DANIELLE DURAN-ZECCA: They made it very intimidating and non-approachable like that’s like, ‘Like look at who’s working it. Like look at that guy. That guys like a beast. Look at his arms like he’s got all these burns.’ And you were like ‘Okay that fine. I could be a beast. I could have all these burns.
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DURAN-ZECCA: Hi. I’m chef Danielle Duran-Zecca of Amiga Amore in Los Angeles, Ca.
SARA POOL: Can you tell me a little bit about your restaurant?
DURAN-ZECCA: I run Amiga more, which is my pop up and we’re looking for brick and mortar right now. So, it is the love story not only between me and my husband, but between our two cuisines, Mexican and Italian. Me being the Mexican, him being the Italian. Yeah, we do a lot of riffs on pasta dishes with a lot of Mexican flavors.
POOL: How did you become a chef? Like what was you’re route here and your background and everything?
DURAN-ZECCA: I actually wanted to be a fashion designer. And I liked cooking just because my family always did it and baking around the holidays. And then from fashion, I like switched over to baking full time. I like I don’t know. I turned the sewing machine in for like apron strings so that was around when I was like 16 or 17. So I was about to finish high school and I wanted to go to Le Cordon Bleu to learn pastry. And then somewhere in that, my parents decided to have, well to get a divorce. For me, I was really naïve and blind. I was like the kid that really had no idea what was going on. And so, when it happened, it really took me for a spin and I kind of gave up on every dream that I had. I didn’t know what passion meant anymore. I don’t know. I just, you know, as a kid it was like the end of the world.
My sister ended up signing me up for culinary school. And then I just got a call from them that I was ready to do my walkthrough and I was like ‘what?’. So, she ended up taking me. I mean from day one getting to put on a chef’s coast and walk through those classrooms, the whole time that I was at school, it was just something that I don’t know. It just changed my world and I’ve been cooking ever since.
I have worked all throughout Los Angeles: Church and State, Bestia, Lukshon. And then I was waiting for Walter Manzke to open up when is now Republique and that was taking a while. A lot of the people that were following him, like a lot of his chefs, decided to take on either an internship somewhere for travel abroad to learn a new cuisine. And I wanted to go somewhere too. I didn’t want to do that far though, so I chose San Fransico or New and gave him the list of restaurants that I wanted to get into. A job at Le Bernardin and then I had a one way ticket to New York. And within a month I like, sold everything and got rid of my car and I was living in New Jersey, but working in New York.
That was a crazy experience. I worked in some of the best restaurants and Michelin star and kind of even like the one restaurant that is going for all the stars and trying to get reviewed. Like I lived that life and it was amazing. My husband, he asked me to be the chef of his little restaurant that he was opening up. It was an Italian joint called Vespa. And that’s kind of where we fell in love and that was that.
The restaurant closed. They raised our rent something ridiculous like $10,000. We kind of just were at loss. We wanted to have a family and then we also wanted to have our business again and New York just seemed really unreachable, and California just had more opportunities. So, I got offered the job CDC (Chef de Cuisine) of Union in Pasadena and we moved.
We opened our catering company Eat Your Heart Out and then through that I was able to start the popup Amiga Amora. Through that I was finally able to start producing my hot sauce, El Chorro. So, we do bottle package and sell that and it’s in Saars market right now.
POOL: So, on your Instagram I saw like you did, kind of like catering or those boxes. Has that been something new from covid or is that something you’ve been doing for a while?
DURAN-ZECCA: No, that’s completely new. Everybody has kind of resorted to either, well you know going out is okay. So, half the people feel okay, but still half are not vaccinated and still not immune to it, you know. So, it was kind of a pivot. How do you get kind of the chef cooking at home for you experience? But also, like a little bit of Blue Apron, you know where you cook it yourself, where you feel a little bit more involved. Where it’s not just like you open up a takeout container and like, ‘okay here it is tonight’. So, we wanted to do it where you became the chef and I just guided you.
So, the meal comes up like 80% done. The pasta comes where you have to boil it. Then there’s sauce. For dessert I leave it very interactive where I have it piping bags or I leave the cookies where you have to bake them. Each course has an instructional video that I’m just like, ‘Okay this is what we are going to do.’ And yeah, it been really fun. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback and you know for date night or even just inviting over the neighbor you have been like quarantining with. It was something nice do. So, I’m loving doing it and we’re trying to do it once a month, continuing.
POOL: In 2014, the Bloomberg study said that less than 7% of executive chefs at leading culinary institutes are females. And 19% of chefs and head chefs overall are female, even though 50% go to culinary school. What have you personally found like as challenges in being a woman? And do you think there’s- what like major factors go into the number being so small?
DURAN-ZECCA: I think each restaurant was different. Each chef grew up in a different way, but overall it was a lot harder to move up the ranks. You automatically kind of got put into positions like pastry or garde manger, because you can make like beautiful salads or, you know, pastry because you’re a girl.
