Chef Juan and his wife Maria M. Martinez Guarcas

How could a little six-year-old boy know his dreams could come true as he slept on a dirt floor in his Guatemalan home? Meeting Chef Juan Guarcas, co-owner and chef of Bella Mia Italian & American Cuisine Restaurant, you understand how this determined, talented Mayan used his culinary gifts and firm resolve to bring his vision to life.

When his mother left for a month, Chef Juan told his four brothers and sister, “We have to survive. We have to make our food.” After the first try with a chicken and veggies flopped, he told his dad he could fix it, and he did. He had no idea where that instinct came from, but it shaped his life.  

While growing up, Chef Juan experienced his father spend the family’s money on drinking instead of purchasing food, so he was determined to not follow in his father’s footsteps. He set his plans for the future – a restaurant and enough money to never go hungry again.

By 7 years old he was working beside his father harvesting coffee beans and cutting sugar cane. By 9, he got his first pair of shoes. At 11, he was selling fried chicken and French fries at the resort city of Panajachel, Guatemala, pushing a cart with 200 pounds of potatoes and 100 pounds of chicken.

When he was 16 years old, he was invited to Boston.  He took a 30-hour bus trip across Mexico to California and then a plane ride to Boston.

Chef Juan was shocked to hear the person who had led him to believe the invite was out of friendship say Chef Juan owed him $10,000.  He went to work and paid him in six months. 

Later, meeting Pietro Senes, a chef and owner of an Italian restaurant, changed Chef Juan’s life.  He became a mentor to Chef Juan and urged him to earn his high school GED, which led Chef to continue to Johnson & Wales University eventually receiving his masters in culinary arts. 

It was Senes who brought Chef Juan to McAllen to open an Italian restaurant but he passed away before it became a reality. Taking his vast knowledge of Italian cooking, Chef Juan, along with his wife Maria M. Martinez Guarcas, brought his dream to life in Bella Mia, adding his unique Mayan style to his recipes. Opened since 2017, you can find the exquisite restaurant at the Art Village on Main St. in McAllen.

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