Chef Chat, Part 1: David Guerrero of Samba Grille, On His Fight with Brain Cancer at 27
When I asked to interview Executive Chef David Guerrero of Samba Grille, I knew very little about him. I didn't know that he'd been diagnosed with brain cancer at the young age of 27, that he'd lost his job, his health insurance, his credit, his hair, his taste buds, his ability to play piano, his ability to speak Portuguese, and more.
Photo by Mai Pham Executive Chef David Guerrero of Samba Grille, a year and a half after having brain surgery
To look and talk to him today -- he has a full head of hair, no visible scars, moves and talks with no apparent difficulty -- the story is unbelievable, the stuff movie scripts are made of.
Our chef chat this week is an inspiring one, and the first time he's told his story since his extraordinary recovery.
EOW: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
DG: I'm from South America, Ecuador. My mom has a little bit of Colombian. I was born in Quito, Ecuador. My grandma had a restaurant with authentic South American Ecuadorian cuisine, not fine dining, nothing like that.
EOW: Did you grow up in the kitchen?
DG: I was a little kid, maybe 10, so we would go to the kitchen and just jump around. I'll be honest with you, I wasn't interested in becoming a chef at that point. When I was a little kid I was into playing piano...(pauses, looks at me through his lashes) I don't know if you knew that I had brain surgery?
EOW: (nonplussed) Uh, no...I had no idea.
DG: A year ago, I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor, but all brain tumors are considered brain cancer.
EOW: How were you diagnosed?
DG: I used to work as a personal chef for Tracy McGrady, the NBA basketball player for the Rockets. I worked for him for a year and a half. I worked for other players too, like Juwan Howard and his wife Janine. Anyway, I never had any symptoms. I was just a normal guy enjoying life. Tracy had kids, and one day when I came to work -- I remember it exactly, it was 11 o'clock -- his daughter came and grabbed my hand and asked me to come outside and play with her. We played outside, then sat down on the swing next to her doll house, and we were sitting there when the alarm went off at noon, a signal for me to go and make lunch for the baby. I stood up real fast and hit my head. And I was like "Oh my God, it hurts." But I touched my head, it wasn't bleeding, so I said "I'm okay." The house manager saw it though. She was freaking out, and insisted, so I finally agreed to go to the hospital.
EOW: Oh, no.
DG: I was like, "What the heck, let me lose my day, and after that, I'll just go home afterward," so I went to have a CAT scan. I didn't have any symptoms at all, which makes it weird, because normally with the size of the tumor I had -- they were so impressed why I didn't have any symptoms.
EOW: How big was it?
DG: It was six centimeters.
EOW: But was considered benign?
DG: It's a grade two. The one I had is an incurable condition. You can have surgery, chemotherapy, but they always tend to come back. So, after the CAT scan, the doctor came in, closed the door and said they found something abnormal in my head, so they sent me to another hospital to get an MRI. There, the doctor came out and it was so crazy what he said: "You know David, we found a tumor." And the first question that I asked was, "How long do I have to live?" And he said, "Well, in all my experience, the way it looks, where it's located, it could be 13 to 18 months to live." Man, it killed me.
EOW: And how old were you? When were you diagnosed?
DG: I was 27 at the time. My birthday was in May, and I was diagnosed on April 17, 2010. I had my surgery April 23.
EOW: Wow. Did you have to get a second opinion?
DG: Yes, of course. So he told me that, and I started crying, thinking 13 to 18 months. They didn't want to give me a biopsy because if you find out the tumor is malignant and you're gonna die in two months, you won't want to go through with the surgery. First thing on Monday morning, I went to see an expert, Dr. Nitin Tandon, and he literally saved my life. He looked at the MRI, and he said, "No, no, no, I think it's a misunderstanding." He gave me hope.
EOW: What did he say to give you hope?
DG: He prepared me. He said it was going to be very tough. I had a trapezoidal screw in my head (points to the middle of his forehead). I had one right here, and two in the back.
EOW: But you don't have any scars!
DG: I have a huge scar right here in my hairline (shows me pictures of himself in the hospital bed, and close-ups of a lengthwise six-inch incision extending from the top of his head downward, held together by skin staples).
EOW: But nothing visible, you look awesome!
DG: Thank you. A lot of people don't believe me, but it happened. It's a long story. I had a stroke during the brain surgery. Until today, I lost my taste buds on my left side. It's always numb, my left hand is always numb. I was paying $1,500 each week, even with my insurance. I went to physical therapy, speech therapy, psych and pain therapy....I couldn't even open my hand to hold a glass. The crushing thing for me was like, "Oh my God, I can't taste anything." I couldn't even smile. I used to be a professional salsa dancer. I used to do performances, I'd go to all the clubs in Houston...
EOW: Can you salsa now?
DG: Yes. I had to re-learn everything. The only reason I didn't lose my Spanish is because it's my mother language. But I used to be fluent in Portuguese, and now I lost it. I used to play piano and I love piano, but I lost that too.
Check back with us tomorrow as Guerrero shares more about how he got back on his feet to get to where he is today, how he wants to bring authentic South American food to Houston with his new menu, and where he goes to salsa dance.
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