They made it very intimidating and non-approachable like that’s like, ‘Like look at who’s working it. Like look at that guy. That guys like a beast. Look at his arms like he’s got all these burns.’ And you were like ‘Okay that fine. I could be a beast. I could have all these burns.’. But it was like, ‘No, come on like oysters and like tarts.’ And you were like okay. So, you got pushed down a lot and it sucked.
I was able to work for one female executive chef and she was amazing. Her name was Diana. I worked for her at BLD under Neal Fraser and she was a badass. I mean she wasn’t like femme femme, which I wish she was just because then it would have rocked even more, but she was a badass woman chef and she gave me more opportunities. She threw me in. She was like, ‘The guys went on his break. Why aren’t you grilling the steak?’ and I was like, “I’m allowed? Like oh my God’. And she was like, ‘Yeah. He’s away for 30 minutes. I need someone to cook the food.’ So, she gave me so many opportunities. It was so different.
And then New York. I mean I love New York. I loved my experience, but to work in those kitchens and to be a leader as a female you had to be like so stern and strong, like even worse than the guys. And so, you know, I had one leader, she was never executive, we was just executive sous, and when I got her on the side, she was the sweetest woman. She had like a son and loved foraging for mushrooms, but like in that kitchen, I mean she was somebody different. I mean she would get angry and get yell and hit the things. The chef would do the same thing, but you could tell she wasn’t being herself. She had to be this level so you could hear her too. So, it wasn’t just like the guys telling you that you messed that up or to redo. She had to be like the way the chef was getting at you so that, I don’t know you felt like you respected her more because she was the only one. So, it was a lot of that.
And then, just unreachable positions where you had to be there a certain amount of time. I mean, back back in the day, the guys were just rude too. They would just like throw things when you walked by. Also, you know, you got called a lot of cute names and it didn’t put you at a level where it felt like they respected you, you know? Like, ‘Eh, don’t call me that. Why aren’t you calling me like chef too?’ Like I am. So, it takes thick skin and take your knowledge to prove them wrong. And at this point, I’m a specific chef because of it you know like I am stern; I like I need things done. I’m like you know, but I’m also like mamma bear. That exterior that you have to be only demanding. Like no. These are people. They’re my employees. If I see that they need comforting like I’m going to go over there and give them a hug and be like, you know, ‘What do you need?’
So, I think the world is changing slowly very slowly, but I think through the pandemic I’ve seen certain groups pulled together for women and for women of color. I’m Latina. That puts me, like even though I’m a woman, I’m a Latin woman that puts me even lower. Like I, I should be the dishwasher. So, and that’s how they see it in kitchens like oh, okay, and I think now where we have voices and we’re kind of breaking rules and opening popups. And like it’s no longer this black and white of you have to have a brick and mortar, you have to go to school. You have to have this much. It’s like s— no. We have cooking skills, and we know what we’re doing. And for me, it’s like I have all the knowledge, all this background, like I know what I’m doing. I don’t need that space to make it my own for somebody to come and respect me. So, I think through the pandemic I’ve seen a lot of changes. A lot of groups. Regarding Her is one of them. And every month they are doing something for women. For restaurants run by women.
POOL: What do you think are the differences between cities like New York or LA? Like are there marked differences between the two or any of the other cities you’ve work in?
DURAN-ZECCA: Well, I think they just breed different chefs. As much as I love LA, it’s, there’s no rules you’re like in sunny California here. Like, you know, go to the farmers market, smoke a j, make whatever you want to make. There’s so many Michelin stars within so many short blocks radius in Manhattan. It’s like wow the amount of quality that you have. Like even when I went to Le Bernardin they almost wanted me straight from culinary school. They hated that I had experienced because they wanted to train me their way. They cut chives a specific way. It’s like, almost like I walked into like the school of Le Bernadin, and I was flunking because I had too much experience. So I was like, oh okay, this is opposite.
But in New York, it was, yes, very higher like grade level where I felt, if you didn’t show up for work, don’t try to get another job at any restaurant that that person knows because you’re blacklisted one and two here’s like 1000 people waiting for that job, so you don’t, like if you didn’t call like just expect never to go back. Whereas here I don’t know how many people I get that don’t show up in a shift. So then like they come the next day like, ‘Oh my God, my cell phone died and then the car battery and then the baby’. And ‘I’m like oh cool. Okay, that’s my problem.’ So, it’s very different. You know like a different breed.
POOL: Do you think one is like more friendly to women like because the different cultures? Or do you think less that it’s not friendly and its more that it’s just different.
DURAN-ZECCA: I think it’s just different. I think, God, this is a hard one. Now you’re having me think because now I’m like comparing them so like meticulously closed by side by side. I think overall it’s just that there’s not that many female executive chefs, I think, in both cities. I think in New York you have to prove yourself a little bit more. I think you definitely need to put your head down and like learn your skills and learn your craft and be an asset that they can’t get rid of.
