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."
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.
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.
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?'"
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."
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."
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.
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 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."
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."
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."
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.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.