Interview: Chef David Guas

Chef David Guas, owner of Bayou Bakery restaurant & eatery in Arlington, Virginia has been a chef for over 18 years. He has authored a James Beard nominated cookbook – DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style and has been a host and judge on the Travel Channel’s “American Grilled.”

Guas is a native New Orleanian and current Washington D.C. area resident with Cuban roots and talks extensively about the cultures he identifies with. We spoke to Chef Guas about his current focus, the community kitchen that is feeding kids and young adults locally during the Covid-19 crisis.

He also shares the secret to his famous muffuletta sandwich and shares some personal food and travel memories. Check out the Travel Addict’s interview with chef David Guas below:

What inspired you originally to do the Community Kitchen that you have started to feed locals during these uncertain times?

At its core, it was literally me thinking that my staff’s kids were not going to have access to their meals. It was literally as simple and as powerful as that. I have seven or eight women on staff that have been with me for many, many years that have children that go to the elementary school not even four blocks away from the restaurant and they are all on the reduced meals program. It was very alarming to me that they would not have the meals available. I immediately brought it up to my wife and we talked about it.

I reached out to Real Food for Kids which was an existing nonprofit that I have been working with since they launched their organization. I have been their go-to chef for doing demos in the public schools for healthy choices and healthy eating. It was an easy phone call for me to reach out to them because we still needed a place to send people to raise money. I called them and we scheduled a meeting the very next day which was Friday the 13th and by the weekend we were ready to launch the initiative on Monday. So we did a mock setup in front of the restaurant on the patio and on the 17th, St Patty’s Day is when we served our first 120 meals.

Are you still doing it right outside your restaurant?

Yes, we have a tent set up out front on the patio. We have got a separate table we put on another side of the fencing. We have the stove set up outside, the whole nine yards. People are coming to get one hot meal between 11-1 Monday thru Friday. We actually launched something new today on top of what we have been doing every day. We had a farmer drop off a bunch of raw fresh produce yesterday, strawberries, melons, lettuces, peppers and all kinds of other fresh vegetables. We set up a mini little farmer’s market in the front also.

When a family comes up and we ask how many meals for the day and they would say four. We’d set up their meals, give them the fresh fruit and ask if we could give them some melons or vegetables so they could take it home and prepare something. Going forward that will be our Friday thing, the last day of the week we can do this. Every Friday we will have some raw products for them to take home in the bulk.

Is it open to anyone or targeting certain groups?

From day one we all agreed, myself and the board on the task force here, we weren’t going to age vet, we weren’t going to ask what school they went to, we weren’t going to ask for ID. If someone walked up, we were going to give them a meal and that has been our motto since day one.

We noticed in Arlington County where we’re located, that other locations providing meals by the county are promoting eligibility for ages 2-18. We are not a county-run organization. We know from our numbers and from our people in the school system and our board in general in the county that there is a large number of young adults between the ages of 19-21 still in the public school system in Arlington County. That is a big gap if you are 19 and 20 in high school and don’t have access to these meals.

The county had two locations to start and they have now grown to five locations. We actually just got a call from the superintendent today and they want to designate us as an Arlington County Public pickup site which is amazing after 10 days of doing this, the county is recognizing our initiatives and they are going to get the word out to the area neighbors that they are eligible to get meals from us. So we are hoping that we increase starting Monday for the meals we can serve.

How can people help or donate?

We are channeling people through the realfoodforkids.org website. When you go to the opening page, in the middle of the page there is a button that says covid-19 relief and that is what we want everyone to click on so we know why they are donating and how to direct the funds. They are a 501(c)(3) organization and they take donations year round so we are stressing people go to the specific link and pledge what they are comfortable pledging.

While you have been in quarantine, have you had a favorite recipe at home?

Because I spend 5 AM to 4 PM every day at the restaurant, the last thing I want to do when I get home is cook inside so I have been grilling my behind off on my KUDU, on my smoker, and my cowboy cauldron. It doesn’t matter which grill I use. Anything on the grill, veggies, a lot of veggies. It is not a specific meal per se because I don’t follow any recipes. The saving grace the last couple weeks is having tons of my charcoal outside stocked up on. People are fighting over toilet paper but I would arm wrestle somebody for the last bag of charcoal, I can tell you that.

You answered my next question if there is a key item you can’t live without during quarantine you can’t live without and it seems like it is charcoal.

Yep, it’s charcoal.

I live part time in New Orleans [a city you know well] and this is a great coincidence when I reached out I didn’t realize you were from there originally.

That is my hometown. Kelly Fields just closed her restaurant yesterday, Willa Jean. She just announced they officially closed. They were doing grab and go but they thought it was just too much and they shut it down yesterday or today. I shot her a text that I was thinking about her. Mike Gulotta closed down about a week ago, both of his restaurants Mopho and Maypop. It is just crazy.

I know you love to make Muffalettas [a New Orleans staple] so what is the key to the best Muffaletta?