And here I just feel like, oh, like you like to cook, cool, you do it great. Then there’s the ones that have passion and you can tell because they’re the ones that are hustling the most. So, I think that they’re both open to women. I just think like more old school kitchens that haven’t had somebody in there that’s like changed the mentality. Or changed someone’s mind to be like look at me differently, because there’s still some in both cities.
POOL: Kind of going into that it’s been found that women are being disproportionately impacted by Covid because of different things like childcare is usually left to them and with schools being closed and all of that. Have you seen a significant impact on the executive level and then like down into like your line chefs?
DURAN-ZECCA: It’s hard really. For me in my kitchen we shifted. We all just kind of stayed in homes and I had projects for people to do. So, I think it didn’t impact us as much because it almost gave us more time with our kids. Yes, we had to work, but I think that we were making it work. But I do know a lot of my other friends that it has impacted them tremendously because their brick and mortar solely rest on their shoulders. So, they were the ones having to be there 24 hours a day with the chef. Or they were the chef. And yeah, it’s it was difficult. They have more than one kid and it was stressful. Then, they couldn’t have their parents over. So, a lot of it has.
Also, I’ve seen a lot of movement, like a lot of my friends moved closer to home or in different areas where they thought it was like cheaper so that they could try to get at least somebody at the house. So, its been sad to see like all of it happen and a lot of good places closed, but I think it has also been something like, like I said, a little bit like a little light at the end of the tunnel. A little bit something great because I think some of these organizations have been able to push and to show this is, you know, it’s challenging and it’s hitting us hard because like you said, we’re the ones usually at home and taking care of things.
And now you know we have no employees, so it’s me up to me. I know that we did do a residency for a few months, and it was extremely challenging. I think I didn’t like who I was the last three months because of how much I was working, but I had no staff, and nobody wanted to come back. I mean they were furloughed and now I have like something, but it’s not worth the amount that they’re going make you know just sitting home. So yes, it’s been a very challenging but slightly good year. So, we were open for like two weeks, so then quickly had to close in December. So, I had staff and then I lost everybody again. Then in December we decided to do to go so I was able to hire on somebody else. Then in January, like somewhere in January, we got the word that we could open up outdoor again. So, then it was like, I wanted a hire everybody and nobody could come back so it was ended up being like me and my one guy cooking crazy numbers every night and we were just so exhausted and so beat down. I was like I haven’t felt this in so long. I’m like, am opening a restaurant? No, I’m just like cooking.
So, it was a lot of stop pivot, adjust. And then in the beginning of Covid it was well, how do you do takeout? How do you do it safe? How do you, I mean you then it became like order your food and we’ll open your trunk, take it out. Give me your car and make. Then people wanted to start donating to hospitals. I mean it was beautiful. Like people sending in money like $15, $20. So, then I began to say, okay, $90 will get 18 nurses fed. So, once I hit 90 then I’ll start making food and send it to a hospital. So, I just kept opening it up, like where 15 short from 90 to feed another hospital. So, we were able to do at least 10 hospitals like that. And then Covid’s number rose like real high. So then hospitals stopped taking donations. It was only food that they were allowed to bring in.
And then the boxes. So, just kind of how do we do something fun at home without making? And that’s what I kept hearing to a lot of my friends like who don’t want to cook. They love to cook, and they were just like I hate now. I’m at home. I have two kids. It’s like lunch and dinner and you know my husband wants breakfast. And they’s like I don’t know how you cook this much. Like I hate it. So, I was like okay, how do I either make things that they can make easily, or you know have them cook at home together?
POOL: So more of like a fun question. What is your favorite part of being a chef? And what is your favorite dish to make?
DURAN-ZECCA: My favorite part of being a chef is the creativity. The no rules. And seeing somebody’s face light up when they have a dish of yours or they personally have to come and thank you because it’s something that, you know, reminded them of a memory or, you know, they just thought it was freaking good, you know, that they had to come tell you. It’s an amazing feeling.
My favorite dish to cook? I’d have to pasta, so anyone of my pasta. I really love agnolotti. They’re a little like ravioli pillow shape. I love making the dough by hand, filling it, like making it come alive. So yeah, I’d say a little ravioli filled with corn and it’s like a take on an elote.
POOL: Do you have any advice for young women who may be looking to getting into the industry.
DURAN-ZECCA: Find the mentor. Find somebody that really, you know, speaks to what you want to do and learn the most that you can from that person. I think that’s like the first step in really guiding you and what you want to do in this career. And working for the right person will really just structurally make you go far because they’re the ones that you’ll turn to when you need to work somewhere else.
And the kitchen is a really tight knit family, so you want to be good. You don’t want to quit. You always want to show up on time and you want to love what you do. If you don’t love it, then this isn’t the right path for you.
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POOL: This interview was recorded April 2, 2021 and the podcast was produced by Sara Pool.