He owns Amada, Tinto, Distrito, Chifa and Whiskey Village. He went from high school wrestler in his hometown of Chicago to a Food Network "Iron Chef" and NBCPhiladelphia got the low down from Philly chef and restaurateur Jose Garces.
You just won “The Next Iron Chef.” Describe the feeling you had the moment you won?
I think elation captures it nicely. My adrenaline was already running high from the preceding competition, and seeing my own portrait hung in Kitchen Stadium beside those of the other Iron Chefs was a very surreal, gratifying moment and the culmination of a lot of hard work.
Now that you’ve won and you’ll be a staple on the show, how much time will "Iron Chef" take you away from Philly and your restaurants? Who “plays top chef” while you’re gone?
The beauty of having more than one restaurant is that this is an issue I’ve already had to consider. Obviously, I can’t be in every restaurant at once, especially with one of them being in Chicago! As a result, I’ve crafted teams of incredibly dedicated, talented people in each restaurant, with each kitchen led by a chef de cuisine who I’ve chosen and mentored to be my eyes and ears – and heart – when I can’t be there myself. I trust them completely, and they do a terrific job of holding the entire team to sky-high standards of excellence and hospitality even when I’m not in the building.
How has Philadelphia reacted to your winning?
Philadelphia has always been wonderful to me and the overwhelming response has been one of intense excitement.
How would you describe Philly’s dining scene?
The dining scene here is wonderfully diverse, thanks to the pioneering work of many talented chefs and restaurateurs and the adventurous palates of our guests. I’ve said it before, but I remain as surprised as anyone that the country and the world haven’t “discovered” the vibrant food culture here in Philadelphia to a greater extent.
Where do you go to eat when you’re out on the town?
There are so many great choices. I love to check out new openings whenever possible, but I also have a few stand-bys, including Dim Sum Garden (59 N. 11th St.) and some of the old-school “Philly red sauce” Italian joints, like Dante & Luigi's (762 S. 10th St.), which my kids love.
With five restaurants in Philly alone, how do you find time for a personal life?
Very little sleep! Between my restaurants and my wife’s thriving Old City dental practice, it can be a challenge, but we’re devoted to coordinating our days off so that they coincide and scheduling date nights to stay connected to each other. And, of course, we both just love spending time with our kids. That’s where our differing schedules can come in handy, I usually have mornings to spend with them and Bea is home earlier in the evenings.
What’s your wife Beatriz’s biggest gripe about your long hours?
We met while we were both working at Alma de Cuba, so she’s familiar and understands the demands of the restaurant industry. She’s a huge support for me.
Who’s the boss in the kitchen at home? You or your wife?
It’s a shared space that I’m thrilled to occupy with any member of the family, including our kids. Cooking time is bonding time for us; it has always been a communal activity and a great way to connect with each other in my family, going back to my mother and her mother teaching me to cook family recipes as a boy in Chicago.
Give us three items that are always in your fridge?
A bottle of cava (Spanish sparkling wine), in case company comes calling unexpectedly, fresh herbs (there’s just no substitute for their flavor) and eggs from the farm. As I said, I often find myself spending time with the kids in the mornings and they’re as basic a breakfast staple as can be for omelettes, French toast or tortilla Espanola.
The three ingredients every home kitchen should have?
Top-quality olive oil, a well-stocked, a diverse spice rack (I know it’s more than one ingredient, but seasonings are so critical to a great meal) and garlic.
The three utensils every home kitchen should have?
A big, high-quality frying pan or wok, re-sealable containers for saving components of dishes that you’ve prepared ahead of time (and leftovers) and a handful of cookbooks that inspire you to try new things and remind you of old favorites.
What’s one secret about you that the public doesn’t know (and make it juicy)?
I was a wrestler in high school – which means that somewhere out there are probably some photos of me in my uniform. So far, no one has turned them up, but the Internet can be dangerous that way…
And we tried, trust us. But don't worry, when we uncover the photos, you, the NBCPhiladelphia.com reader, will be the first to know.