Behind the Grill with Jose Garces

The Mercat a la Planxa executive chef gives us a chef’s-eye-view of his Chicago kitchen

Arroz a la Cazuela is an elegant take on a Catalonian theme, which Garces dresses up with aioli on toast for his Chicago crowd. Photos by Sheila Barabad.

After a long day of hunger-inducing travel, scouring Barcelona for inspiration, Jose Garces wanted a meal with substance. He found the muse he had been searching for at an everyday café. “Every Latin culture has its own version of a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs rice dish,” he says. “This dish was everything I wanted, all in one.”

Garces says the creative aspect of owning restaurants is his “bread and butter,” but he’s learned to be an entrepreneur along the way.

Arroz a la Cazuela is Garces’s riff on the chorizo-shrimp-rabbit-and-artichoke Spanish concoction and one of the featured recipes in his cookbook, The Latin Road Home. As the title suggests, the recipes inside are like a culinary travelogue of the places the restaurateur has visited in search of his next gastronomic masterpiece. With every dish, Garces injects an influence that has been marinating in his mind since he was young man cooking alongside his grandmother, the namesake of his restaurant Mamita Amada. In her kitchen, he learned an appreciation for the cross section of cultures that contribute to the Ecuadorean palate.

After attending culinary school at Chicago’s Kendall College, Garces spent time working and learning in Spain. While he appreciated the tutelage, “deep down I always knew I wanted to be free to create my own vibe and experiences for guests,” he says. He opened his first restaurant in Philadelphia in 2005 and started serving up Catalonian cuisine on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in 2008 at critically acclaimed Mercat a la Planxa.

Hispanic Executive spent the afternoon with Chef Garces. We were fascinated to observe him in his element as he shifted seamlessly from chef to chief, putting as much attention to detail into his preparation of Arroz a la Cazuela as kitchen coaching just before the lunch rush.