Jose Guerrero, exec chef of ViewHouse, on the "swoosh," licking a cactus and why he won't touch foie gras
This is part one of my interview with Jose Guerrero, exec chef of ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop; part two of our chat will run on Cafe Society tomorrow.
In hindsight, things could have gone very differently for Jose Guerrero. "I grew up in Chicago, in Little Village, the city's epicenter for drug lords," recalls Guerrero, today the executive chef at ViewHouse. Going outside to play wasn't an option, he says: "My mom told me I had to stay inside or find a job -- that I needed to do something where I'd keep my head down and stay focused, and she wanted to know where I was at all times."
Being sequestered indoors isn't an ideal life for a teenager, so Guerrero chose the alternative: a job. He was hired as a prep cook at a Mexican restaurant, a gig that mirrored his time in the kitchen at home. "There were six kids in our family, and despite the fact that my mom raised us as a single mother, she always -- always -- made time to cook," he recalls. "There was always something on the stove, and we all had our different responsibilities, whether it was roasting the guajillo chiles, making the rice or cleaning the beans, setting the table or helping with the roasting or braising." Cooking, he adds, kept him away from the unsavory diversions on the street. "We all cooked together as a family, and there was a great sense of responsibility not to fail and to stay close."
He stayed at the Mexican restaurant until his mom decided it was time to move her children out of an urban area inundated with drugs to the pastoral setting of Greeley, where she had extended family. "My mom figured that Greeley was akin to the country and we couldn't get into trouble there," he says. Unfortunately, Greeley wasn't -- and still isn't -- the kind of place that boasts a formidable restaurant climate. But it does have a meat-processing plant, JBS Swift, and Guerrero's uncle was a foreman back when it was Monfort of Colorado. "He started me on the kill floor, zapping the cattle, and then from there, I learned all about the grading process, and by the time I was done, I could totally break a cow down from its head to its rear shank," says Guerrero, adding that the experience gave him a "sincere appreciation for everything I eat."
After several years in Greeley, Guerrero relocated to Las Cruces, New Mexico, which happened to boast a little American/French bistro accented by Southwestern twists that was owned by a protégée of Rick Bayless, whose name is synonymous with high-end Mexican cuisine. "That's where I really learned the craft of making stocks and bases, vinaigrettes, pâtés and terrines, and understanding the nuances of plate composition," says Guerrero. "I worked at a great restaurant, but there's not a whole lot going on in Las Cruces."