A few weeks ago, Pat Sharpe – Texas Monthly’s food editor – helped judge the Woodlands Grand Rendezvous Tasting and Chef’s Showcase in which David Guerrero, former executive chef of Samba Grille in Houston, ended up winning for his flavor-packed Peruvian beef hearts dish. Recently, the Ecuadorian-born chef shared his remarkable story of inspiration and struggle with TEXAS MONTHLY. Here, Guerrero tells us about his journey to cuisine, working for a famous basketball player, fighting brain cancer, and how Houston responds to Peruvian cuisine. (Unfortunately, Samba Grille closed its doors on July 21).
First of all, congratulations on winning for your dish at the Woodlands Grand Rendezvous Tasting and Chef’s Showcase. Tell me a bit about what you made.
I made a very traditional street food dish from South America called Peruvian beef hearts – anticuchos. Honestly, I believe I won because all the components of the dish were great. The beef hearts were grilled and marinated for twenty-four hours, so they absorbed a lot of great flavor. The huacatay sauce was done well. Using the best and freshest ingredients always helps. We also used some molecular gastronomy with dehydrated choclo and aji panca powder with some cilantro microgreens to prepare the dish.
Of all the things you could have done in life, what is it that made you want to go into cuisine?
My grandma’s side of the family loved big food parties. There was always a lot of food around when we were growing up. My grandmother would make us try everything, so she had a lot to do with me going into cuisine. Also, as a kid I remember having an artistic side to me. I had this thing for drawing, playing piano, and painting my room the way I wanted it. Being an artist has always been my destiny, and that’s what brought me to the kitchen.
Where do you draw your culinary influences from?
My grandmother. She is an amazing home cook. She is always cooking – always.
I understand that you were a personal chef to a famous basketball player. How did you end up with that gig? And, I have to ask, did you ever get to shoot some hoops with him?
That’s correct. Well, I believe in something called confession, which means that everything I confess out loud and strongly believe in will come to me sometime in my lifetime. It’s about believing in something, even if you don’t see how it is going to happen. I used to be a chef de cuisine at Sweetwater Country Club in Sugar Land and every morning I drove by this street full of mansions from left to the right. I remember saying out loud to myself, “I will be a private chef at one of these big mansions one day.” A while after that, a waitress at the country club came to me and said, “Tracy McGrady is looking for a private chef.” I’m from South America, so I wasn’t really into the basketball scene here and didn’t know who he was. She was surprised that I didn’t have a clue who he was, but she passed me a number to a labor agency. I talked to the agency, sent them my resume, and they called back and said that I had an interview with Mrs. McGrady. When I finally did meet her, Tracy was out of town. I cooked seven courses for her and two other people, and I guess they liked it because she called me the next day and said I got the job. Of course by then I had googled Tracy McGrady. They are a great, lovely family. Tracy always played basketball with his personal trainer, but I managed to shoot and play with his little kid at the 5,000-square-foot basketball court inside his home.
How and why did you end up at Samba Grille?
I was temporarily working for my chef mentor Philippe Schmidt to help him open his new restaurant when I got offered the opportunity to work at Samba Grille. They hired me as a sous chef and three months later they decided to bring in a new concept and new ideas, so I was promoted to executive chef.
You’re known for making Peruvian food. Tell me, how do you adapt that kind of cuisine for a Texas audience? Does it lose any of its authenticity?
The good thing about Peruvian cuisine is that it has so many influences from Japanese, Chinese, and African cuisine, so people really don’t have to try hard to like Peruvian cuisine because it is already here – just in different forms. Peruvian cuisine is already popular around the world; it’s just new to Houston. Sometimes I feel that the food does lose authenticity because people aren’t used to the different flavors, textures, and smells Peruvian food has, but that’s okay because it turns it into a challenge, and I love that. It’s my job to bring something unexpected to the table.
What are some of the staples of Peruvian food?
Fresh seafood, which is very important in making a good Peruvian ceviche. Wild meats are also a big thing as well.
I understand that you were diagnosed with brain cancer at twenty-seven years old. Tell me how that changed you as a person and as a chef?
As a person, it totally changed me. I’ve learned to become a better human being and not be so selfish. I’ve learned to love the few people that are always going to be there for me no matter what the situation is. As a chef, I lost my sense of taste from the left side of my palate, so that’s a challenge. However, that awoke my other senses like smelling, feeling, and admiring the ingredients. Cancer made me realize that working really hard will still help me achieve my dreams.
I can’t imagine losing your sense of taste as a chef. How do you deal with that obstacle?
I smell. Touch. Imagine. When I was in culinary school and asked my instructor, chef Sherry Lewis, how she put her menu and dishes together, she said, “Imagine the flavor in your head and sense the flavor in your mouth. Even without having all your taste buds, you will be amazed how many things you can create.” That’s what I do. My sous chef, Alex Bremont, is a good friend and my right-hand man, so he tries things for me and we get by.