Chef Jose Garces of Mercat a la Planxa, a new tapas restaurant in the Blackstone Hotel, started his restaurant empire in Philadelphia, but his heart lies in Chicago. Â Growing up on the Northwest Side, he worked as a lifeguard at Foster Beach, tended the grill at an Italian beef stand and went to culinary school at Kendall College. Â “I’m a huge Bears and Cubs fan,” says Garces. Â “When I got on the plane to come here, I had this feeling of just going home after so many years.”
At Mercat, Garces redefines the tapas experience by celebrating international culinary influences, with dishes like Italian-style agnolotti with braised rabbit. Â He also injects the menu with luxury ingredients like truffle oil and grilled prime beef. Â But his most revolutionary move may be his devotion to authenticity, which includes serving deep-fried peppers, drizzled with a toasty roast almond and paprika-infused salbitxada sauce, and head-on briny shrimp that’s simply salted and grilled.
Q. Which reigns supreme, the Philly cheesesteak or Italian beef?
A. There’s really no comparison. Â Italian beef and fast food in general is such a Chicago staple. Â You know with Phillyites, I might get some crap about it, but I personally think the cheesesteak is overrated — strictly from a culinary perspective — the way they cook the meat. Â I tend to feel like it’s almost poached. Â They use good quality rib eye, but I’m not crazy about the consistency.
Q. What’s the best Chicago-related advice you’ve ever given or received?
A. Take advantage of all of the different ethnic neighborhoods and cuisines. Â There is great Mexican, Polish, German, etc.; don’t be afraid to explore neighborhoods and to seek out ethnic and authentic food.
Q. What would your last meal be?
A. My last meal would start out Ecuadorian-style: ceviche, arepas, humitas, empanadas — any of those, in no particular order. Â That would be followed by a 16-ounce, 28-day-aged prime rib with truffle whipped potatoes, creamed spinach and sauteed porcinis, accompanied by a Tempranillo: Bodegas Vega Sicilia, Valbuena, 2001.
Q. I read that you’re interested in opening a Latin Thai concept?
A. It’s been on the board for years. Â I think it’ll be more Southeast Asian and Latin American and Caribbean. Â There’s a lot of crossover in cilantro, green chilies and certain rices. Â It would be a collaboration with a really talented Asian chef.
Q. What do you eat or drink before and after a shift?
A. I have two double espressos before a shift, and a shot of absinthe after a shift.
Q. I heard you created a business model for a tapas restaurant as a class project at Kendall. Â How does theory differ from reality?
A. Reality is a lot different. Â Reality is not only being a chef, but being a business owner responsible for employees and customer service. Â Until you own your own business, you can’t begin to fathom how detail oriented it is.
Q. What’s the can’t-miss dish at Mercat?
A. Don’t miss the roast suckling pig. Â It must be ordered 48 hours in advance. Â Delicious.
Mercat a la Planxa; 638 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago (312) 765-024