This Latin Culinary Authority Speaks, Teaches, Consults and Demonstrates Latin Cultural Nuances Through Authentic Cooking

May 14, 2024 | Member Spotlight


Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, founder and CEO of Amalia Latin Gourmet, is the author of two award-winning Latin cookbooks and is a force for celebrating the nuances and beauty of Latin culture. Born in Guatemala, she forged a career in banking here in the U.S. before training at Le Corden Bleu. She applied her business savvy to create her own business model, where she speaks about Latin culture, consults with Fortune 500 companies and makes numerous media appearances telling stories and educating others about Latin food and culture. The first Latina president of NAWBO Minnesota, Amalia mentors other women and serves on multiple nonprofit boards. She’s dedicated to making a difference in the community and creating a more accurate, positive and dignified perception of Latin culture and cuisine.

What was your early life like growing up in Guatemala?  

Amalia: My parents got divorced when I was very little. I ended up living with my maternal grandmother in a very small town called Quezaltepeque in the department of Chiquimula. It’s close to the border with El Salvador and the climate there is hot and dry.

My grandmother was divorced. She never remarried. To survive, she had a store that catered to a variety of needs in the indigenous community where we lived. The store had a clay Comal (a traditional clay, griddle-like plate, heated by burning wood) where you cook tortillas and roast anything from coffee to beans to cocoa. She sold horse gear because most people moved around by horse.

People came from the contiguous smaller towns to sell their goods at the market on Thursdays and Sundays, and then they would go to the church. In Latin America, where there are indigenous populations, people are not necessarily Catholic by choice. They practice their own religion, and then they mix that with Catholicism. So, my grandmother also sold gear for weddings and celebrations at the church. I helped her a lot. She sold the clothing that people used to bury their loved ones in. She took special orders to make very elaborate gowns, and all kinds of adornments for the head.

She sold basic necessities and staples in bulk, like dry beans, salt and sugar. She was an excellent cook. We didn’t have the convenience stores and the mainstream stores that we have here in the U.S. So, people would go to the open markets to buy their fresh ingredients. Food is wholesome and fresh, made for everyday consumption. What doesn’t get eaten the previous day gets eaten the day after, and all of it gets repurposed somehow. But I had exposure to her wholesome, good cooking and also went to the markets with her. I saw her bargain with people.

She was a businesswoman.

Amalia: Yeah, you know she was. My grandmother was really smart. She knew that to sell, she had to extend credit at times to some of her clients. She had a notebook with a page for each client where she would write down what they would take and the cost of the item. On market days, they would come and give her a payment or pay for the whole thing. Sometimes they would pay her with ducks, fresh crabs from the river, a fish or whatever they could find. That’s the environment I grew up in. My grandmother lived on a main street, so we saw a bustling scene of people and traffic coming and going all the time, especially on those market days. I learned how to read and write at a very small school. I remember those were some of my happiest days.

How did you find your way into a career?

Amalia:  I lived with my grandmother for about seven, maybe eight years, and then eventually, as I got older, I went to live with my dad in Guatemala City. My dad was an OB/GYN, and I probably lived there for about five years. I had my first job with an insurance company. I left Guatemala in 1981 and went to live in Kansas City, Missouri, where my brother had settled. I went to community college to strengthen my English. And soon after, I started my international banking career, which lasted almost 19 years.

I worked for a number of reputable banks, and even started an international department at one of them, moving from Kansas City to St. Louis and back again. Some of the banks were acquired by larger banks. I worked for a total of five banks and every time I changed jobs, it was a promotion of sorts. Eventually, I was calling on companies that exported or imported goods and services from overseas. I was learning about methods of payment and how to mitigate risks with foreign exchange currencies.

It was a really special time because banking in those days was totally different than what it is today. It was community focused. Kansas City and St. Louis, being smaller towns, had a very community-minded mentality.

We had lots of celebrations at the banks for birthdays and any kind of special occasion. Everyone would put their dish at a table. I always brought food, and they loved my food because it was different. So, when I was in banking, I was already cooking and entertaining, and cooking on the weekends so that I would have food for the week. That’s basically how my culinary passion started really developing and igniting. I already had it in me. I think that my grandmother put that light into my heart and my head.

I met a gentleman from Denmark in banking and we fell in love, and we have a son who is now 25 years old. That changed my life, when my son was born. That’s when I left banking behind.

How did your culinary career begin?

Amalia: The Corden Bleu School opened its first U.S. school here in Minnesota around the time my son was ready to go to pre-kindergarten. It was perfect timing. I went to school in the morning when he was in school.

How was it blending French cooking with Guatemalan and Latin cooking and learning professional techniques?

Amalia: I just came back from Puebla, Mexico. I was in Mexico City and Puebla, and that’s not too far away from Guatemala in terms of traditions and culture. Here’s the interesting fact about Latin cooking: People don’t talk about techniques. People don’t talk about rules in the kitchen. They just go about their way. They do what they do, and they cook the way they do, because that’s the way it’s been done forever. They’re following their own rules. You learn by observing, by helping, by going to the markets and then by immersing yourself naturally into the situation. I learned without a cookbook. My grandma never owned a cookbook.

It sounds very intuitive.  

