December 1, 2012

Interview with Jose Garces: Journey along the Latin Road Home

Philadelphia restaurant icon Jose Garces recently published his second cookbook titled, The Latin Road Home: Savoring the Foods of Ecuador, Spain, Cuba, Mexico and Peru. The cookbook has received a lot of attention considering Chef Garces' national reputation.

His first book, Latin Evolution, is where I found the recipe for the orange habanero ceviche I used in my birthday dinner.

The Latin Road Home is meant to be not only a cookbook, but a journey of his life and how his family and heritage influenced his cooking. The stories of cooking alongside his grandmother and mother remind me how I came to find a joy for food experiences doing just the same.

We recently caught up with Jose Garces, who answered several questions about the Latin Road Home, some favorite recipes, Latin food culture and the Philadelphia food scene. See below for the interview.

If you are interested in learning more about the Latin Road Home or meeting Chef Garces, you’ll have an excellent opportunity to do so at a public book signing on Saturday, December 15 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. at Chifa. Complimentary bites from the Peruvian chapter of the cookbook and some new items from Chifa’s menu will also be served.

We just wrote about The Nana Test as way to look at Italian restaurants based on the cooking and events my Italian grandmother created. The Latin Road Home is a story of your own food journey. So, what are some tests you use to evaluate food or an atmosphere that recreates the experiences you enjoyed with your mother and grandmother cooking?

When I try to recreate a classic of a favorite recipe, I always begin with the best ingredients I can find, and then, rather than devoting myself letter for letter to a recipe, I try to capture the flavor or texture or other defining characteristic of a dish and somehow make it my own. So in general, I’m less focused on slavishly adhering to tradition than I am on finding new and fresh ways to bring beloved flavors and plates to life. 

Maybe I’m not the best person to ask about these kinds of dishes! Food is very emotional for me, very tied to memory. So it moves me less whether a dish is ‘authentic’ than it does whether the dish evokes the same memories and feelings in me that it did the first time I experienced it. That’s a tough thing to quantify, but you know it the minute you taste it.

If you were to recommend a recipe for a quick dinner after a long day of work, what would you choose? How about for a challenging, yet fun recipe to tackle?

I think that the recipes in my new book, The Latin Road Home, cover both of these categories. For ease, I’m partial to my wife’s recipe for Ropa Vieja, a far less time consuming version of the classic dish that is hearty and tremendously satisfying. For a challenge, lately, I’ve been tackling Peruvian ceviches and perfecting my leche de tigre, a task that could occupy me for several long (delicious!) hours.

Tell us about the food culture of Ecuador and some the countries that the Latin Road Home talks about? What is similar to the U.S. and what would you like to see transplanted here?

Latin cooking, like American cooking, has adapted over the years to encompass a wide variety of cultures and geographies, and that diversity continually inspires me. It’s my hope that books like The Latin Road Home will help to highlight staples of lesser-represented Latin food cultures, particularly places such as Ecuador and Peru, and make them more familiar to American audiences and cooks.

How do you find the best local spots when you travel to another country?

It helps a great deal to know at least a little of the local language; not relying on English allows you to seek out the places that locals eat. I also advocate strongly against prejudices while traveling – whether it’s a tiny roadside stand or a lavish five-star restaurant, you should never rule a place out on look alone or you might miss out on your next great meal.

How would you describe the Philadelphia food scene to an outsider?

Philadelphia’s restaurant scene is lively, diverse and constantly evolving. In many ways, we’re ahead of most other American cities in the depth and breadth of our restaurant culture. But no description can do what one great weekend here would – so I’d tell an outsider should come and check it out first-hand!

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