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Chef Endures Cancer, Loss of Sense of Taste

A stroke, a brain tumor and the loss of his sense of taste haven't kept Chef David Guerrero out of the kitchen.

Chef Endures Cancer, Loss of Sense of Taste

It's not yet time for lunch at Alma Ceviche & Bar in far west Houston, but the restaurant is already busy at 10 a.m. even if the tables themselves are still empty. The kitchen is gearing up for the afternoon as prep cooks bustle and servers set tables. Chef David Guerrero has just arrived to oversee the day's activities at his new restaurant, which is only two weeks old. Along with his investors, Guerrero transformed the restaurant from its old occupant, Chatters, into Alma in only five days — and hasn't taken a break since.

Guerrero stands at the new ceviche bar in one corner of the large dining room, where four stools are set up to allow guests to watch as he prepares his signature dish using long, elegant, silver tweezers to gently plate fat kernels of choclo corn and vibrant orange slices of sweet potato. Bent nearly double as he peers closely at the plate, Guerrero places the vegetables alongside the fresh Gulf white fish that he's cured in lime juice with ají limon, giving it even more of a spicy, citrusy punch.

"I'm not Peruvian, but I know how to eat," he explains. "I've eaten so many items, even more than a Peruvian person."

“I’m not Peruvian, but I know how to eat,” says Guerrero. He works from memory when he creates his signature Peruvian dishes, from all the times he’s made and tasted them before.
Jeff Myers
“I’m not Peruvian, but I know how to eat,” says Guerrero. He works from memory when he creates his signature Peruvian dishes, from all the times he’s made and tasted them before.
 
Jeff Myers
 

Guerrero introduces his right-hand man, sous chef Alex Bremont, who's been instrumental in helping taste-test the dishes that Guerrero thinks up. It's an incredibly important task, and a supporting role that was unnecessary earlier in Guerrero's career.

Chef Guerrero has no sense of taste. It was lost during a stroke that he suffered at the age of 28, lying on an operating table while surgeons attempted to remove a malignant tumor from his brain.

While a sliver of that sense has returned in the two years since it was lost, Guerrero can taste only spicy flavors — no sour, no sweet, no bitter, no salty. Despite this, he garnered wide acclaim as executive chef at Samba Grille, where critics and diners alike praised his deftly seasoned, perfectly grilled beef heart anticuchos and his complex, decidedly modern ceviches.

Today he works from memory, from all the times he's made ceviches before and from all the times he's tasted his own creations. There's so much more to food than just the way it tastes, so much that's dependent on other senses. The texture is important — is a soup silky enough? Is a chifa-style rice dish dried out? Is the fish rubbery or tough? — as are the temperature and the way it looks once it's plated. Guerrero can even tell from a few sniffs if a dish contains too much garlic or not enough lime.

Guerrero isn't the first chef to lose his sense of taste, nor even the most acclaimed. Grant Achatz, the James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef famous for his multi-course tasting menus at Alinea, lost his sense of taste while undergoing treatment for tongue cancer when radiation courses burned his mouth and tongue so badly that his taste buds were left charred and temporarily off-line. Achatz eventually made a full recovery from his bout with cancer and regained his sense of taste. But unlike Achatz, Guerrero's own cancer hasn't been quite as cooperative.

David Guerrero — his sense of taste destroyed, his brain ravaged — just opened a restaurant, and is about to open a second one. He is also dying.
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There is a sticky, web-like tumor inside Guerrero's brain with a name so unpronounceable it almost seems like a joke: oligodendroglioma. That it is growing inside his young brain is even more of a joke; Guerrero is barely 30 years old.

There weren't even any signs of a brain tumor before it was caught two years ago. Oligogliomas like Guerrero's usually first manifest themselves in seizures and fierce headaches. This never happened to Guerrero. Instead, he was living a perfectly charmed life as the private chef to Houston Rockets superstar Tracy McGrady, cooking for McGrady's family on a daily basis and enjoying nights out salsa dancing with his friends and girlfriend.

On April 17, 2010 — a normal Saturday — Guerrero was pushing McGrady's youngest child, Laycee, on a swing in the backyard before lunch and accidentally hit his head on the swing set. It was nothing. But the McGradys' house manager saw Guerrero hit his head and insisted that he get the bump checked out at the hospital.

Guerrero was antsy, annoyed to be at the hospital for no reason. "I was like, 'Come on, lemme go; it's nothing,'" he remembers. A routine CAT scan and MRI later, the then-28-year-old was told very matter-of-factly that the "nothing" was actually a cancerous tumor growing in his brain.

"When the doctor told me I had a brain tumor, the first thing I asked him was how long did I have," Guerrero recalls of that spring day more than two years ago. He was given a devastating answer: between 13 and 18 months. "I went nuts, I went crazy, I started crying," Guerrero says. It was a powerless, numbing feeling.

But then — just as matter-of-factly — Guerrero went straight back to work that Monday morning. He told his boss the news: He had a tumor growing in his brain and he didn't know what to do about it. Luckily, Guerrero had medical insurance at the time and his boss had connections to Dr. Nitin Tandon, a neurosurgeon at Memorial Hermann. Tandon gave Guerrero hope that the initial diagnosis was perhaps too hasty and that a large majority of the tumor itself could be removed.

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1 comments
MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I read a similar story in Esquire before I quit that rag. But it was a downer and read like a 2500-word, ax-grinding session. This is inspiring and uplifting. I truly admire Chef Guerrero's attitude and I know my Mrs. will LOVE Chef's wok-fired fish. First rate-writing, Ms. Shilcutt. I'm sure that James Beard food-writing award will look good on your desk. Though if you keep this up, you're gonna need a bigger desk.

 
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