Chatting with Jose Garces

Jose Garces has cut a wide swath through the Philly food scene, and he’s made sure the cocktail programs at each of his restaurants — tapas bar Amada, modern Mexican Distrito, Peruvian-Cantonese Chifa and Basque-influenced wine bar Tinto — are top quality. Now the “Next Iron Chef” finalist has opened Village Whiskey, so we had a little chat:

NCB MIX: Of all the restaurants you've opened in Philadelphia, this one is the most spirit and cocktail focused, and seems quite a stretch. Why whiskey and cocktails?

Garces: I guess the most important reason that I decided to pursue Village Whiskey is that it’s the kind of place where I would want to hang out. Each of my restaurants, though different, represents a place that I enjoy spending time. So although they all have distinct “personalities,” and culinary approaches, they are all places that I like to be, and places that I hope others will like to be as well. I’ve dreamed for a long time about having a bar like Village Whiskey in Philadelphia, and for me, the fact that it’s “my place” is just the icing on the cake.

Interior of Village Whiskey; photo by Fanny Allie.

NCB MIX: You're making your own bitters and mixers for the bar program. Why take that approach?

Garces: Part of the appeal of opening a serious bar is the culinary aspect of making artisanal, handcrafted cocktails.  Just as I do in my kitchens, my team and I have really taken ownership of the products we serve. In the case of a great drink, that means carefully balancing the finest ingredients into one delicious whole — so making our own bitters, infusing our own spirits and squeezing our own juices just seemed like a natural means of making sure our products are the best.

NCB MIX: You've even listed a Scotch whisky cocktail on your menu, so you're doing some innovative things.

Garces: Absolutely. The recent “cocktail renaissance” that has been taking place in this country makes this a very exciting time to open a bar like this, and part of that excitement is the ability to innovate and to build new traditions. Some time-honored cocktails will live forever, but just as I do with food, I like to apply new techniques to classic ingredients as a way to make something that tastes at once familiar and new.

NCB MIX: In some cities, especially Boston and Washington, culinary cocktails using vegetables and more savory ingredients have become more common. Any of that influence your ideas?

Garces: I think it’s safe for me to say that my team at Village Whiskey did their homework; all of us love to go out to new bars and experience both the best of what’s around and the newest, hottest creations. We did a lot of traveling, as a team and individually, and each of us brought some of our experience at bars throughout the country and the world to the table. When we sat down to come up with our cocktail list, the depth of knowledge that surrounded me was truly amazing. These are people who are passionate about great drinks and actively pursue new and interesting ideas.

Village Whiskey; Photo by Fanny Allie.

NCB MIX: Many chefs consider cocktails a distraction from their food, yet your cocktail program at Distrito has gotten raves, and you've even included cocktails on the menu at Tinto; how come?

Garces: I think it’s a little short-sighted to suggest that a great cocktail is a distraction from food; like a fine wine or a craft beer, a cocktail is a partner to the meal and a means of experiencing new flavors. At each of my restaurants, my bar teams and I have worked together to create cocktails that are both ideal partners with the food and delicious on their own.

NCB MIX: Do you have a particular philosophy about how food and cocktails go together, not necessarily in pairings but how they relate in the dining experience?

To me, a cocktail is a lot like a completed dish: there are several distinct flavors working in harmony to create something new. It’s important to respect the ingredients — and to use the best ones available to you — but it’s also important to keep the end result in mind and work toward a harmonious blend of different characteristics. Like a fantastic plate of food, a good cocktail combines several elements into a whole that is better than the sum of its parts.

NCB MIX: What do you look for when you're hiring beverage managers or bartenders? Is it important for them to have a culinary understanding of your restaurants?

I think that curiosity is the most important trait.  Although experience is critical, I’m not just looking for people who can parrot back information about this drink or that wine; I’m looking for people who can integrate their knowledge into their day-to-day responsibilities and use it to expand our offerings for our guests.  In other words, I find myself looking for people who remind me of myself — people who are always on the lookout for their next mentor and who look at every situation as a chance to learn something new, then bring that knowledge with them into the restaurant.

NCB MIX: What's your favorite cocktail? Favorite whiskey? Cocktail and food pairing?

Garces: My favorite cocktail at the moment (it changes with the seasons!) is our Vieux Carre, a potent blend of rye, sweet vermouth, brandy, Benedictine and Peychaud’s bitters that is a terrific way to warm up on a crisp fall day. I love pairing it with our house-cured pickles, especially the heirloom cherry tomatoes and baby beets. As for whiskey, it’s tough to go wrong with bourbon, and lately I’ve been really enjoying our Pappy Van Winkle 20 year, a rich bourbon that warms you through and through.


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