Chef Chat, Part 2: David Guerrero of Samba Grille, On His Road to Recovery and Becoming Executive Chef
Yesterday, we talked to Samba Grille's Executive Chef David Guerrero about how he was diagnosed with brain cancer early last year. You can read about it here. Today, he tells us the rest of his story about his extraordinary recovery from brain cancer surgery.
Mai Pham Executive Chef David Guerrero in the kitchen at Samba Grille
EOW: How long did it take you to recover?
DG: About three months. I went to the most expensive programs in Houston for therapy, at Memorial Hermann. Only rich people were there. I said, "You know what? It's worth it."
EOW: And you had to re-learn everything.
DG: Yes. I think God gave me another chance to live because when I had the stroke, I told the nurse that I felt cold. And I was gone. I don't know for how long, I wasn't declared dead. This is when they gave me an IV and gave me some blood to my heart. During that process, I remember I was awake in a black tunnel and there was water under my knees. I was very cold. I was very disoriented. And I heard a voice that said "David, do you want to live?"
EOW: So how did you come to be here at Samba Grille?
DG: I lost my job because Tracy McGrady went to Detroit, and Juwan Howard went to Miami. And at the time, I was supposed to do chemotherapy, but couldn't do it because I lost my health insurance and didn't know to take out COBRA. I was planning on leaving this country for good, because I couldn't get a job. I was devastated, I was evicted three times, I lost my car. My credit was all messed up. If I wanted to buy a sack of scorpions, they wouldn't give it to me, my credit was so bad.
EOW: (laughs) That's a weird expression, but okay...So how did you pull yourself out of that?
DG: One day I woke up and I didn't want to live any more. I'd had a girlfriend who loved me, who wanted to take care of me, but I told her on the phone, "I don't want your help, leave me alone." So I took a bunch of my seizure pills, wanting to die. I laugh about it now, because my seizure pills won't kill me, but I was alone by myself and that's what I did.
EOW: So you took a bunch of pills and you wanted to die.
DG: Yes, I wanted to die. There is this picture I took of the patio. I used to stare out from the bed onto the patio, and I just kept on asking myself "Why? Why me?" I don't know anyone who had brain cancer. "Why me?" I never had any answer. I wanted to hear from the big guy who saved me, why I'm here, why I'm suffering. I didn't want to feel the pain any more. I took the pills and nothing happened except I felt really tired. So the next day, I looked in the mirror and said, "You tried to kill yourself, it didn't work. Just move on."
EOW: Just like that.
DG: Just like that. I spent a few months working as a chef for an Italian family in the Woodlands, and then Philippe Schmit was opening up his restaurant, so I went to open up his restaurant as a tournant chef. Then I had an opportunity to come here [to Samba Grille] to be Sous Chef.
EOW: So you started as sous chef when?
DG: In May. My position was more than sous chef because I created 60 percent of the menu, even when Chef Cesar was here. So I had to build recipes, make sure the stations were set, I was involved in food costing, and ordering and training people. I worked hard, hard, hard, and it paid off in the end. Now I'm Executive Chef.
EOW: How long have you been Executive Chef?
DG: Almost two months. I changed the dessert menu already. I'm very blessed. I have Alejandro Bermont. He had a beautiful opportunity to work at a thjree-star Michelin restaurant in Spain, and now he's working for me. He wants to work for me because probably he sees something he can learn from me, you know? For me, it's all about passion and respect for the food.
EOW: So you lost your taste buds but you can taste now, right?
DG: I can only taste in half of my mouth, but I think it made me a better chef. It's like if you can see and then one day you're blind-- it develops your senses more. It's all about visualizing things, and smelling things, and textures...I don't know but I think I became a better chef because now I need to have extremely strong flavors so I can feel something.
EOW: So tell me about your menu.
DG: What I want to do here...The next menu is going to improve because that's the challenge. I want to make Houstonians understand what is really South American. I want to bring street food, indigenous food to this table. South Americans are blessed because we have so much culture from Europe, so much from Africa, and so much culture from the indigenous peoples. I can name 10 different fruits that you can try in the sorbets that you would never tasted in your life.
EOW: So you still salsa dance, where do you go?
DG: Yes, I go social dancing. I go Tuesdays, the first Saturday of the month, the last Sunday of the month, and the third Thursday of the month. My favorite place is Tropicana. And of course Melody Club.
EOW: You went through this life-changing experience, right? How are you different now than you were before?
DG: I see things differently, because the most important things right now are my family and my really good friends. Before I used to care more about material things, but now what I care more about is making my family comfortable, my kid, and spending quality time with my good friends who were there for me.
EOW: I always ask this question, and for you it's probably even more pertinent: If you had a last meal, where would you have it and what would it be?
DG: I love tacos. And I have a specific place called Ruchi's, so every time I go salsa dancing I have to have my tacos de tripa. When I go with my dates they are like, "Oh hey, this is disgusting," but I love it. So for my last meal I would want to have my tacos de tripa from Ruchi's.
Check back with us tomorrow as we taste some of Guerrero's dishes.
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