amada locations in New York and Philadelphia and New York.
Driven by the traditional values of his upbringing and inspired by the nuances of cuisine today, Garces also noted one dish that will never go out of style: tamales.
“One of my favorite Latin dishes are tamales, also know as pasteles in Puerto Rico and humitas in Ecuador, which are a staple in our home during the holiday season,” he said of the masa based dish. “When I was growing up in Chicago, even the fast-food version of these was a comfort food I couldn’t resist.”