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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 while his temper has lessened with time and his illness, Guerrero struggles with another demon. The 2,500 milligrams of anticonvulsants he takes every day to prevent his cancer-ravaged brain from causing him to have seizures come with a terrible side effect: tremendous mood swings that take Guerrero from dizzying highs to vicious lows. "Sometimes I can be very aggressive," he admits. "But I don't like to treat people bad."

A week after my visit to Alma, Alex Bremont left Guerrero and the restaurant in the wake of too many disagreements and arguments in the kitchen. Bremont declined an interview to explain his own reasons for leaving. Guerrero was clearly gutted at the loss of his sous chef. On the phone, he sounded like a man defeated.

"I'm pretty much doing everything on my own right now," he said. And with a pause, he admitted: "I think I made a mistake. I think we mixed business with friendship and it didn't work out, but he's very talented and I don't hold anything against him."

“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
 

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Alma Cebiche & Bar

1275 Eldridge Pkwy
Houston, TX 77077

Category: Restaurant > Peruvian

Region: Memorial

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"I don't know exactly where he went," Guerrero continues. "I haven't talked to him. I even asked him, 'As a favor, please. Stick around with me.'" But it was too late.

Guerrero's cancer is currently in remission, although no one knows for how long. It, too, could be back soon. Or it could take another five years. And when it does return, there's nothing else Guerrero can do about it.

"Like an octopus, [oligogliomas] have a head but many tentacles or fingers that extend long distances into the brain," explains Dr. David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery in the Department of Neurosurgery at the Methodist Hospital Neurological Institute. "You can take out the head and try to chase the fingers a little bit," but the brain has so many delicate areas that it's difficult to dive in and remove them all. And when the tumor recurs, Dr. Baskin says, "it tracks long distances into the brain."

Some of these oligogliomas are responsive to specific chemo and radiation, but Guerrero's is not. "I was supposed to take chemotherapy right after surgery, and I never did," Guerrero says, citing the fact that it would only prolong his life and wouldn't cure the cancer entirely. Further surgery has also been deemed out of the question, since it would likely result in another stroke and permanent paralysis.

These days, the only medication Guerrero takes is those daily anticonvulsants. He's adamant about moving away from traditional medicine and seeking a $50,000 course of treatment at the highly controversial Burzynski Clinic. "There's one cure," he says, "and that's by Dr. Burzynski."

Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski is notorious within the medical community for his promotion of "antineoplaston therapy," a treatment that consists of administering peptides, amino acids that are meant to inhibit the growth of cancer proteins. The therapy has never been proven effective in any independent studies. The FDA has never approved any of the antineoplaston treatments for either cancer or any other disease. Even the American Cancer Society recommends that people not waste their money at the clinic. And in a Houston Press feature on Burzynski by reporter Craig Malisow in 2009, critics claimed that all Burzynski is doing is "selling hope at a high price."

Guerrero is aware of all this. He believes in Burzynski regardless, especially after watching a movie made by one of Burzynski's supporters in 2010.

"The documentary on YouTube made me cry," Guerrero says of viewing Burzysnki: The Movie online. "They took him to the Supreme Court like he was a criminal, like he was the biggest criminal in the world," he says, shaking his head. Guerrero can't believe Burzynski is treated in such a way, and is actively saving money to finally visit the man he hopes holds a cure.

It's a situation which Baskin is familiar with after years of treating cancer patients at Methodist. "When people are desperate, they turn to alternative medication," he says. "It's natural to turn to that. How can one fault an individual for seeking it out after they've been told by good doctors that conventional medication is not working?

"God knows if it was me, I might do the same thing," admits Baskin. "There's a saying in the army: 'There's no atheists in the foxholes.' When the chips are down, people can say, 'I wouldn't do this' or 'I wouldn't do that,' but at the end of the day, you try to do anything you can to live. There's nothing wrong with that."
_____________________

In the intervening years since they first met, Ruben Ortega and David Guerrero have become close. Ortega and his brother Hugo inspired Guerrero's fierce work ethic as well as one of his most closely held beliefs: that anyone can make it if they just try.

"These line cooks, these young guys who don't speak English or don't have papers and who think they are just cooks — I want to let them know that you can actually fall in love with this career and be an owner, be a chef, be whatever you want," says Guerrero. "In three years I may be gone, but I want these guys to know that if you have a dream, go for it."

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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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