On Tuesday, April 28, chef David Guerrero will be on a hospital bed at Memorial Hermann as surgeons work to remove portions of an aggressive brain tumor that has been growing inside of his head for five years. But it's not the brain surgery he's worried about; it's his restaurant, Andes Cafe.
2311 Canal St., Ste. 104
"Having the restaurant is my biggest dream," says Guerrero, who opened the little East End cafe in early 2014, a place of his very own specializing in the Central and South American food that's most dear to him, after years of working for others at restaurants like Samba Grille and Alma Cebiche & Bar. "If you ask most chefs," Guerrero says, his Ecuadorian accent growing thicker with emphasis, "they want to have their own little spot and just work hard."
But, as Guerrero puts it, "you know when everything comes along at once and it's bad news, bad news? That's what's happening now." Not only has his brain cancer returned after years spent in what he thought was remission, Guerrero's partner in the restaurant broke the news a few days ago that he's moving away to Alaska for his job, leaving Guerrero to run Andes Cafe alone while recuperating from surgery. "And with short notice there's no way I can train someone right away," he says. "I told everyone in the restaurant today, this is basically going to be run by them."
This isn't the first time Guerrero has had to take time away from the kitchen to have brain surgery; that happened in the summer of 2010, when his tumor was discovered after a fluke accident sent him to the hospital, where doctors told the then-28-year-old that a spider-like oligodendroglioma was pushing its tentacles deeper into his brain. They gave him 18 months to live. Guerrero opted for surgery then, to try and remove as much of the tumor as possible. While on the operating table, he suffered a stroke that left him without that most crucial tool in a chef's arsenal: his sense of taste.
Despite this, and despite the fact that his tumor couldn't be entirely removed, Guerrero carried on. Eventually, thoughts of brain cancer faded into the background as he pushed forward in his career, with the ultimate goal of opening his own restaurant. People around him may have almost forgotten the chef's diagnosis, too. "I'm not a symptomatic person because of where my tumor is located," Guerrero says. "People see me and think I look great." For his part, Guerrero says, "I feel super healthy."
And while Guerrero is optimistic about this round of surgery, he's panic-stricken by the thought of Andes Cafe operating without him. "I'm pretty much everything," he says. "I do the groceries three to four times a week because we don't have a walk-in. I go to Canino's, the Restaurant Depot, everything. It's tough; we only have one cooler. And when it gets busy, I have to go twice [a day] to the market." But, Guerrero says: "It's my life there; it's my passion, it's who I am."
"I would be so devastated if we had to close the restaurant," he finishes, worried most of all about losing his dream—losing the thing that keeps him going every day. "I'm going to be absent and I don't know how long it's going to take me to come back, and if I didn't have the restaurant to look forward to I would be so depressed." Guerrero isn't asking for anything right now—not money, not fundraisers, certainly not flowers or cards—except understanding. This morning on Facebook, he broke the news to his friends and family, writing:
After many opinions from Houston's best doctors, I have scheduled a surgery date to resect my tumor this Tuesday, April 28th and I will be away from one of my greatest loves, Andes Cafe. We will remain open and do our best to continue serving our great customers as best we can. We ask for patience, support and understanding throughout this transition due to being a "home run" operation and not having an executive chef on hand to pull us through this difficult time. We are hoping that EaDo as well as our other customers will continue supporting our dream, and make this hardship an opportunity for support, strength and a dream that won't be dampened by a brain tumor. I will spend my last weekend before surgery back in the kitchen, please join me this weekend to try some of my favorite dishes.
We'll be there, chef.