Amalia: Yes, exactly. When I joined The Corden Bleu, I had to relearn how to cook. I used a textbook, which is different from a cookbook. A textbook at a culinary school includes technique, following the temperatures of food and memorizing how to cook certain things. You learn the animal, you know the cuts and why you cook them a certain way, why some go into soups and why some are good for grilling, and so on.

One chef yelled at me once to follow the instructions. It was initially hard for me because I felt that it slowed me down. I learned how to cut potatoes properly and vegetables properly. We spent a month or two doing that! You learn the basics that you build on, month after month, and then it makes sense at the end. But the hardest thing for me was to relearn.

What did you do after culinary school?

Amalia: After I graduated, I started thinking about what am I going to do now? I thought, I’m a culinary school graduate with an MBA and all this passion and desire to do something meaningful, but what? Well, I remember I had this wonderful teacher from St. Louis University when I was in the executive MBA program.

He taught history and culture, and it really made an impression on me. He taught like he was telling you a story and I just fell in love with that. And so that’s basically what I do today. I tell stories that teach people about how wonderful Latin American culture is, how old it is. I tell them about ancient techniques. I teach people how to make traditional dishes but modernize them to enjoy at home.

Is that what you aimed to do with your books Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen and Amalia’s Mesoamerican Table? They are traditional, but contain many naturally vegan and vegetarian dishes.

Amalia: Yes. Part of the Latin American diet, especially in Guatemala, is naturally vegan. Guatemalans don’t even refer to it as vegan or vegetarian. We just eat. It is part of our tradition. Corn, beans and squash are some of the staples that we share with the rest of the Latin countries. But we have an abundance of fresh produce due to the warm weather. In some areas, it’s tropical. Mountainous areas produce wonderful coffee. Coastal areas produce a lot of sugar cane and other great products overall. We have many native plants and ingredients that we use in our cooking, which are different from other Latin American countries. But in general, we eat a lot of vegan and vegetarian food because that’s just the way it’s been for millennia. And I love simple things like black beans and tortillas, and it doesn’t get any more vegan than that.

Can you please share a bit about your business? It appears that you write books, do media appearances, speak, educate and consult with corporations.

Amalia: I started sensing from the very beginning as an immigrant that people do not understand Latin culture very well. I saw an opportunity for education there. My mission is built around that. I help people and organizations develop a broader understanding and appreciation of Latin culture—through speaking, consulting and cultural immersions.

I was very fortunate to live in the Twin Cities at the time when I started my business. There were 19 Fortune 500 companies here—many of the big brand names that you know. They’re just about all my clients now.

As the population continues to grow, the purchasing power of Latinos grows. Also, the education level of Latinos is increasing, and that is increasing the wealth level as well. So, the purchasing power continues to increase. Yet we are not all the same. You can’t say that we only eat tacos or that everyone has the same language. Yes, we have Spanish, but we have different accents, and we have different nuances within the languages. We also have different cultures. Mexico is huge. In the little country of Guatemala, we have 22 Mayan ethnicities, with their own languages, with their own customs and with their own traditions.

So people get confused here in the States, because there’s so much to know, and there is so much to understand. There are 21 different countries, right? We’re talking North America, Central America, South America and the Latin Caribbean. We are all uniquely different, but we are all united by culture. People tend to identify with the Mexican demographic here in the U.S. because it is the largest Latino population here. But Guatemalan is not Mexican.

I started sensing there is an opportunity here to educate the big companies. I realized I could publish a book, and that would lead me to speaking. My speaking can happen in person or virtually. When I speak, I also sell my books.

The consulting aspect of my business is for food companies or beverage companies that are looking to develop recipes or products or develop their websites with Latin American traditional recipes to connect with their audiences and/or to take existing products and incorporate them into Latin recipes. That’s the consulting part of it.

At times I may be a liaison between, say, an American company and a Latin American company, because I’m fully bilingual and also the immersion is with the same companies during Hispanic Heritage Month. They want to showcase, say, a menu of Latin American cuisines, and that gives me the platform and the opportunity to talk about Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, etc. I talk about synergies. I talk about the qualities of each food and the culture—how one country differs from the other one.

I also do a lot of media appearances. I am hosting Telemundo segments on Spanish TV, presenting recipes.

How did you get involved with NAWBO?

Amalia: NAWBO is my 12th board. I’ve been serving on nonprofit boards since my early days in banking and that has been a good thing because that has allowed me to connect with people with whom I would not otherwise connect. I’ve been learning quite a bit about nonprofits all along. I co-founded Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota back in 2007, and it’s going strong. They just had a very successful conference last week. Someone invited me to join the NAWBO board. While I was on the board, they asked me if I was interested in being president. I saw that as an opportunity to bring all this experience to one place. It has been wonderful. I was president last year—first Latina president, by the way!

What is your vision for the future, for yourself and your company?

Amalia: My goal is for Latin America to be represented in the way it should be. I want people to understand it better. I want people to appreciate it better. I want to amplify my voice as far and as wide as I can, using every platform possible to do it. I just aim to do well and to leave a lasting mark and a good legacy for my son and my family.

Last question, how do you feel about being one of three finalists for NAWBO’s Woman Business Owner of the Year award?

Amalia: It’s an honor. It’s a pleasure. It’s very special. This is a good space, whether we win or not. Just having the recognition is absolutely wonderful and I am very grateful. I am very grateful for all the gifts that I have received in my life. I am grateful for my grandmother. She was my first mentor, my North Star. I’m grateful for this recognition.

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