Tucson chef Armando Duarte takes pride in his Southwest-Mexican upbringing. As a native Tucsonan, his inspiration for cooking goes back to when his grandmother made tamales from scratch.
“I started cooking at an early age with my parents. I grew up in kitchens since I can remember,” Duarte said. “During the summers when school was out I would spend time with my grandma, I remember dozens and dozens of tamales all over the counters in the kitchen – I would help her scrub the corn and clean it which was fun.”
Duarte has been cooking professionally for fifteen years. In this time, he has also started the nonprofit organization Chef’s Feeding Families, which provides gourmet Thanksgiving meals for families who cannot afford them.
“I try to be the total opposite of what people typically do,” Duarte said. “Doing the traditional is just not me as a chef.”
For example, Duarte got the idea to make a carrot salsa for a recent salsa competition after making baby food for his daughters. He threw in cilantro, heat, lime, and honey to wow judges at the contest.
He now works at Jim Click as a chef and caters at special events like weddings and quinceañeras.
Before becoming a professional chef, Duarte completed a summary culinary program at Pima Community College, where an instructor from the program pulled him aside to tell him he should attend culinary school full time. A year and a half later, he went on to graduate from a culinary school in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“I can never replicate my mother’s food, even as simple as making a sandwich, I guess it’s just her love,” Duarte laughed.
Upon graduating from culinary school, he saw an opening for a private chef position in a fraternity house at the University of Arizona. He ended up taking it along with his cousin, who is also a chef.
“It was a different kind of gig than a fancy restaurant or resort, so we ended up taking a left turn and it kind of led to a different culinary field,” Duarte said.
Duarte was eventually sent to Arizona State University to open up a kitchen for another fraternity. Shortly after, a sorority wanted him on campus and he went back to work at the University of Arizona for about five years as a personal chef.
Afterwards, Duarte had a chance to open his own business as a corporate chef for Royal Automotive Group.
After six years, he went on to have his own food truck for a year, but it was not consistent. At that time, his first daughter was on the way so he decided to take the chef position at Jim Click and maintain his catering business on the side.
“I did a catering gig once at a ranch in Northern Arizona where was no water, no nothing which was kind of exciting,” Duarte said. “I had to bring the water up there in a truck and propane.”
Now, Duarte is on to another new endeavor. He recently started MEAN Cuisine Prep Meals, a small meal prepping service, after a friend approached him about paying him for weekly meals. For now, his catering business customers find him through word of mouth or Facebook.
“I now have a good amount of clients and they pick their protein, starches, veggies,” Duarte said. “I also have a handful of single mothers that used to go to the drive-through for dinners and at least now they know they’re getting home cooked, local products that I use in the meals and they seem to enjoy it more,” Duarte said.
Duarte’s goal for his new meal prepping service is to eventually open a brick and mortar shop stocked with fridges and microwaves so that that people pick up meals and either eat them there or take them to go.
“That’s the easiest and quickest way to have a place because the meals would be served cold and ready to go,” Duarte said.
He is getting ready to launch a website and a mobile app, where customers can see the menu and place orders.
“Cooking can be the expression of how you’re feeling that day,” Duarte said. “It’s an art, I love colors, and I love to draw, so the artistic side of cooking is really cool. I love bringing a smile to people’s faces when they try something good or new for the first time.”
Connect with Armando Duarte through his Facebook page, MEAN Cuisine Prep Means by Armando Duarte.