To paraphrase an automobile advertisement, for Chuck Hughes (pictured), authenticity is “Job One.”
From his disarming candor about his own preferences and abilities as a chef to his approach to cooking, the Montreal-based culinarian has won fans the world over with his no-nonsense style. He likens food to music, maintaining that just as some people will prefer classical to jazz, others will prefer molecular gastronomy to meat and potatoes, however unfathomable that may seem to him. (“Bacon foam? Wouldn’t you rather just eat bacon?” he asks with a smile.)
As host of Chuck’s Day Off, which airs on The Cooking Channel in the U.S. and Food Network Canada, the affable Hughes spends his day off cooking for friends and family, and also takes viewers behind the scenes at his restaurant in Old Montreal, Garde-Manger.
With Chuck’s Week Off, already airing on The Cooking Channel and coming to Food Network Canada in late August, he heads to Mexico in search of authentic Mexican cuisine, which can come in the form of a grasshopper taco (“I was thinking they’d be more intense, but they’re like little shrimps,” he says) or a recipe handed over by a taxi driver.
Realscreen caught up with Hughes between shifts to talk about the new project.
You’ve done more “how to”-oriented cooking shows, and are now moving into the travelog space. Which do you prefer?
It’s a tough question in the sense that the travel can make it easier, as you can rely on other characters in a way. On a personal level, I found it a little bit easier because I’m not in my kitchen, and I’m not representing the restaurant and my whole team. I’m there to learn, and it’s genuinely interesting to learn something from somebody else, be it a cook, a grandmother, a taxi driver – anybody.
With the ‘how to’ style, it’s a little bit harder and takes a bit more out of me, but the benefit is when I meet someone who says, “My nine-year-old started watching your show and now he’s started to cook.” For me, that’s the pay-off. So in a way, the reason I want to get back to ‘how to’ cooking is a little bit selfish.
I get emails from guys in university saying, “Dude – I invited this girl over and I made your short ribs. It was killer – I was the man!” My life has definitely changed after TV, but I never really thought about the flip-side, which is now I’m a little bit more in the public eye. It’s not always easy, and I do get hate mail sometimes, which is bizarre. If I’ve deeply affected you that much by the way I chop cabbage, then maybe you need to look at your life. (laughs)
In the way that food television has evolved and become so popular, there’s always something new. Maybe we might go back to the roots of really raw, unfiltered, real cooking – show people the reality of it. Even with Chuck’s Day Off, it’s pretty real, but if I drop something on the floor we still cut. I’d love to have a show that’s almost live to tape. That’s the beauty of cooking – it’s a living, breathing thing.
Did your experiences with the food culture in Mexico surprise you in any way?
Everyone was so inviting. You realize that the reason they cook and eat is because they’re hungry. We’ve come so far from that and it’s almost like the most exotic or weird [type of dish] is the most prized and what we’re looking for. But in Mexico, it’s made well and it’s from the heart. Their relationship with food isn’t influenced by TV or magazines, or what’s hot or not, or celebrity chefs. It’s all about local, organic, fresh and seasonal. It’s all about these words that we throw around, but over there, it’s real.
For example, we went over there and we were expecting avocados everywhere. Well, they weren’t in season. And we were thinking, “What do you mean, we’re in Mexico and we’re not working with avocados?” But there, if it’s not growing now, they’re not using it.
What about the relationship between the real world and the show – how has your life as a chef and restaurateur been impacted?
The truth is we were pretty popular before [at Garde-Manger]. We’ve expanded a bit, but our goal was to have more space to do our operations, and to add maybe a little bit more room for our clientele to move. We’d been refusing so many people and some would say, “Oh, that’s a good thing.” But it’s good to a certain extent – when you refuse somebody five times they start to think you’re a prick. And I’m really not elitist. We’re in the business of serving and selling food.
It’s been good and it’s been bad. We were already overbooked, now we’re even more so. And we used to only piss off the people in our own town [who couldn't get a table], and now we’re pissing off people from all over the world. (laughs)
Chuck’s Day Off and Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico are produced by Whalley-Abbey Media. Beyond International handles distribution for both Chuck’s Day Off (worldwide excluding North America) and Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico (world excluding North America, Caribbean Basin, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica and English speaking Latin America).