It’s no secret that children are influenced by their environment, learning from the people, places, and things around them. For Eden Prairie resident Amalia Moreno-Damgaard, that meant absorbing the lessons taught by family and food in her native Guatemala.
“I call my grandmother on my mother’s side my north star,” said Moreno-Damgaard.
After her parents’ divorce, she lived with her grandmother in a small town in southeastern Guatemala from age 5 to 9. There, Moreno-Damgaard watched (and sometimes helped) her grandmother run her variety store that sold everything from salt and beans to pyrotechnics for celebrations and gear for horses.
Growing up surrounded by indigenous farms, in a place where everyone shopped at the market at the town plaza and made their own food out of necessity, had quite the effect on Moreno-Damgaard. Now, she’s a chef and entrepreneur who wears many hats, with her focus and mission always coming back to food.
“I have always been surrounded by very good cooks,” she said, speaking of her grandmother and other female family members. “So they have helped shape my cooking (and) culinary career.
“Oftentimes what we observe is what we sometimes become,” she continued.
That’s certainly true in Moreno-Damgaard’s case. She has built her own business almost 2,900 miles north of where her grandmother’s store was located, and the business keeps growing.
Shifting focus from banking
Moreno-Damgaard moved to the United States in her late teens and soon embarked on a career in banking. She worked in various roles, including operations, business development and international banking.
While working at a bank in Kansas City, she met Kenn, the man who would become her husband. In 2001, she moved to the Twin Cities area to work for Wells Fargo with Kenn and their son Jens, who was about 2-1/2 years old. After nearly 20 years in banking, she decided it was time for a career change.
“When you become a parent, your priorities start to change,” she said. “I decided that I wanted to spend more time with my son. I didn’t want to miss his early years.”
Moreno-Damgaard doesn’t regret her time in banking, though.
“My time in banking was time well spent because that is where I formed my business acumen,” she said.
The importance of education and inclusion
She took that business acumen and started Amalia Latin Gourmet in 2005.
Her mission, she said, is to “help organizations of all sizes narrow the awareness gap and develop a broader understanding and appreciation of Latin culture and nuances using healthy, gourmet, traditional cuisine as a platform.”
That is where all those hats come into the picture.
Through Amalia Latin Gourmet, she offers gourmet cooking experiences for companies, serves as a bilingual spokeswoman for food and beverage firms to help them in both American and Hispanic markets, and works as a culinary consultant, assisting with tasks like cultural product labeling. She is also a keynote speaker, addressing companies, galas, and conferences on self-empowerment and Hispanic heritage.
Moreno-Damgaard also found time to write two books.
“Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen” and “Amalia’s Mesoamerican Table” are not just cookbooks, Moreno-Damgaard said. They also teach about Latin culture and history, something she tries to do in every branch of her business. There are 21 Latin American countries, and Moreno-Damgaard’s experience is that people sometimes lump all Latin people and countries together.
“The more diverse (the Latin minority) is, the more confusion there is from people, because there’s a lack of understanding of how we differentiate,” she said.
Moreno-Damgaard doesn’t mind the challenges that come with being a minority and the work to teach others.
“I take those challenges as an opportunity to educate people about equity, about diversity and inclusion,” she said. “People here in Minnesota are eager to learn, and they like to learn — particularly if there is something delicious around it.”
She has also noticed changes since she moved to Minnesota.
“One of the beauties of seeing diversity here in the Twin Cities is that the food has changed considerably, so the Twin Cities has become more delicious,” she said.
Moreno-Damgaard has played a large part in that, but she is not resting on her laurels. Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, during which she will, of course, be busy cooking and teaching.
“My purpose is my mission; my purpose is my work; my work is education — and my core is proudly Guatemalan,” she said.
Moreno-Damgaard’s calendar of events, including her work during Hispanic Heritage Month, can be found here.
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