Commenting on the Muffaletta can get you in big trouble with the Italians in New Orleans. I took everything I love about Central Grocery’s Muffaletta and I put my twist on it like a typical chef. A couple of things we did, we made a seven-inch personal size one. Up against the Central Grocery one, it would be considered a mini Muffaletta but it is hardly a mini. We also toast ours.

You’ll find recipes that call for provolone or swiss. I use aged provolone so it is super-aged and dry and nutty and sharp, and ham. But I take my olive salad and mince it so it is a little more pulverized so it ends up like a tapenade so it is easier to spread on both sides of the bread that way.

We use a couple of different kinds of olives and some fresh herbs, dried herbs, onions, parsley, a good kind of olive oil and carrots, but I don’t use cauliflower. It is delicious. I would say mincing my olive salad allows it more refined for an even spread and high-end cold cuts. That is our number one selling sandwich by far, we sell 30 or 40 a day.

A lot of people outside New Orleans don’t know what it is so I am glad you are spreading the word on that.

You live in the Washington D.C area. Do you have any hidden gems that you would recommend?

I will say just in general without naming a specific restaurant, what I like to take advantage of in the Northern Virginia and DC area is all the ethnic foods. We have, I think, one of the largest populations of El Salvadorians in our region, therefore we have probably the largest amount of El Salvadorian restaurants in the entire country in this DC Metropolitan area. In certain neighborhoods, they are as frequent as Starbucks.

I am a sucker for pupusas, which is the national dish of El Salvador. Not only do I have El Salvadorians that work for me but I cherish their cuisine, the simplicity of it. El Salvadorian cuisine is definitely one of my go-to’s for unique ethnic foods.

As far as hidden gems, I have been here 22 years and I still feel like a tourist sometimes. What I did most recently last Thanksgiving, after being here for two decades was visit the Frederick Douglass house where Douglass used to live. It is top of a hill in southeast DC. It was an amazing tour and an amazing piece of property. What a powerful man he was. His story is amazing. I was a tourist for a day with my entire family during Thanksgiving.

We also had my entire New Orleans family in town also because we host every Thanksgiving so everybody comes to us. We had like 12 of us in the tour and it was an unbelievable experience. I would highly recommend going to see the Frederick Douglass House in southeast DC.

What is your fondest food memory?

I would have to say my Aunt Boo’s dirty rice. Aunt Boo lives in Abbeville, Louisiana, three hours west of New Orleans and still lives there today. Funny enough, she sent me a sweet message this morning sending thoughts and prayers to myself and the family. I told her I picked a hell of a Lent season to stop drinking. She said she did too and as of March 15th, she had fallen off the wagon. She sent me a picture of her Crawfish Etouffet on the stove and her Miller Lite can next to the pot.

Aunt Boo is one of the main reasons I chose my profession. She is a woman that has been in my life since day one. As of 13 or 14 years old she was showing me some of her things she was doing in her kitchen in Abbeville. She raised two girls who could care less about how to cook and what she was doing in the kitchen.

I was older than both of her girls and I guess I was asking the right questions while she was prepping and then she finally realized this kid wants to know more and she let me stay in her kitchen and ask questions. I watched her cook for all the local hunters. They would drop off plucked ducks and she would make duck gumbo. They would come back the next day and pick up all the gumbo. She would make big batches of Etouffe. She would make her Shrimp Creole. She even has a self-published cookbook, she is amazing.

Are there any other travel destinations that you have gone to that inspires your cooking?

Definitely. Most recently, I was part of a program started by Hillary Clinton seven or eight years ago when she was with the State Department. They launched this initiative where they invited a certain number of chefs to be part of the Culinary Diplomacy Program. We had to fill out this massive application and all this questionnaire about our heritage.

I have Cuban background plus being from New Orleans. When the trip to Brazil came up, they chose me. I got to represent the United States by going over to Recife [Brazil] and the celebration of the 200 year anniversary of the US Consulate in Recife [Brazil]. It was great celebrating the US relationship with Brazil by going there. I was there for almost two weeks. It was the most amazing culinary trip. I taught at numerous culinary schools throughout the country.

I gave lectures and speeches about the culture of New Orleans and how it has parallels to the culture of Brazil. We talked about Carnivale, celebrating life and music and how important these things are in our cultures. I just talked about being from New Orleans and all the Brazilians were locked and loaded. It made complete sense and I was speaking their language.

It was amazing, I came back with all this knowledge of different fresh fruits. I just posted recently how sad I was finishing up the last of my Brazilian Sea Salt that one of the Deans of the culinary school had gifted me when teaching the Jambalaya class. They gave me some of this beautiful local Brazilian Sea Salt. That was about three years ago, I ate so much bread and cheese. I felt like I was on vacation.

A lot of music festivals are combining food and music. Do you have a dream rockstar cooking collaboration?

