Cuban chef David Guas.

Cuban chef David Guas. (Photo/Courtesy Scott Suchman)

Chef Spotlight: David Guas on Cuban-Creole cooking

Vitals: Born in New Orleans to a Cuban father and Louisiana native mom, David Guas is a chef whose food is as authentically southern as it is stick-to-your ribs Latino. Equally passionate about pastry as he is soulful slow cooking, he’s the chef and owner of Bayou Bakery in Washington, D.C. Named a finalist for Food & Wine’s People’s Best Chef in the Country both in 2011 and 2012, Guas is the author of “DamnGoodSweet – Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth New Orleans Style” and has been honored by multiple publications including Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, Cooking Light, the New York Times and Pastry Arts & Design. In 2012, Guas was invited by F&W to discover Cuba with his father for a feature, a journey which inspired the chef to continue the traditions of great Cuban cooking.

Experience: Guas grew up around food – his Cuban dad would spend hours basting a pork shoulder over the barbeque and his grandmother mother always made perfect arroz moros – but it wasn’t until an aunt gifted him with a cast iron skillet as a teen and taught him how to make Southern favorites like gumbo that he decided to pursue a culinary career. After graduating from a vocational school culinary program in Louisiana, Guas worked under esteemed pastry chef Kurt Ebert at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans. After two years, Guas moved to Washington, D.C. to continue his work as a pastry chef and more than ten years later, fulfilled his dream of opening his own place in the nation’s capitol: Bayou Bakery, which specializes in Creole basics – think perfect biscuits and crawfish etouffée – and Cuban classics like pressed sandwiches and black beans.

On his favorite food growing up: “As a kid in New Orleans, I used to get so excited about snowballs – what most people call snow cones – ice, shaved really finely like fallen snow. To this day, that’s something special to me. I also loved guava and cream cheese pastelitos; I was raised on those. Within the first bite, I’m immediately taken to that childhood memory, watching dad and grandpa drinking cafecitos and enjoying pastelitos from those big white bakery boxes.”

On family: “I didn’t always appreciate my background quite like I do now. Growing up in New Orleans, in a family that was both Southern and Cuban, there was always a lot of laughter and good food. And it sounds like a strange combination, but there are so many parallels between the two cuisines. From red beans and rice on Mondays to Cuban black beans, the emphasis on big, family sized pieces of pork. And dessert, always dessert, because it completes the whole meal. I’m rich to have been able to celebrate life through food, with culture playing such an important part in who I am.”

On his first day on the job as a pastry chef: “like to call myself an accidental pastry chef. After culinary school, I knew I wanted to work at a place where I could continue my education and for me, the only option was the Windsor Court Hotel, which back then had a five-star restaurant. But at the time they weren’t hiring any line cooks and the only job available was under a pastry chef. I didn’t know anything about pastry, but as luck would have it, on my first day I was asked to pipe meringue on 400 lemon tarts. Imagine never having held a piping bag, working under an extremely intimidating pastry chef from Germany! He handed me the bag and walked away, and I’ll never forget how I practically begging him to do a demo. So he rolled his eyes, showed me how to do it and after about the 300th pastry, I owned it.”

Why he prefers the term “classic” over “fusion”: “I get a huge thrill out of creating the very best version of the very best classic Latin and Southern dishes out there. So when I make a Cuban sandwich, I’m not going to deconstruct it or make a whole grain aioli. I’m going to make the very best light bread, get good Swiss cheese, find amazing heritage pork and make a Cuban sandwich that tastes like the sandwiches I grew up eating on trips to Miami. I’m not trying to get funky or weird – I’m just trying to pass on my wonderful memories of delicious flavors to people in an authentic way.”

Chef David Guas and his father, Mariano Guas during their trip to Cuba.

Chef David Guas and his father, Mariano Guas, during their trip to Cuba. (Photo/Courtesy David Guas)

On discovering Cuba: “Experiencing Cuba with my father as he saw it for the first time in 53 years was wonderful. We’ve always had a great relationship and being able to rediscover our roots through food was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We avoided the cheesy tourist, state-run operations where they tend to serve more Basque-influenced foods and went to local restaurants in people’s homes. One of the best meals we had was a tiny restaurant run by a woman famous for her chicken. It was just a simple, baked chicken with a pineapple glaze but it was served with arroz, sliced avocado, crispy tostones and ripe papaya. It was so simple that you knew you could reproduce it easily, but it was so real and unpretentious. It wasn’t food made for a magazine or to impress a critic. It was a woman, serving a dish the only way she knew how – it was perfect. And that was a great lesson for me; if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

On his not-so-secret guilty pleasure: “Honestly, I love frozen Oreos. I always have a pack of them in the freezer – something about the cold, sweet cream and chocolate is heaven. I also love eating ice cream and I’ll admit that sometimes I eat the whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s ‘Half Baked’ ice cream in bed.”

Just in time for Holy Week – when Catholics typically abstain from red meat – here’s Chef David’s recipe for Louisiana-style BBQ shrimp. This is what he typically serves for dinner on Friday nights during Lent, a meal that combines Creole seasoning and big, bold flavors.

BBQ Shrimp, New Orleans Style

David Guas, Chef & Owner – Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery 

Yield: 5 entrées

Ingredients

5 pounds Gulf shrimp, head on

.25 cup creole seasoning [note: be careful; some contain a lot of salt]

1.5 tablespoon olive oil

.5 cup garlic, chopped

.25 cup fresh rosemary, chopped

.5 cup Worcestershire sauce

5 each, lemons – juice and reserve the skin

.5 pound  butter, unsalted

1 bottle of beer (Abita amber is preferred)

To taste salt and pepper; hot sauce

Procedure

Toss the shrimp in a bowl with half the creole seasoning. Heat a large skillet on a high heat with olive oil (should begin to smoke a bit). Add the garlic and rosemary in the pan, stir to barely brown the garlic (do not burn-creates a bitter flavor). Add the shrimp and stir carefully. Add the Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, lemon juice and quartered lemons.

Add the beer to deglaze the pan. Allow the shrimp to cook for 2 minutes (depending on size) and add the remaining seasoning and salt and pepper. When the shrimp have finished cooking remove them from the pan, reduce the liquid on medium-high heat and add butter, one tablespoon at a time, until the liquid become a slightly thickened sauce. Taste to adjust seasoning.

Return the shrimp to the sauce, stir for just a quick second and then portion the shrimp into large (shallow) bowls and spoon sauce over the top.

Assembly

Serve with warm French bread and, as a recommendation, use dish towels – not fancy napkins.

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