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Shopping for a dinner with ‘Iron Chef’ Jose Garces

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It’s a frigid 20 degrees, the sky’s a murky gray, and the sidewalks are littered with clumps of snow and ice. Chicago’s not only miles away from Barcelona, Spain, in distance, but in ambiance as well.

But that doesn’t deter Jose Garces — executive chef of Mercat a la Planxa (638 S. Michigan) as well as owner and operator of 17 restaurants in four other cities — from trying to recreate La Boqueria, Barcelona’s famed marketplace, in his South Loop restaurant for a dinner unveiling its new private dining space, aptly named the Barcelona Room. After all, Garces is no stranger to overcoming tough obstacles, which is exactly what he did to earn the coveted title of “Iron Chef.” Plus, he isn’t alone in his quest. Chef de cuisine Cory Morris, who handles the day-to-day operations at the restaurant, is up for the challenge, too.

In an effort to duplicate La Boqueria’s style of shopping — think an assortment of food stalls specializing in particular foodstuffs — the chefs opt to get out of their kitchen and visit some of Chicago’s top vendors. The ingredients they find will serve as inspiration for some of the dishes the 70 guests will find at the various food stations set up for that evening’s event. “We’re going to make it up as we go,” says Morris.

First stop, Publican Quality Meats (825 W. Fulton Market). What was originally slated as a quick coffee pick-up turns into more when Garces eyes the housemade charcuterie in the glass case. Some fig and dirty rice pates, which will be served spread simply on toast for the dinner, go into the shopping bag. “I like to buy things that interest me,” says Garces.

Next up is the family-owned seafood wholesaler Isaacson & Stein Fish Co. (800 W. Fulton Market), just a few steps away. Inside the bustling warehouse — a favorite of chefs and adventurous home cooks — Garces and Morris carefully survey the seafood kept in white plastic tubs before they make their choices. “You want to look for clear eyes and overall freshness,” says Garces.

“Fresh fish should smell like the ocean, not fish,” adds Morris.

When Garces spies baby octopus from Spain, he can’t resist. “This is a real treat,” he says, as he holds up one of the cephalopods. Across the aisle, giant head-on jumbo prawns get a thumbs-up from both chefs. “The cool thing about stuff like this is we don’t have to do much to it,” says Morris.

For the dinner, the prawns, which were split down the middle, only needed a little salt and pepper before Garces cooked them in front of guests at the planxa (grilling) station. A quick squeeze of lemon was the finishing touch. “If you prepare products like this simply from a raw state, you’ll get good results,” says Garces.

From there, it’s a quick jaunt over to West Loop Salumi (1111 W. Randolph), Illinois’ only USDA-certified salumeria. Though it’s only open for retail on the weekends, Garces and Morris manage to snag a private tour — and, more importantly, tasting — with owner Greg Laketek, who studied under a salumi master in Italy.

Laketek’s passion for the dozen or so cured meats he and Jesse Katzman (formerly of avec) create isn’t lost on the chefs. “There’s such an art form happening here,” says Garces, who’s so impressed with the products at West Loop Salumi, he plans on using them at his newest restaurant, Volver, opening soon in Philadelphia. Adds Morris, “It’s great to meet people like that.”

After a walk-through of the small production facility, including the curing chambers stuffed with hanging cured meats — both Garces and Morris are quick to snap a few photos — Laketek brings out salumi for the chefs to try.

“Which ones should we get?” asks Garces. “Let’s get all of them!” replies Morris, who’s only half joking. (Morris plans on adding a rotating selection of West Loop Salumi products to Mercat’s regular menu.) The two decide on gentile salame and Spanish chorizo, which both agree is some of the best they’ve ever had.

The final stop on the shopping trip is Little Goat (820 W. Randolph) for bread. Inside the packed space, the chefs look disappointed when they see the mostly empty shelves where the baked-in-house bread is displayed. But that changes when Garces spots one of his former pastry chefs behind the window in the bakery. He heads over and after a hug comes back with a big smile and loaves of sweet onion brioche, sourdough and bacon Gruyere.

Says Garces, “It always pays to know someone.”

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