Jose, 40, a Chicago native, is the son of Ecuadoran parents who moved to this country in the late 1960s. "I certainly lived the immigrant experience through my parents," he says, adding that his restaurants, and the business at large, rely heavily on Latino workers.
Being in a position to "impact our community and give back to this community in particular . . . it feels really good," Jose says.
The couple's foundation, which will support local nonprofits that work with immigrants, whatever their nationality, officially debuts at an Oct. 10 fund-raiser at the Kimmel Center. Guest of honor is Dr. Steven Larson, cofounder and executive director of just such a nonprofit - Puentes de Salud, which provides medical and dental services, after-school programs and English classes to a mostly Mexican population in South Philly.
The Garces hope to help raise more than $1 million to renovate a building at 1700 South St. that the University of Pennsylvania donated to Puentes. Plans call for medical and dental offices, classrooms and meeting space, a fitness center, and a kitchen for instruction in healthy cooking.
They also want to set up farm-to-school programs, using their own 40-acre farm in Ottsville, Bucks County, as the classroom. "We want to really give the kids that firsthand farm experience," Jose says.
Although the new foundation has two engaged principals, it holds a special place in Beatriz's heart. She is on the Puentes board and already serving the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, offering discounted and occasionally free dental care in cases where, for example, a pregnant woman's husband has been sent back to Mexico. Half her patients are Latino.
"The need is huge," she says.
Larson calls Beatriz "a very gentle soul . . . who represents real understanding . . . and empathy and the ability to reach down and help somebody up. That to me is humanity."
The empathy was homegrown.
Beatriz, called Betty by her family, grew up in the El Vedado neighborhood in downtown Havana, the youngest of three children. Their father was a plastic surgeon; their mother, according to the family, was the first female proctologist and colorectal surgeon in Cuba.
That sounds like a prescription for prosperity, but doctors were paid little by the Cuban government. "It was very hard," says Alicia Mirabal, Beatriz's mother, who now practices family medicine in Miami.
Many of her Cuban patients were from the countryside, without the means to pay. "They brought us chickens, rabbits, whatever, anything that you could eat," Alicia Mirabal says.
Beatriz has vivid memories of those days: "My parents always managed to put food on the table, but there were times when we were hungry at night. It was rough. Food was scarce from the time I was 8 till I was 18. We had the (now 62-year-old U.S.) embargo, and everything - bread, eggs, milk - was rationed."
The family ate eggs, rice, and split peas, and red or black beans every day. Spam and inferior-quality canned tuna were considered treats. To this day, Beatriz, a lean-figured runner who learned to cook as a child, keeps those culinary memories alive by "cooking Cuban" once a week for her husband and two children, Olivia, 9, and Andres, 5, at their Center City home.
"I love it. Jose comes home and sees me cooking rice and beans and he goes, 'Ohhhh . . . Cuban food again?' " Beatriz says.
Even as she relishes her life in Philadelphia, Beatriz judges Cuba harshly. "I wouldn't blame it all on the U.S. embargo," she says. "It was poor management of resources by the government. They've run everything into the ground over the last 60 years. A lot of people want to leave."
Beatriz's father, Juan Mirabal, was the first in the family to go. En route to a medical conference in India in 1990, his plane stopped in Canada. He asked for, and was granted, political asylum. He now practices occupational medicine in Miami.
Beatriz recalls the family being questioned by the police about Juan's defection. "We played that we knew nothing, but it wasn't true. The plan was for all of us to follow," she says.
Her mother left next, then Beatriz and her brother, Carlos. Finally, in 2001, their sister, Alicia, arrived in Miami with her husband and two children.
Carlos would follow Beatriz to Florida International University in Miami and then to Temple University dental school; he now works one day a week at the Garces Dental Group in Old City. Trained as a chemist in Cuba, Alicia works at a bank in the Miami area.
Of her baby sister, Alicia says, "She does everything fast, fast. She really worked hard and always pursued her dreams and goals."
Beatriz, who settled on dentistry as a career by age 10, chose Temple over Penn, where she was also accepted, because "I didn't care about the Ivy League. I liked the Temple neighborhood. I knew I would have more patients that I could learn from and help there.
"And Temple was a lot cheaper," she says.
In 2001, Beatriz, a junior in dental school, had just broken up with a longtime Cuban boyfriend and was looking for a part-time job. Jose had just arrived in Philadelphia from New York City to become executive chef at Alma de Cuba, the Stephen Starr restaurant on Walnut Street.
Beatriz was the first server hired. "I met Jose briefly in the kitchen. The attraction was instant," she recalls with a grin.
A few weeks later, the two ran into each other at Rouge, on Rittenhouse Square. "We got to talking, and he asked me out," Beatriz says.
They married about a year later, on Aug. 3, 2002, at Valley Green Inn by the Wissahickon Creek. "We took the fast lane. Look at my life. It's really amazing," Beatriz says.
Speaking of fast lanes, Jose now operates seven restaurants (plus taco truck) in Philadelphia; three in Atlantic City; two each in Scottsdale, Ariz.; and Palm Springs, Calif.; and one in Chicago.
At home, when Beatriz isn't in Cuban mode, she and Jose cook as a team. She preps, he "executes," everyone eats - very well. No wonder both children already say they want to be chefs when they grow up.
"No one wants to be a dentist," their mother says with a mock frown. Best not to ignore her addendum: "Yet."
For More Information
The Garces Family Foundation fund-raiser will be held 7 p.m., Oct. 10, at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, 300 S. Broad St.
Tickets: $200, VIP table sponsorships begin at $5,000. Evening includes live and silent auctions, dancing, and "culinary adventures" provided by Jose Garces and more than a dozen other well-known chefs.
Honoree: Dr. Steven Larson of Puentes de Salud.
Information: garcesfamilyfoundation.org or 215-518-5526.
Contact Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.