When Volver restaurant opened in 2014, it dominated local food news. Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan called celebrity chef Jose Garces’s most personal restaurant yet a “tasting menu as memoir.”
The theatrical 15-course feast was served with a generous helping of stories about the chef himself, famous for his James Beard awards and star turns on TV, including as an Iron Chef. Volver iterated over time, becoming less defined by the chef, but that first impression lingered for years.
It took a global pandemic and 18-month closure to meaningfully redefine Volver.
When it did reemerge in the summer of 2021, the restaurant had a bold new plan. Volver would no longer be the same one-man show starring Garces. Instead, the chef decided to shine the spotlight on a series of chefs-in-residency, all people of color who had been affected by COVID in some way. Each chef would be at the restaurant for a four- to six-week stint.
“We came out [of the pandemic] feeling good about where we are as a company,” says Garces. “Then we looked across the landscape and saw how many chefs had struggled. We wanted to give back. I said to my team, ‘Let’s find some talented folks who want to come cook with us.’”
An ensemble cast in the kitchen
Finding that talent wasn’t difficult. The Garces team quickly lined up guest chefs whose distinct culinary styles would invigorate Volver. The residency also serves as a fundraiser for the guest chef’s projects. Checks include an optional line to contribute, and the Garces Foundation supports the chefs by matching funds up to $5,000. It’s an opportunity for the chefs to raise their profiles and upwards of $10,000 at the same time.
The chefs-in-residency project kicked off in August with Kiki Aranita, whose restaurant, Poi Dog, had been shuttered by the pandemic. She created a menu inspired by the flavors of her native Hawaii, and the proceeds helped fund her nascent bottled sauce business — which has continued to grow since then. Next up was chef Phila Lorn, sous chef at Terrain Cafe, who drew inspiration from his Cambodian heritage. He’s hoping to use the money to open his own restaurant that celebrates his culture.
Chef Jezabel Careaga, the current chef in residency, shares the food of her native Argentina. Her restaurant, Jezabel’s Cafe, is primarily a bakery, and this residency gives her the opportunity to showcase the broad range of her talents beyond the pastry kitchen.
Dishes include locro, an Andean pork stew with winter squash, chorizo, and lima beans; steak with potatoes and chimichurri; and eggplant toast with red peppers and feta. Her empanadas, for which her restaurant is locally famous, also have a place of pride.
Empanadas and emotional health
Careaga’s been spending several nights a week at Volver, meeting diners to talk about her journey and her food. She intends to use the money raised to be of service to her industry. She’s almost as passionate about mental health as she is about Argentinean cuisine.
“Before COVID, I was working on setting up an event series about mindfulness and stress reduction for people in the industry,” she says. She planned to host the first session in March 2020. Now, she’ll use the money she raises in her residency to pick up where she left off.
“I had my first therapy session at five years old. For me, mental health care has no stigma, it’s like going to the dentist,” she says. She knows firsthand the toll the restaurant industry can take on emotional wellbeing, and she wants to destigmatize mental health care for everyone.
“It can help you feel a little less alone and validate your feelings. Therapy and mindfulness can make you a better, kinder human,” she says. It’s her goal to make these resources accessible across the industry, beginning in Philadelphia.
From celebrity to mentor
Though Volver’s original tasting menu is long gone, Garces has hardly abdicated his apron. His menu lives side by side with each one created by the current chef in residency. “At the beginning, we ask the chefs to propose a menu with small plates, entrees, and desserts, and the whole team collaborates to make sure all the food works together,” says Garces. Diners can order his “milk and cereal,” a chicken-marshmallow-puffed-rice dish from the original Volver menu, right along with Careaga’s empanadas.
Garces is thrilled to play a supporting role to the chefs now basking in the residency spotlight. “I have no ego anymore,” he says. Careaga’s time at Volver is especially close to his heart. Her Latin American flavors remind him of his own Ecuadorian family.
Garces is in no rush to end the residency series, which will continue through at least the end of the year. “It’s such a pleasure to share the kitchen with this talented group of chefs and to be a mentor,” he says.