Iron Chef Jose Garces Celebrates Release of New Cookbook -- The Latin Road Home -- With Temporary Menu at Distrito

Jose Garces at Distrito
Jose Garces at Distrito

Jose Garces comes to town frequently to check up on Distrito, his modern Mexican restaurant specializing in Mexico City-style street food. This trip, however, the Iron Chef had another objective: to promote his new cookbook -- The Latin Road Home -- by hosting a special five-course dinner using recipes from the book, each course reflecting one of the five countries featured within its pages.

See also: -- Frescas and Pozole at Distrito

The dinner, which I attended, was awesome. Now Garces has put another temporary tasting menu in place -- this one featuring Mexican dishes only, priced at $45 per person and offered through November 18. I had a chance to catch up with Garces to talk about the cookbook and his career. Here's what he had to say.

Stacks of The Latin Road Home --waiting for Jose's autograph
Stacks of The Latin Road Home --waiting for Jose's autograph

So, this is your second cookbook on Latin American cooking. How does it differ from the first?: My first cookbook, Latin Evolution, was more of a look back on my professional cooking career, and really, the recipes were for the ambitious home cook or the young professional. There's a lot of sous vide and really long prep times and different foams. It's more of an evolved cookbook. And it was really looking at taking those Latin recipes and evolving them. That's why it's called Latin Evolution.

And the new one?: The Latin Road Home is sort of a stripped-down version of Latin cooking meant for the home cook. It takes a look at five different Spanish-speaking countries which have inspired my career for the last 10 to 15 years now. It's more of a Latin handbook and an insight into Latin cultures and cuisines. It's also a travelogue and a memoir for me as well. There's a good amount of narrative. I'm a fan of cookbooks. I own over 500 of them and while the recipes are important, I've always been a fan of the stories behind the recipes.

Which countries do you explore?: Spain, Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador and Peru, and each country has a significant meaning for me. I could go right down the line. Spain -- the first restaurant I opened, Amada, was Spanish. I traveled to Spain after culinary school and had a lot of great experiences there. In fact, I traveled there many times before opening Armada. Cuba is the place that my wife is from. So I've had her Cuban influence for the last 10 years, and I've traveled there a lot and experienced the culture of Havana and surrounding areas. Ecuador -- that's where my parents are from. That's my upbringing. Growing up in Chicago, I had a true Ecuadorian upbringing -- the food, the language, everything.  

Amuse bouche passed at The Latin Road Home dinner
Amuse bouche passed at The Latin Road Home dinner

Mexico is a place I've traveled to often and I've come to love the cuisine and culture through many different resources, like growing up in Chicago where there was a huge Mexican community and many Mexican restaurants. And then Peru -- my parents had Peruvian friends when I was growing up. At a certain point, I wanted to explore the cuisine a little further. I traveled to Lima, Quito, Machu Pichu and found it to be a gastronomic capital. It's really an incredible place.

Yeah, Escoffier said Peruvian cuisine was one of the world's great cuisines: It really is, and now they're evolving it quite a bit, taking their old traditional cuisine and evolving it. There's a huge sense of pride in their cuisine, whereas in other Latin American countires, that hasn't occurred yet. Like Ecuador, for example. No one takes much pride in their cuisine in Ecuador or tries to evolve it. I'd like to do that someday.

So there's no explosion of interest in food there as there is here in the States?: No, but I visited Panama last year for a food and wine festival, and you talk about a place, geographically, that is just amazing --they have the influence from the Caribbean, influence from Central America, and they're just a stone's throw from South America. They're really getting all these different cultures, and their cuisine reflects it. And yet nobody's really out there talking about Panamian cuisine. When you think about it, the Caribbean has a lot of African influence, a lot of Spanish influence. It's all like one nice melting pot.  

Pastel de tres leches
Pastel de tres leches

When you come to Phoenix, do you check out our local restaurants?: Oh sure. I love to explore and see what's happening. I had a fantastic meal at FnB the last time I was here, a really delicious meal. And Pizzeria Bianco -- classic Phoenix, right? -- was also really good. I want to go up to Beau MacMillan's place . . . Elements at Sanctuary. I heard that's beautiful.

Now that you've built a restaurant empire, how much of you is chef and how much restaurateur?: I think that I toe a fine line on each because I want to run the company efficiently so that we can all prosper, but then, at the same time, the food and the experience is where my passion is, so I try to do that as much as possible. I'm searching for a COO to run the company right now. We have some great senior people, really talented people, who have handled it but it's getting to be too much. I want to focus my attentions on what I do well, which is create and come up with concepts and continue to develop. That's the fun part for me.

And aren't you also into farming now?: Yeah, I own a farm outside of Philly in Bucks County, about an hour north. I wanted to get a second home, a retreat for my family. As we started looking at properties, we found there were a lot of farms available out there. One thing led to another and next thing you know, we were farming this thing. We're growing our own vegetables on about seven or eight acres out of the 40 we own. The garden serves 10 of our restaurants, seven in Philly and three in Atlantic City.

Got any ideas in the works for Distrito?: We've placed really high at the AZ Taco Festival two years in a row. But ironically, I didn't even know that we'd won the People's Choice Award this year when I had the idea that we should create a taco bar. People really enjoy our tacos. We're writing five or six new tacos, and we're going to do kind of like this prix fixe thing, like I eat at home when I'm entertaining, make all the fixings, lay it out on a table and you can make your own. It's really a great way to eat tacos. I'm also changing the format of the tacos. Right now, they're three per order at a set price, but I want to change it to more a la carte, so you can come and get one of these, three of that. Those two changes are imminent.

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