Becoming a successful restaurateur requires more than just an aptitude for cooking--as one Iron Chef knows well, it also requires business acumen and some serious creativity.
Ten years ago, chef Jose Garces launched his first restaurant, Amada, in Philadelphia's historic Old City neighborhood. Amada, which means "beloved" in Spanish, is a tapas restaurant named after Garces's grandmother, Mamita Amada, who first taught him how to cook when he was a child. Today, the Ecuadorian-American food exec is preparing to open his 20th restaurant, a second Amada, at his first New York City location this fall.
"We are beside ourselves about opening in New York," Garces told Inc. by phone: "I have a huge respect for the market in New York and the restaurant community and I wanted to make sure I was at a point in my career where I could focus a lot of time and energy on it."
You'd be wrong, however, in thinking that Garces was simply biding his time to enter the trendy Manhattan food sector. The chef says patience is a calculated and necessary skill for growing a restaurant concept to scale, and especially one as eclectic as his. The restaurants, although primarily Latin based, also include an artisanal American joint (JG Domestic), a classic whiskey bar (Village Whiskey), and a coffee roasting company, with many of the fruit and vegetable ingredients sourced locally from the affiliated Luna farm in Pennsylvania. Garces created the business plans for Amada as many as 10 years prior to the restaurant's actual opening, as the final project for a college course.
In the meantime, however, Garces has kept himself on his toes by appearing on Iron Chef America, a competitive cooking show where he couldn't afford to move slowly.
Lessons From an Iron Chef
The television series, which airs weekly on the Food Network, asks chefs to compete against each other in a series of elimination rounds. In each episode, the chefs must bake a secret ingredient into their meal that is then judged by a panel of food critics. Garces ultimately won the title of Iron Chef America.
"It was an exhilarating experience, and the hardest thing I usually did all year," says Garces, who went on to battle subsequent chefs for four additional seasons as a cast member. He recalls a secret pretzel ingredient being his most difficult challenge, due to its inherently dry, salty taste. His team ended up going with savory pretzel pasta, which they made by grinding pretzels into flour. They also cooked a leg of lamb in a flaky pretzel crust.
His biggest takeaway from the experience was the crucial role of innovation: "It really pushed some creative boundaries for me," he says. "I think being creative... and then melding it where it applies to business, is an art itself."
Garces says he channeled the creativity he'd learned from the Iron Chef experience, using it as "a building block" to think up the dishes at one of his more recent concepts, Volvér, a high-end, tasting menu-only restaurant serving eight and 12 courses. The inventive menu involves things like tomato gelee, goat cheese "dirt," and and duck skin crumble.
Despite the fact that the biggest trend in food sector is cheaper, fast casual restaurannts, Volvér has succeeded even while it is among the most expensive restaurants in Philadelphia proper. For Garces, it was all about the importance of "treating guests to a truly unique dining experience that's not just [about] nourishment." So far so good, at least according to the Zagat, Eater, and Yelp, where the restaurant currently has a 4.5 star rating.
In many ways, breaking into the increasingly competitive food market may be like entering your own unique round of Iron Chef: Be thoughtful about the concept first, and then move fast. A secret ingredient or two can't hurt either.