Food Ontario Select Guide: Interview with Chuck Hughes
In this edition of the Food Ontario Select Guide we feature an interview with Chuck Hughes, host of the Food TV network’s popular show Chuck’s Day Off.
Chuck’s interest in cooking began at the age of 8 when he asked his mother to enroll him in a cooking class. Fifteen years later he gave up a passionless career in advertising in order to turn his affair with cooking into a full-time relationship. In 2006, Chuck and his two best friends, Tim Rozon and Kyle Marshall, opened up their own restaurant Garde-Manger in a 125 year-old stone house in Montreal. Four years later, this vintage crab-shack underground club-turned restaurant continues to attract a fanatical clientele of locals and tourists.
FO - You were 8 years old when you asked your mother to enroll you in cooking classes. Why cooking and not hockey or some other sport?
CH - Hey I was the only guy in a cooking class of girls – I wasn’t so stupid! My cooking class was an extra curricular activity in an elementary school – it was a small little kitchen and we learned to bake and do salads.
FO - So trying to fit hockey in must have been a bit of a juggle?
CH - Yes when I was a kid skiing and hockey were my two most important sports as well and times haven’t really changed.
FO - Well a guy has to have his fun as well?
CH - Well that’s my main thing. I work all the time …so when I’m not at work I try and fit fun into my schedule. I play hockey 3-4 times a week…You know the classic story that chefs never have a day off but then by the time they’re 50 they’re half dead (laughs) I want to live a positive, good, healthy life. I want to work hard but play hard as well and be a healthy, happy cook. I think my food is better because of it.
FO - Your idea of relaxed entertaining?
CH – A case of oysters – that’s my best way to relax – when I’m having people over or going to visit I always go for a case of oysters.
FO - Shucked and straight up or with any special topping?
CH - I like it straight up but we make our own special cocktail sauce at the restaurant. I discovered something recently. It’s called lime caviar. It’s a variety of lime from Australia. When you open it up the flesh is like little citrusy caviar - and it pops in your mouth just like caviar – it’s so perfect for oysters.
FO - Meat, fish or fowl which do you prefer cooking?
CH -Mostly seafood and fish – that’s what I really love to cook with– small divers scallops, oysters, crab, small matane shrimp. Anything from the ocean that’s my favorite. When I was young my mom used to work as a stewardess. She would often fly to the East Coast a lot and come back with bags of seafood. Lobster, shrimp, crab. Those are just my fondest memories of my childhood sitting with my mom and my grandmother eating sea food. I’m crazy about seafood. My grandfather was from NB so it’s part of our heritage. Also Oyster parties, I spent lot of my summers in Maine.
FO - I’ve got to ask you this: You have numerous tattoos on your arms of lobster, shrimp, bacon and other food symbols, what gives?
CH -Yes – lobster, shrimp, bacon, arugula. Oh and lemon meringue pie.
FO - Guess you didn’t want to stop at the mains but go all the way to dessert?
CH - Yes ! The thing is I was always fascinated by tattoos as a kid so when you become 18 legally you can get tattoos – I thought “What are things I love and want on my body for life?” And it always came up seafood!
FO - Your restaurant is Garde-Manger, that’s sort of like a pantry?
CH - Well it does mean pantry but I took the idea further. I like to make small little dishes and to me Garde Manger is like the appetizer section of the restaurant. Garde manger is the guy who’s in charge of everything: cooking, cleaning, stocking up, ordering the supplies etc. Even when I was a chef in restaurants as far as I could I always worked appetizers it’s the most fun and you get to touch a little bit of everything.
FO - You switched from an advertising career to take up cooking full-time?
CH - My dream was to always open a restaurant. I wanted to relive the fun memories of my childhood and although I love to cook my passion was really to have a restaurant, be my own boss. I always worked in restaurants as a busboy, waiter, and bartender. At 17 I was a busboy at Banff Springs hotel where I got my 1st taste of restaurant life and I was hooked.
FO - Do you have a particular signature dish at your restaurant that your customers keep asking for?
CH - You know we have items on the menu that people like but basically our menu changes a lot – daily, weekly monthly – whenever I feel like it. We have a couple of items people always ask for.. Jerk crab and the short ribs recipe I did on the show. [Laughs] everybody’s talking about the goddamn short ribs recipe and I’m like ahhhhhhhhh – and I’m trying to get away from it and they say OMG I love it. In terms of signature I don’t want to be stuck with doing something – we try not to be too set in stone. But our seafood platters will always be our signature. And, hey I’m also known for my hockey skills!
FO - Has hosting your show on Food TV Network changed you as a chef?
CH - No I’m the same Chuck – haven’t changed a bit. I’m still here at the restaurant washing the front today because Monday is garbage day. Cleaning the restaurant; washing dishes; doing orders- it’s all part of living the dream.
FO - Some chefs do get caught up in the celebrity factor and lose touch with the little things?
CH - Not me. The show has changed my life a bit – I’m more recognized when I go places but otherwise I’m still the same old Chuck.
By: Sheila LoGuisto
Images: Supplied by Chuck Hughes
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