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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.

Ortega is one of the few friends Guerrero has these days, since Guerrero spends almost all of his time at Alma or planning his next restaurant, Evo.

"I don't have a regular life," Guerrero says. "Most of my friends are far away, and I don't get to see them." But after a chance meeting at the grand opening of Mexican restaurant La Fisheria last year, he reconnected with the man who'd made such an impact on him at Hugo's. He and Ortega became friends on Facebook and the two chefs found that they now shared a lot of common ground — except when it came to dancing.

"We went to dance salsa one night," recalls Ortega. "I'm a really bad dancer, even though I'm Mexican," he laughs. "But David was on point."

“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
 

Ortega believes that Guerrero's cooking is on point, too. "I think it's going to be a little bit difficult over there on Eldridge [at Alma], but I think the whole idea he has for Evo will be great."

Evo, as Guerrero imagines it, is a high-concept restaurant in Montrose the likes of which Houston has never seen. He wants to employ a brigade of Hispanic chefs cooking food from 22 different Latin American countries — from Cuba to Portugal to Guatemala to Chile — with tasting menus inspired not by seasons or flavors but by memories and feelings.

When Guerrero talks about Evo, his face and gestures become more animated with every passing breath. In the same way that Beethoven's deafness influenced the music he wrote later in life, Guerrero's lost sense of taste means that his menus and his food are more inspired by the other sensations that arise when one eats or even contemplates a meal. He's moved beyond thinking about food in terms of mere sensory pleasure. Instead, he thinks of it in terms of shared connections and memories. He thinks about its place in our collective subconscious and as a transmitter of culture, as important as music or language.

"He told me that he wants to do stuff by memory," says Ortega. "Tastings that come from the heart and the memory and the soul. I told him, 'Either you're crazy or I don't know what you're doing.' We had a conversation for 20 minutes until I got the point."

And when he did, Ortega was astonished. "I can't wait for that Evo thing to develop because it's gonna be awesome," he beams. "I'm really proud of him. He realizes that life is like this: 'Here I am, this is my name and this is my restaurant,'" says Ortega. "That's the bottom line."

When Guerrero was 21 years old, a newspaper back in Patterson, New Jersey, interviewed him for an article about young cooks. When asked what he wanted to do with his life, Guerrero answered: "Have my own restaurant by the time I'm 30."

Now that he does, he says that he feels incredibly lucky — not just in spite of, but because of his cancer. "I can't taste," he says, "but at least I can cook and create and have people writing about that and have somebody believe in me enough to open a restaurant with me. I definitely don't want any pity."

Guerrero often tells a story about roughhousing as a kid. He'd broken his legs, his arms, his nose and his fingers playing the way kids do. And after breaking his occipital bone — one of the hardest bones in the body — on top of all those old injuries, he thought something like brain surgery would be a breeze.

"I wasn't expecting it to be that hard," he says. "It's been tough to understand and accept. But I'm blessed because I get to enjoy my life and live my dreams."

It's a crazy feeling, mixed up with equal parts excitement over his new ventures and acceptance of the finality of his situation. "I still don't feel whole," he says. "I still have a bad temper and a lot of frustration. But I understand that I am so blessed. I have a reason to be here, you know?" Even if he won't be here for long.

"You're already dead. You're already dead," he repeats like a mantra, one that keeps him grounded and sane while he goes about his day. "You're mentally ready for it. But look at me now: I'm here dancing, working — just like a normal person." He stops, chuckles. "Well, working 60, 70 hours a week like a normal chef. I just don't see myself dying."

katharine.shilcutt@houstonpress.com

Correction: We misattributed a quote from David Guerrero regarding his work experience. It should have read: "The guys [at Philippe] used to say, 'If you will listen to me, you will be a better chef,' but I didn't pay attention to that." The age at which Guerrero gave an interview to a New Jersey paper was also incorrect. Guerrero was 29 years old, not 21.

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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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