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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.

But then, says Ketchum, something interesting happened: "I noticed that my staff went from absolutely hating David to having a sort of respect for him. He would spend time with them, training them and teaching them how to do things correctly and really teaching them his passion for food."

Ketchum promoted Guerrero to the executive chef position, and the two helped transform Samba Grille into a downtown destination. The menu morphed into something more than just a steakhouse as Ketchum and Guerrero found that they made a perfect team: Guerrero as conceptualist, Ketchum as executor.

"David would come up with dishes and then we would taste them together," says Ketchum. "After tasting, we would tweak the dishes and from there we would decide if they would go on as specials or get added to the menu." Although Guerrero struggled in areas such as balancing the acidity in certain dishes, Ketchum said, "with some help, he can always balance the flavors well."

“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
 

Location Info

Map

Alma Cebiche & Bar

1275 Eldridge Pkwy
Houston, TX 77077

Category: Restaurant > Peruvian

Region: Memorial

Details

Critics and diners soon took notice of the inventive dishes and lavished praise on the young chef. His memories of flavor returned as he worked, helped along by tasters like Ketchum. And the hard work that paid off in such visible successes meant that Guerrero was getting easier to work with. He was so devoted to Samba Grille that his Twitter handle was simply @chefdavidsamba. He even started dancing again.

"Every Friday or Saturday night after service, when the kitchen staff was cleaning up the kitchen, David would disappear into the bathroom for a while and come out all spic and span with his hair all perfectly coiffed, with some button-down, loud-print shirt on and a pair of dark jeans, looking like Ricky Martin's cousin ready to head out to go salsa dancing," Ketchum laughs.

But only a year after receiving the coveted title of executive chef, he was out of a job once more. Samba Grille closed just shy of its two-year anniversary, a victim of the quiet downtown evenings and lunch services that find more diners in the underground tunnels than out on the streets.

Guerrero posted a simple message on his Facebook wall after the closing was announced: "I left my soul, heart and passion in this place. Thanks to everybody who showed me love and support and who believes in this cuisine. We'll be back soon. Salud."
_____________________

"We've already had to change the menu twice in two weeks," Guerrero grumbles as he fusses over a sheet of paper showing Alma's lunch specials. Despite the success of other South American restaurants in Houston — restaurants like Américas, Churrascos and Latin Bites — the type of Peruvian cuisine Alma serves is still somewhat unfamiliar to many Houstonians.

"When I was living in Jersey and New York, it was so easy to have them understand it because there's a huge community there, a huge culture. But where I'm struggling with Houstonians is that they're used to Tex-Mex or Mexican," he says.

"They don't have any problem to pronounce 'tortillas' or to pronounce 'guacamole,'" he laughs. "But when it comes to Peruvian or South American cuisines, it's, 'Oh, we don't understand the menu.'" Most of Alma's customers don't know that Peruvian cuisine incorporates influences from China — as seen in the smoky chifa rice dishes — or Japan, to which the ceviches and tiraditos of Peruvian cuisine trace their roots.

Although Guerrero isn't from Peru — he's originally from Ecuador, Peru's neighbor to the north — it's Peruvian cuisine that he's had a love affair with for years, starting in Patterson, New Jersey. Guerrero landed there as a teenager along with his parents when they moved from Ecuador seeking work. When his parents eventually returned to Ecuador after several years, Guerrero decided to stay. He'd started working in kitchens and found that he was hooked.

But he was also still a kid with a bad attitude, recalls Ruben Ortega. Ortega and his brother Hugo run two of Houston's best restaurants — Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe — and that's where Ortega first met Guerrero. It was a chance encounter, with neither man knowing the eventual influence they'd have on one another, nor that they'd one day become close friends.

"Back then he was a punk," says Ortega. Guerrero was hired as a line cook at Hugo's when he first came to Houston looking for work seven years ago, but didn't stay at the Mexican restaurant very long. "At the time, he was going out and partying and shit like that. At work, we told him, 'You need to do this this way, do this that way.' Simple stuff. David didn't like that, and he walked out." Guerrero had only worked at Hugo's for two weeks.

Guerrero acknowledges that he was difficult to work with and — later — work for.

"The guys [at Hugo's] used to say, 'If you will listen to me, you will be a better chef,' but I didn't pay attention to that," Guerrero sighs. "I was very young, and I was very wild. I was a Latin guy — very silly, you know?" he chuckles.

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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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