Vamos Talks with Danielle Duran-Zecca of Amiga Amore
Leap Snacks sat down with Danielle Duran, Mexican American chef and business owner of Amiga Amore. Danielle found her passion for cooking at an early age. As she gained experience cooking, she developed her own artistic style in the kitchen. Danielle figured out which flavor palettes and cuisines she enjoyed the most, and channeled this love into Amiga Amore. Amiga Amore combines Mexican and Italian flavors into what she calls ‘Mexitalian’ Cuisine.
See below to read the interview and to learn more about Danielle’s 'Mexitalian' creations.
A Passion For Cooking Early On
I’m Mexican American, I was born in Los Angeles, California. I grew up around the Eagle Rock and Pasadena area where I lived for twenty years. I then moved to New York to continue to pursue being a chef, where I worked at fine dining establishments as well as Michelin Star restaurants. Around three years ago, my husband and I decided we wanted to settle down and open our own restaurant. We came back to the motherland. We live right now in Glendale.
My mother is Mexican, she's from Guadalajara, Mexico, and my father is from El Paso, Texas. We grew up always around my grandparents. They were the ones taking care of us, and feeding me and my siblings, so we ate really well. I had a love for cooking early on, always learning with them. That’s how my cooking journey began.
Following her Love For Food
I grew up in the kitchen. I was either at my grandparents’ house, or my grandpa would be over at my house taking care of me. This would usually be around lunch time. Then we would have a little play time, and then dinner. My real love for baking however didn’t happen until I went into middle school, where I took a baking class. I really fell in love with making pastries and started making them for the family or the neighbors. Around 17 when I was graduating, I knew I wanted to go into culinary school. My parents were getting divorced, which wasn't a pleasant atmosphere to be in, which pushed me to spend more time at culinary school and work. I thought I wanted to do only pastries but that quickly changed once I started working in kitchens.
From LA to NY
I decided I wanted to move to New York because I wanted more experience. The scene in LA went flat for a moment, and I knew that I wanted to learn how to cook different cuisines. I knew how to cook Mexican food- that’s what I was cooking at home, as well as French food. I started working at a Southeast Asian restaurant, which gave me exposure to a different cuisine. However, I really wanted the experience of working in a Michelin star restaurant.
After finally achieving the Michelin experience, I moved back to Los Angeles, which helped me find my voice in food. There was a disconnect, because I was making all these fancy French things, or wonderful Italian things, but then I was coming home and making enchiladas. So it was like… I know what I like to make, but I know what I love to eat and what actually comforts me. So moving back to LA, my husband, who is Italian, was having a hard time eating at the Mexican restaurants with me. He didn’t like cilantro, he had a problem with 'maiz'.
At the time, New York didn't have great Mexican food. I had a difficult time eating there because I had to cook it myself. Restaurants didn’t cut it for me. I would always be complaining, "it’s not spicy, what is this?" Once we moved to LA, I was really excited to show my husband my culture. I thought to myself, "if I put Mexican ingredients in pasta, maybe he’ll eat it." And the idea of Amiga Amore kind of just started.
Changing the Perception of Mexican Food
The perception of Mexican food definitely is that it’s a family meal. In the US, Mexican cuisine had no beauty or diversity. It was only tacos, and tortas you know? The ‘typical’ dishes. People tend to see it as something you simply eat on the street. But then, a couple of chefs really changed the narrative about Mexican food. It opened up the eyes of Latinos in the industry that we weren’t only the dishwasher or the prep cook, but could be the chef. It opened up the eyes of people to see Mexican cuisine as elevate instead of what you eat after you have a few drinks and hit the taco truck.
It’s really about taking the flavors people love and putting them into something new. It has finally happened, but it took a while. What I love about traveling to, and eating in Mexico, is that each region has its own regional cuisine. It really shows you the diversity of the country and its food. We just started opening the box of what Mexican food could be in the US.
Overcoming “Oh… She’s the Chef?”
I feel like we're still looked at as only the prep cook, or the dishwasher in many kitchens around the country. We get these positions because we are hard workers and quiet people when it comes to working. I was lucky to be a Mexican-American and able to speak English. Sometimes line cooks and prep guys that can only speak Spanish are looked down a bit. I was really shocked as they are the hardest workers! I was looked at differently whenever I would help them wash plates at the end of the night. For that, I was shunned by other chefs. Like, "why are you helping, that isn’t your job".
I had to branch out of kitchens and really believe in myself to start my business. I think if I continued to stay in kitchens, I would continue to get the sous chef position, the headline position---- I would get these ‘runaround’ positions, yet never quite make it to the top. Even though I own my business, I still get treated differently. Recently I did a very fancy dinner, and when the guests where leaving, they were thanking my sous chef (a tall handsome boy) for the dinner, and looked at me like little 'chaparra'. He had to tell them, “Oh no, she’s the chef”. It was fun to watch their faces, but it still made me think, "Really? I still have to deal with this?"
I think the world’s perceptions and visions need to change. Everything that is happening is making people aware that people need to be respected on all levels, no matter the color or gender. As a Latina, I am battling two fights. First, It's a man’s world in the kitchen and second, Latinos are not being treated fairly. I started a partnership with El Pollo Loco to get more awareness for James Beard to honor more Latinos. There hasn’t been a Latino 'Outstanding Chef of the Year' in the past eight years.
Finding Herself as a Latina
When I was younger, the question “What does it mean to be Latina” used to be a hard question to answer. We were always looked at as the people that take the ‘bad jobs’. So I questioned my identity and was like, "Oh gosh, are we?" But when I started to work in the food industry, I became so proud of my heritage. Latinos are so powerful. We are the underdogs. We are the ones who do the hardest work with the biggest smiles on our faces. We look out for each other. And it’s cool because our community creates automatic friendships between Latinos. You know one another’s struggles. We respect each other because of everything we’ve been through.
I am so happy to be Latina, and now through my own restaurant I'm so proud of showcasing my culture and community. I go to Mexico to buy everything for Amiga Amore, like the plates and decoration. It needs to be authentic for me, It’s my culture.
Grab a Bite at Amiga Amore!
Amiga Amore is currently in the process of opening. Currently, they are operating as a pop-up, with dinners Thursdays, Fridays, and Sunday brunch. They do a month in advance booking. Look out for the month of November, where there will be a lot of pies and more tastes of autumn. Check out the website at amigaamorela.com, to find out more information and purchase their hot sauce brand!