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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.

Two weeks later, he was undergoing brain surgery to excise the six-inch tumor growing in the right side of his brain, the skin of his skull flayed open and screws stabilizing his head so that the conscious Guerrero wouldn't move during the operation. The neurosurgical team needed to map his mind while they removed the tumor, to make certain they didn't damage any vital areas of Guerrero's brain. Everything was going smoothly. And then something terrible ­happened.

"I started feeling cold from my waist down," says Guerrero of the sensation of slipping away while the blood slowly stopped its passage to his brain. "It started getting more intense, and then I started feeling crazy weak. I could hear the beating of my heart and a lot of commotion, and then I went to sleep." When he woke up, Guerrero says, he was in a dark tunnel. He could feel water rushing around his feet. He didn't know where he was. And he could only see one thing ahead.

"I looked up and I saw an eye, just one eye," Guerrero says. The eye was green, with gold toward the iris, he recalls with precision. "For me, it was God. And a voice asked me, 'David, do you want to live?'"

Guerrero works the woks at Alma to create chifa-style dishes that fuse Chinese and Peruvian food in one of the country’s signature hybrid cuisines.
Jeff Myers
Guerrero works the woks at Alma to create chifa-style dishes that fuse Chinese and Peruvian food in one of the country’s signature hybrid cuisines.
 
Jeff Myers
 

When Guerrero woke up a second time, he was back in the hospital. He had suffered a massive stroke during brain surgery, which had rendered the entire left side of his body paralyzed. While he could still speak and understand Spanish, his English and Portuguese were gone. Later, he would learn, so was his ability to play the piano and dance salsa — two of his favorite pastimes. Far worse, however, was the news that the chef had completely lost his sense of taste.

That was 30 months ago. Today, Guerrero is following his lifelong dream by opening his own restaurant — and is in the planning stages of opening another. It's all part of the path he's set for himself in his remaining years to leave a legacy here in Houston. He wants people to remember him, to remember how his one passion in life was cooking. That's why he's chosen to spend the rest of his life — no matter how long that is — working 70 hours a week at Alma, all the while working on plans for his second restaurant, Evo.
_____________________

After his initial brain surgery and stroke left him paralyzed and without his sense of taste, Guerrero suffered another blow: Tracy McGrady was being traded to the Detroit Pistons. Guerrero had no choice but to remain behind at Memorial Hermann, where he was undergoing intense physical therapy at The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. And after McGrady left Houston, Guerrero's insurance ran out.

He'd already been paying $1,500 a week for therapy on top of what his insurance covered. Now, with no insurance, no job and very little money left, Guerrero needed to leave TIRR and start working once more. It didn't matter that he was still having a hard time using his left hand or that his sense of taste was now nonexistent.

But no one wanted to take a chance on someone with his health issues. His shaved head and surgery scars scared away potential clients looking for a private chef. At his lowest, Guerrero admits, he was evicted three times and lost his car. His girlfriend left him. He pushed away all of his friends. His family was back in Ecuador. He had no one in his life save a cab driver he paid $50 a day to drive him to job interviews and doctors' appointments. He tried to kill himself by overdosing on his anticonvulsants, but they did nothing.

And then, finally, a few Houston chefs cut him a break: David Denis at Le Mistral gave him a temp job in November 2010. Later that winter, Philippe Schmit hired him as a tournant chef. And from there, Guerrero was hired away into the kitchen that would change his life.

Samba Grille, a downtown steakhouse that had been garnering great reviews under its current chef, Cesar Rodriguez, needed a sous chef. Owners Estella Erdmann and Nathan Ketchum were well aware of Guerrero's situation, but saw through his illness to the passion below.

"I am not one to count someone out for having gone through a life-changing experience," Ketchum says. "If anything, I am more likely to believe that they are more apt to work harder and have a true passion and sense of purpose in their life." And Guerrero did indeed find his passion and purpose at Samba Grille, where he started as sous chef in May 2011.

But shortly afterward, Chef Rodriguez left and the executive chef position was available. Guerrero, his head full of ideas gleaned from the countless cookbooks that litter his apartment and the endless videos and cooking shows on YouTube he watches in his spare time, was ready to step up into the role — even if the rest of the kitchen wasn't on board.

"The staff was very scared that we were going to promote David to exec chef, and they complained and threatened to quit," recalls Ketchum. "David was relatively new, and they did not exactly like him. He came in with very strict rules, a very strict schedule and was very into training each member of the kitchen ­individually."

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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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