Sometimes, all it takes to make it in Washington is a strong work ethic, creativity and a good recipe for fried apple pie.
David Guas is the head pastry chef for two restaurants in Washington, DC Coast and Ceiba, a job he landed after working in New Orleans for several years at a four-diamond hotel.
“This career kind of fell into my lap,” said.Guas who lives in McLean. “I was back in New Orleans from going to college in Colorado and took a crash course on food which was more focused on the savory side than desserts. When that was done, I decided I wanted to work for the Windsor Hotel, but they weren’t hiring.”
He wasn’t deterred, however, after he found out that a family friend had a connection with the head pastry chef in the restaurant, and managed to arrange an interview for Guas.
“Initially, they were discouraged by me and my body of work,” he said, “so I went out and got a different job. The day before I was supposed to start the other job, they called and offered me a position.”
He worked his way up to pastry chef over the course of two years at the Windsor, which allowed him to develop a friendship with Jeff Tunks, who at the time was executive chef in the hotel.
When Tunks was thinking of leaving the Windsor to start a restaurant in Washington, he casually asked Guas if he’d ever consider leaving New Orleans.
“He would come into the kitchen and watch me work for an hour a day and I didn’t think anything of it, but I realize now he was feeling me out,” Guas said.
“One night, two of his sous chefs came over and asked me if, should the opportunity present itself, I would be interested in moving to open a new restaurant. Within six months, we had moved up here,” he said.
Nine years and three restaurants later, Tunks vision has paid off and flourished, with the DC Coast, Ceiba and Ten Penh trinity of restaurants thriving in Washington.
Each restaurant has a different specialty, which allows Guas to have a lot of freedom when creating desserts.
AT CEIBA, WHICH Guas describes as “contemporary Latin food,” he offers a sweet potato dessert called camote; a warm tapioca pudding infused with canela, which Guas said is a native form of cinnamon, and mixed with passion fruit and milk chocolate custard. He also has a dessert made of a scoop of custard nestled between two crisps made of coconut and surrounded by tapioca.
The fare at DC Coast has more of a seafood bent, and to complement that menu, he is currently offering, for the holidays, his version of his aunt’s fried pies.
“My aunt used to fry pies all the time, and any kind of dessert that’s fried is my favorite,” he said. “The menu even lists the pies under her name.”
“I’m very comfortable here,” Guas said of his home in McLean and his work in Washington. “I’ve got a lot of room to be creative.” He likes the freedom of his job most.
“I have the freedom to express myself. I can venture into anything and everything I want and have full culinary range. There’s a lot of trust involved in my position,” he said.
Tunks’ other partners at Passion Food Hospitality, the company that owns the three restaurants, are David Wizenberg and Gus DiMillo, who both said Guas is a talented chef who brings new ideas to the kitchen on a regular basis.
“He’s an excellent pastry chef, very versatile,” said DiMillo. Guas has been known to jump in when a cook calls in sick or can’t work, making him very valuable to the restaurants, he said.
“He’s always researching and reading and he likes to travel to get new ideas and keep on top of the industry,” DiMillo said. “When David approaches something, he really looks into the food and is always looking to improve.”
DiMillo said that his favorite dessert that Guas has created is a combination of tapioca pudding and chocolate. “I love tapioca and he makes it from scratch. It’s just wonderful.”
“David is always on the lookout for things that aren’t typically on the menu, and he has to combine those unusual items and make a sellable dessert,” Wizenberg said. “He always does a good job of driving his artwork while also driving the guests’ desires.”
“The reality is that we might be able to pique people’s interests but we’re not here to teach them” in the restaurant business, Wizenberg said.
HIS FAVORITE DESSERTS that Guas creates are the more traditional items. “The deep fried apple pie is great, and the flan at Ceiba is excellent. He also takes a crème brulee and tweaks the flavor just a little with a café au lait taste,” Wizenberg said.
“There’s no question bringing David up from New Orleans was a sound investment,” he said. “I’m honored to know him and I love him to death.”
Over at Ten Penh, where Guas worked while the restaurant was in the early stages, Cliff Wharton said he’s known Guas from the Windsor in New Orleans and was glad to make the trip to Washington with him.
“David, Jeff, myself and another guy were the core of the kitchen at the Windsor,” he said, adding that he was one of the chefs that initially talked with Guas about moving to Washington.
“David’s a great guy, he’s got a good work ethic,” Wharton said. “I wish I could see him more often but we ride (motorcycles) together as much as we can.”
“I’d always steal his peanut brittle when we worked together,” he said with a laugh.
Guas has been introduced to a national stage with an appearance on “The Today Show” in November, showcasing some of his Latin-inspired desserts. He said he’s been invited back for another five-minute spot, which he’s hoping will be around Mardi Gras time so he can demonstrate some of his New Orleans specialties.
“They only give you five minutes, so in preparation for the last time, I practiced doing all three items to make sure it could be done,” Guas said. He made ‘pastelitos,’ a small pastry featuring guava and cream cheese, fritters made with calabasa, which is a Spanish pumpkin, that were fried and mixed with a sweet, spiced syrup.
“I never imagined I’d be on the ‘Today Show’,” he said. “I watch it every day at the gym but when it became a reality and I was there, it was kind of numbing in a sense because it was very exciting.”