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Mega chef Chuck Hughes pays tribute to staff in new cookbook 'Garde Manger'

05/22/2012 05:19 EDT | Updated 07/22/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Celebrity chef Chuck Hughes says his new cookbook "Garde Manger" is filled with recipes for the simple, uncomplicated food that customers at his Montreal restaurant of the same name have come to love.

"The book is very raw, very real," he said. "It's a bit gritty. It's not super polished. The recipes aren't all nice and cookie cutter. The pictures are kind of what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of style. I'm really happy about that. I love the pictures."

"Garde Manger" won a silver medal last year in the French language cookbooks category at the Canadian Culinary Book Awards. A few changes were made from the French version because "a direct translation doesn't translate well" and they needed to update photos of staff, which are a big part of the book, the mega chef said during a visit last week to Toronto.

"Mostly what this book is is for clients to be able to get a sneak peek into the restaurant. Our staff, to be able to give to their moms" to show what they do all day at his two restaurants, Garde-Manger and Le Bremner.

"And the third reason is really for the staff to know how much they're important, and to know how much they're part of the team," Hughes said. "I'm so lucky that I have a great team of people."

He started with six employees and now 6 1/2 years later, there are 54 in the two Old Montreal restaurants.

"Our philosophy is really about great ingredients, simple technique, letting the ingredients speak for themselves and not manipulate them too much and it's reflected in the book in terms of all the recipes are pretty, pretty simple," the 35-year-old said. "There's nothing really complicated, there's nothing too chi-chi, there's nothing too controlled and placed. It's really not my thing."

"Garde-manger," from which the book's title and the restaurant name are derived, refers to "keeper of the food," the person who is responsible for the larder and its contents.

"That was my first position in a kitchen and it's still one of my best and favourite positions now," said Hughes, who beat culinary star Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America" last year with a menu that included lobster poutine.

"Garde-manger is the heart. After the dishwasher, garde-manger is really where all the action happens. Most of the appetizers and desserts are made at that station ... it keeps you on your toes. You get to touch a little bit of everything. You're aware of 100 per cent of what's in the pantry all the times because that's really your job. You're kind of like that go-to guy in the kitchen and your day is always different.

"All those new, fun, exciting, big things happening in restaurants are happening at the garde-manger station."

Hughes said the book took about a year to put together. He admitted to occasionally being stymied in his choice of recipes by the lack of certain ingredients. Fiddleheads, for instance, weren't in season when he was writing.

"So as much as I decided what goes in the book Mother Nature also had a say in it. And that's the reality of cooking. If it ain't there, it's not happening."

Fans of "Chuck's Day Off" will be pleased to learn Hughes plans to begin working on a book based on the Food Network show and hopes the book will be published next year.

"It's going to be half 'Chuck's Day Off' and half original recipes, so I'll revisit some of the recipes from the show and I'll give them a little twist," he said.

Hughes has just returned from a tour of Asia, Europe and Mexico. In Asia he was promoting "Chuck's Day Off" and in Mexico he was working on an eight-part series called "Chuck's Week Off," which is due to air in September.

Another restaurant could be on the horizon, but the location is up in the air. He and his partners have looked at Toronto, but Hughes feels the similarities to Montreal — weather, clientele and products — won't allow him to stretch himself.

"I've always wanted to live on the ocean and have a different lifestyle, so why not open something elsewhere — Vancouver, Mexico, Hong Kong. Why not? The possibilities are endless. So I really want to dream big."

He and his longtime girlfriend Sabrina, 33, are eager to start a family. "I have so much fun with kids," he said.

Hughes is also working with Hellmann's on an initiative called the Real Food Movement, which offers grants to encourage children and families to eat healthily. Grants are open to school-based and community groups as well as families and individuals.

"Kids are sponges. They want to learn and try new things. They haven't heard that zucchinis are yucky," Hughes said.

"Every time they make something, every time they try what they've made, it's always, like, 'wow.' They're always so excited," he added.

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