Late last Friday night, as Hurricane Harvey made landfall and the rain tumbled downward in cascades and the wind tore off roofs and plucked towering oaks out of the ground, roots and all, James Canter, the executive chef and owner of Guerrilla Gourmet in Victoria, hunkered with his wife, three boys, two dogs, and two cats inside his downtown restaurant. Canter had pitched a tent in the middle of the dining room to bring a measure of coziness to his family amid the terrifying storm. He’d queued up a few days’ worth of Willie Nelson records on iTunes. Atop a flame, a stock pot of smoked-kimchi-and-chicken stew was already simmering toward umami perfection. “It was a pretty gnarly little situation,” Canter said, “but we kept the one pot of stew on the stove the whole time and it was fine.”
A little more than two days later, on Monday afternoon, Victoria stood in a state of devastation, with downed tree trunks blocking streets, storefronts boarded up, and traffic lights still dark. But Canter’s restaurant was buzzing with energy. Inside, a line of two dozen hungry patrons wended its way all the way to the front door, as a mix of volunteers and employees doled out a constantly shifting menu that included gumbo, Italian sausage, and collard greens. Portraits of Tupac and Tony Soprano stared down from the walls. At the counter, a handwritten sign read: “Pay what you can. If you have little resources keep them. Let us take care of you!” Willie Nelson was still singing on the speakers.
Outside, a few feet from the entrance, Canter, who, at 45, has a luxuriant beard and a jovial hobbit-like build, lounged next to a wooden table taking a well-deserved rest.
“The Sunday before the storm, we started kind of squirreling away resources, getting things ready,” he said. “Me and my wife have a two-acre farm up on the north side of town, and once the evacuations started, we got our trucks packed up and coolers packed up, and brought it all down here inside.” Canter motioned toward his restaurant. “This building has been here since the ’40s, and it’s like a bunker. When there was 90, 125, 130 mile-per-hour winds, we couldn’t hear nothing. My kids were happy.”
Canter moved to Texas in 2008 from Tampa, Florida, originally working at Alhambra in McAllen before coming to Victoria to run the kitchen at the Victoria Country Club. Three years ago, ready to strike out on his own, he opened Guerrilla Gourmet as what he calls an “anti-restaurant,” with the rotating menu including Tex-Asian comfort-food mash-ups like a smoked pork rib banh mi and straight-up hangover cures like the Monster Chicken Fried Cheeseburger.
“We come in and we cook whatever we feel like cooking and whatever people want us to cook—whatever makes people happy, including us,” he said. “That’s what we do, man, and that’s what we’ve done since its inception.”
Guerrilla Gourmet also has a prime downtown location, particularly for weathering a devastating storm. Housed in the first floor of the Victoria Advocate’s historic downtown building, the restaurant has the benefit of thick stone walls and utilities that are on the city’s central grid.
When Canter and his family had barricaded themselves in the restaurant, their goals were modest: They wanted to make it through safely and with a semblance of comfort. He’d chosen to cook the smoked-kimchi-and-chicken stew because his wife, Maureen, is half-Korean, and the stew “was something that my mother-in-law always cooked for my wife as a comfort food, and I wanted to comfort my wife and kids first and foremost.”
But on Friday, as the storm barreled toward the Texas coast, Canter couldn’t help but feed the masses. He brought a tray of what he dubbed Category 4 burgers upstairs to the Advocate’s newsroom as the wind whipped outside. On Saturday morning, Canter was back at it, serving up the Advocate’s staff and the first responders and curious neighbors who began showing up, hearing that a warm Gochujang-pepper-spiced meal was improbably being offered up just a few blocks from City Hall in a hurricane-ravaged city under mandatory evacuation orders.
By Sunday, reinforcements had been arriving in the form of volunteers, among them members of the San Antonio-based Chef Cooperatives (Canter is also a member), cash and food donations, and a “heavy duty” shipment from Canter’s friend Mark Escobedo of South Texas Heritage Pork in Floresville. At 3 p.m. that afternoon, Canter announced on Facebook that he “was open for anyone who needs a hot meal.” The lines and donations and volunteer help only grew from there.
A day later as Canter sat outside, he greeted friends and strangers, his eyelids wrinkled with exhaustion. “Come by any time,” he called out to one passerby. “9:30 for breakfast, 12:30 for lunch, 6:30 for dinner.” Canter said that he’d be locking the doors and dimming the lights at ten, but he promised 24/7 service. “If someone needs food in an emergency, just knock on the door and we’ll get you some.”
Anyone in Victoria would have been happy just to get a hot meal in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, but Canter’s instincts had been to go beyond the utilitarian and attempt disaster relief with a little more “anti-restaurant” relish.
“A hot bowl of kimchi-and-chicken stew, a clean place to sit down, charge your phone, listen to some Willie Nelson, drink a cold drink, even an extra beer, puts a smile and has brought normalcy to a lot of people,” he said as patrons filed in and out through Guerrilla Gourmet’s front door. “That’s why we did it.”