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. 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. “I’m a huge Bears and Cubs fan,” says Garces. “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. He also injects the menu with luxury ingredients like truffle oil and grilled prime beef. 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. Italian beef and fast food in general is such a Chicago staple. 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. I tend to feel like it’s almost poached. 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. 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. 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. I think it’ll be more Southeast Asian and Latin American and Caribbean. There’s a lot of crossover in cilantro, green chilies and certain rices. 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. How does theory differ from reality?
A. Reality is a lot different. Reality is not only being a chef, but being a business owner responsible for employees and customer service. 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. It must be ordered 48 hours in advance. Delicious.
Mercat a la Planxa; 638 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago (312) 765-024