Well, I have already lived my dream so I can share with you what that was. I will give you two. I got to meet Ozzy but it wasn’t a food collaboration. I was 17 working security in the arena in New Orleans and they put me in the hallway in front of his dressing room. At 17 years old, I got to meet him, I got to meet Sharon, I got to meet the dogs, basically, the whole entourage was in and out of that dressing room door for about three and a half hours during his concert. I could care less about actors and actresses but I get crazy over musicians.

My food collaboration was with an artist was Zac Brown. About five or six years ago I was approached by his chef that toured with him for many years and still does, Rusty Hamlin. Rusty is from Louisiana, spent half of his childhood growing up in Meharry, Louisiana. So, Rusty called me and invited me to be part of this new event he was doing, the Southern Ground Festival. It was in Charleston, South Carolina. Zac put on this concert Saturday and Sunday, along with a weekend festival with other musicians. That was the last time I got to see Greg Allman before he passed away. I got to meet Charlie Daniels. I got to hang out with the Wailers. It was a little circus. It gave me a glimpse of what it is like to tour as musicians.

He put together this tasting menu, and basically had guest chefs like myself collected and invited by Rusty to do a course for this dinner. He designed this dining room as an extension of the stage and dumbwaiters built that would load the plated courses and it would go up to the stage level. They literally had servers in tuxedos waiting, white table cloths, the whole nine yards.

I think we sold 120 seats and all in front of the stage, stage left and stage right, so with artists performing, they would walk out and could literally be singing and walk up to your table. Zac did it partially as a fundraiser because he put it all back into the kid’s fundraiser he has set up in Marietta, Georgia where his foundation is based and most of the band resides outside Atlanta. That was my food collaboration kind of music weekend. I did it two years in a row. They discontinued the festival the last year I did it. I was lucky enough to get on board for the last couple of years. It was so much fun and had such a good time. I made lifelong friends. I am still in contact with Rusty. And Zac’s band is just super cool, super laid back, super family-oriented. It was just so much fun to be a part of that the weekends I did it.

You have roots in Cuba, it is one of my favorite places to travel actually. I wanted to know your favorite travel memory of being there was.

I have been twice only, the first time I went back with my father. It was his first return in 53 years. You can imagine that the first trip was pretty freaking intense. We went back with Food and Wine magazine before Dana Cohen left the magazine, it was something she tried to put together for us for years. When Obama relaxed the travel laws restrictions, we saw a small window and took it.

We found a local chef in Havana Vieja named Carlos San Cristobal. Carlos has the restaurant named after him San Cristobal. It is in the Old Habana, one of the most prestigious restaurants in Cuba and one of the first restaurants to allow the owners to share in the revenue instead of having to turn it back to the state. He was the Dean of the Culinary School. He has these amazing accolades and is an amazing individual. He opened up not only his house but his restaurant to me and my father and to Food and Wine.

We traveled to all the markets. We went to his Co-Op, urban farm right in Miramar which is the neighborhood my father grew up in where all the embassies are, right next to the outer limits of Havana. Carlos was an amazing tour guide for us because he was a culinary tour guide. He brought us to the farms, to the open markets so we could see the butcher shops. He took us all over, introduced us to friends of his, other restauranteurs, people he does business with. We went back to his restaurant a couple times and we cooked together.

I showed him a dish from Louisiana and he would show us a classic dish from Cuba and so we did this sort of shared recipe collaboration to share our different cultures with each other. One restaurant that stands out because it was so small, would only fit about 12 people inside was La Mulata. I just love the name of it because it shows people don’t care about their race and aren’t as uptight as we are here in the US. Here they are celebrating this person’s background and heritage comes from Black and White and Cuban and Spanish and all these different cultures. She named her restaurant La Mulata. Everybody knows her as La Mulata. She is a local celebrity. She took us into her restaurant, she has a famous chicken dish she does with pineapple juice and pineapple.

We had the Moros y Cristianos, we had the black beans and rice mix. We had the famous chicken dish, while we were eating and she was feeding us, she would come to our table and she would start talking to us and grab my hand and make me stand up while I was trying to eat and start dancing. She was unbelievable. She was a gem. We didn’t get there until like 9:30 at night which is pretty typical of most Cubans. They eat late.

Growing up having a Cuban father, we would go to Miami and visit our relatives. We would snack from about 7 to 8 o’clock and once our relatives would get their act together and sit down at the table around 9:00. Or we’d go to a restaurant and the kids would be passed out underneath the table and the adults are still eating and drinking. We were laying on a chair passed out sleeping because it was 10 o’clock at night and we were six, seven, eight years old at Versailles in Miami.

Once this is all over, do you have a dream vacation spot you want to travel to?

It’s funny because we had a trip we bought on auction to travel to Antigua three years ago. Right when we were about to redeem the trip, I was invited to Turk’s and Caicos to a resort to cook so the trip got postponed that first year and then last year we had something else come up. So if we end up not going to Antigua this summer, it will be our third summer putting it off. I have to get Antigua.

Photo submitted by Chef David Guas

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