During more than a decade in the industry, Dan Maldonado has seen many sides of the commercial kitchen, starting as a prep cook and dishwasher at Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion before becoming a sous chef at Moon Valley Country Club. He's run his own restaurant, the now-defunct Tacos Atoyac, and most recently, he's at the helm of Mucho Macho Taco in Central Phoenix.
And it all began with F-16 fighter jets.
Before entering the culinary world, Maldonado worked as a mechanic in the military. Eventually, he was granted leave because of a hearing problem and was given a couple of options. He could go to work — but Maldonado decided he didn't want to be stuck behind a computer screen in an office. Or he could cash in on free schooling courtesy of the government.
“They said, ‘You can go to culinary school, but nobody goes for that,’" Maldonado remembers. "I said, 'Sign me up! When do I go?'"
So in 2003, at 30, Maldonado enrolled at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute. The experience built on his existing passion for food, which the Chilean-born Maldonado says started when he was a child.
“In Chile, you don't go over to somebody’s house without eating multiple times," he says. "It’s always been food, food, food."
After school, he spent a brief period of time working at Roy’s before he was offered the sous chef position at Moon Valley Country Club.
After leaving that job, Maldonado spent time as an executive chef at Arrowhead Country Club; opened restaurants, including the Chop House in Park City, Utah; and eventually found his way back to Arizona to open the Oaxacan-style restaurant Tacos Atoyac with a friend from Moon Valley. The small restaurant become a popular destination with Valley food lovers, and Maldonado remembers his time at Tacos Atoyac as the “best time of my life.” Ultimately he and partner Pablo Lopez ended up closing the eatery about two years ago.
Today you can find Maldonado at Mucho Macho Taco — an evolving endeavor.
While the original menu included nontraditional takes on Mexican fare including bacon tacos and hummus burritos, the new menu sticks more to the basics. Tacos options include lengua, braised beef, and al pastor, and the menu also offers burritos and tacos.
For Maldonado, it's about balancing the front of the house with the kitchen. It's not easy, but there's nowhere he'd rather be.
“I could be in the back cutting meat all day and making salsas, or I could be out here in the middle of the rush,” he says. “At the end of the day it’s like, shit man, we just want to cook. I can’t even explain it; it’s the best feeling in the world to me.”