Chef David Guerrero At Work, Despite Losing Sense Of Taste To Cancer

David Guerro chef tumor can't taste

Chef David Guerrero's new Houston restaurant has brought reviewers to their knees. One "broke some kind of social norm" to slurp up the last juices of his signature ceviche. Another claimed that the chef "could make a solid cebiche blindfolded." Another called the restaurant's offerings "something to behold." You probably wouldn't guess that Guerrero can't taste the food that he makes.

At age 28, Guerrero had surgery to remove a malignant 6-inch tumor from his brain, reports the Houston Press. He had a stroke on the operating table, and lost his ability to speak English and Portuguese, to play piano, to dance salsa, and to move the left side of his body. It also destroyed the palate upon which he'd built his career as a private chef.

Guerrero lost his health insurance, his car, his girlfriend, was evicted three times, and attempted suicide. With a shaved, scarred head, no client would hire him. And the cancer was still there. A doctor gave him between 13 and 18 months to live.

Thirty months later, Guerrero is living his dream -- with his own restaurant, and another one in the works. Aware that his time is limited, he's dedicating 70 hours a week to his South American eatery, Alma Ceviche & Bar, hoping to leave some kind of legacy, the Houston Press says. Alma means soul in Spanish, and Guerrero told the Texas Monthly that he was "putting my entire soul into this place." Diners can taste it in the cooking -- the passion of man who says that on that operating table 2½ years ago, God looked at him and asked, "David, do you want to live?"

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When Guerrero was at his lowest -- with no job and piling medical bills -- the owners of the Samba Grille steakhouse saw that passion and hired Guerrero as a sous chef. Guerrero helped transform the steak joint into a more adventurous eating experience, winning the Houston Press' Best Steakhouse 2011 award. And when the executive chef stepped down soon after, Guerrero took the reins. In June, Guerrero triumphed over more than 40 chefs in the Waterford Crystal Chef of Chefs Competition. He started dancing again, and regained his ability to taste spices. Then in July the Samba Grille unexpectedly closed.

Guerrero wasn't deterred. In mid-October he opened Alma, cooking mostly from memory. Many artists have produced great work without their most precious faculty. Beethoven composed some of the most celebrated pieces of music in Western civilization though unable to hear them. Claude Monet painted his water lilies as his world slowly went dark. And John Milton, also blind, committed portions of his epic poem "Paradise Lost" to memory, before reciting them to someone else to write down.

Other chefs have performed remarkable feats with bodies in rebellion. Hans Rueffert, a contestant on the first season of "The Next Food Network Star," had a struggle with stomach cancer that ended with the removal of his entire stomach and almost all his esophagus. Last year he published the cookbook, "Eat Like There's No Tomorrow." And after temporarily losing his sense of taste in a battle with tongue cancer in 2007, Grant Achatz propelled his restaurant Alinea to even greater heights. "Restaurant" magazine now considers it the second best restaurant in the United States.

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The Houston Press remarks that without a palate, Guerrero may be more sensitive to the other aspects of a dish: Its texture, temperature and presentation. But what is certainly clear is that the cancer, which is currently in remission but perhaps not for long, has given Guerrero his stunning work ethic. It's a dedication that has left Guerrero with few friends, and his radical mood swings -- a side effect of the 2,500 milligrams of anti-convulsants that he takes daily -- drove away his greatest advocate and supporter, his sous chef Alex Bremont, who used to taste Guerrero's dishes for him.

"I still don't feel whole," Guerrero told the Houston Press. "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?"

Guerrero is currently saving up for a $50,000 course of treatment at the Burzynski Clinic, whose controversial treatments the FDA and the American Cancer Society have warned against. In the meantime, he's working on a even more ambitious venture, Evo, which will incorporate dishes from 22 Latin American countries. It will be a new kind of restaurant, based less on taste than the feelings and thoughts one gets from tasting.

Evo will have a rotating menu, each one "tailored to tell a story about a past experience," Guerrero told the Texas Monthly, "whether it be loss of loved ones, family and friends, pain and suffering, childhood memories, or a past love."

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