Chef Armando Pomales is pictured at Café Central, his restaurant in El Paso, Texas. (Photo/Courtesy Alex de Icaza)

Chef Spotlight: Armando Pomales on making El Paso one of the nation’s culinary hubs

Vitals: Armando Pomales may be of mixed Puerto Rican-Mexican descent, but the chef is 100% Texan, having proudly spent his entire life in El Paso, Texas. Happily married and father to one daughter, Pomales is the executive chef at El Paso’s Café Central. His focus on contemporary American dining infused with global flavors – he counts Mexican and Asian influences among his favorites – have earned him several nominations for Best Chef-Southwest by the James Beard Foundation.

Experience: Pomales enrolled at El Paso Community College Culinary School immediately after graduating from high school. He went on to train at Café Central, where he has held nearly every job in the kitchen (think salad, line cook, chef de cuisine) before becoming executive chef in 2004. He is currently working on his first cookbook based on the restaurant’s most popular recipes and is also in the process of creating a line of salad dressings that will soon hit El Paso-area supermarkets.

How home economics classes inspired him: “In high school I was a football player, a jock. So naturally, I tried to take all the easiest classes – including home ec. I really took a liking to cooking. I loved the idea of taking a raw product and creating an amazing final result that would make someone smile. Those early classes exposed me to the culinary world and slowly but surely, I realized that this field was something I could make a career of – and I have.”

On staying in El Paso, Texas: “I originally stayed here because the money was tight; I didn’t have the resources to go East to a school like the Culinary Institute of America or Johnson & Wales. And now I’ve realized how important it is for me to stay here – I want to be one of the people who helps make El Paso grow. This city is a melting pot of flavors and we have yet to fully realize our potential here as a culinary destination. If we all left, El Paso would struggle and I feel responsibility to stay here and make it a destination city like Austin and Houston have become.”

Why he refuses to call his food Tex-Mex: “El Paso is known for great Mexican food, but there is a growing community of chefs who want to get away from that to show that we’re capable of more than that. I use Mexican flavors, but add a twist whether it be with French technique or by using Asian influences. But don’t call it southwestern or Tex-Mex cuisine – I just don’t dig that name. I don’t mean to offend anyone in that category, but my goal has always been to represent a world of different flavors and cultures on my menu.”

What he’s currently craving: “On the menu we’re currently featuring a seared scallop with wild mushroom risotto, mussel cream and a little strawberry foam. The mushrooms are all from northwest Texas – a mix of porcinis, morels and lobster mushrooms. It’s really important to me to use local produce and while sometimes it’s hard to get great seafood, we have amazing purveyors who find me incredible ingredients. And then I use a little bit of the chipotle in the strawberry foam which really gives the entire dish a great kick that enhances the rich, meaty flavors of the mushroom. Believe me – it is fantastic.”

The tool he can’t live without: “I can’t imagine being separated from my chef’s knife. I also love my vacuum sealer and circulator. I use the two to sous vide, which allows for such precise cooking. But I’m really dependent on my vacuum sealer, which I use every day to preserve the ingredients we buy in bulk.”

On the real reason why breakfast is his specialty: “My pride and joy is my little girl, who is four years old. My one-on-one time with her is in the morning and we do the whole thing: I dress her, comb her hair and make her breakfast. She’s really into hard-boiled egg whites right now, so I rough chop those with a bit of white truffle oil drizzled on top. She also loves waffles and I do lots of pancakes, with blueberries or bananas and turkey sausage on the side. No matter how busy the rest of the day is, we have breakfast together and I tuck her into bed at night. There’s nothing like family and it’s important for me to have that balance.”

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