Odds are that if you’ve ever had pasta in an Italian restaurant in San Rafael, Ezequiel Guzman has cooked it. The 48-year-old cook has been at Il Davide for four years and at La Toscana for 17 years. “I’m the one who cooks all the pasta,” he says.
“Ezequiel has helped Il Davide become one of the most popular restaurants in Marin County with his consistency, flavor and creativity” Il Davide chef David Haydon says.
Guzman has called San Rafael home for 29 of the 30 years that he has lived in the United States since emigrating from Mexico when he was just 18 years old.
On Sept. 21 he wasn’t feeling well. It was his one day off and when you work 12 hours a day (double shifts), six days a week, you value your time off. Having just dropped off two of his three children at school he was heading home. It was 8 a.m.
“I started feeling drunk while I was driving, my legs were weak,” he says. Guzman made it home, resting a little by his car before going into his house. His head hurt. He thought some breakfast would do him good. It didn’t.
“I started throwing up,” Guzman says.
He tried resting some more.
“We didn’t get him to the hospital until 11 p.m. because we couldn’t get him out of bed,” his 21-year-old daughter Gabi says. “An hour later they told us that he had had a stroke.”
Guzman has health insurance through La Toscana, but his family has been without his income for two months now.
“My high cholesterol and diabetes mixed badly with the stress of life,” he says. “Work, kids, just getting by.”
An article last year in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke says that along with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, psychological stress greatly increases the risk of stroke.
“I have total respect for those line cooks,” says Peter Farrell a former line cook and a waiter at Il Davide. “You are dealing with tickets flying at you, eight to 10 burners full flame going at once. All the heat and orders, then the servers asking, ‘Where’s my food?’ all adding extra stress. It’s times like that that we need calm and cool cooks like Ezequiel. I am glad to be part of his team.”
Before I started bartending, I also worked in the kitchen for nearly five years. I was a bar/chef long before there was a term for it. Being a professional cook is a hard job. The hours are long, it’s hot, it’s stressful and it’s dirty. On top of that, it doesn’t usually pay well. In fact, in my experience, the people who make the least amount of money in the restaurant business are the line cooks, and they certainly work the hardest. But for whatever reason or circumstance they are back there, day in and day out, all for the love of food. Those of us who work in the restaurant business or those of us who frequent restaurants all owe the cooks in the back of the house an enormous debt of gratitude — without them there would be no restaurants.
“Soon, I can start working two hours a day,” Guzman says. “Forget any future plans, the doctor told me. Just focus on getting better day by day; exercise, eat healthier, and take my medicine when I’m supposed to.”
Hindsight is 20-20 they say. The prognosis is good, the doctors say he has recovered up to 60 percent of his pre-stoke abilities, and a full recovery is expected. But he has lost two months of income.
“Great employees are your business’ best asset, and you should take care of them,” Haydon says. And that is exactly what Haydon is doing with a benefit from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. today (Nov. 29) at Il Davide restaurant. If you want to help, call 415-454-8080.
“I’m trying to make it through,” Guzman says. “Right now, I’m spending more time with my family.”
And for a man used to working 72 hours a week that just might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.