When the owner of two Montreal restaurants and star of several television shows experienced dizziness and nausea last month, the symptoms were severe enough to land him in hospital with a suspected heart attack. The 36-year-old was diagnosed with labyrinthitis and had to reschedule events for the tour promoting his second cookbook, "Chuck's Day Off."
A few weeks later, Hughes, who likes to relax playing a little pickup hockey, said the worst symptoms associated with the inner ear inflammation had subsided.
"The only thing it's affecting majorly is my hockey career. The no balance has really been probably one of the worst things," Hughes said during a recent visit to Toronto. "Everything else I'm kind of like, 'OK, I can deal with it,' but then the hockey I tried to play and it was literally like I was learning from scratch. Mentally it was kind of tough. But I'm back."
Being in the hospital gave him an appreciation for the staff.
"I realized nurses save lives every day and a chef has become such a rock star, celebrity chef icon and I'm like ... take it easy," he said self-deprecatingly.
"Basically I put food on plates and people come and enjoy. I want people to have a good time, eat great food and ultimately have fun. And really that's what we're all about."
His new cookbook, "Chuck's Day Off" (HarperCollins), includes more than 100 recipes with beautiful colour photos by Dominique Lafond and is based on the Food Network Canada show of the same name in which Hughes cooks for friends and family on his days off. But it's also a celebration of those who have contributed to his success as well as a glimpse into what makes him tick.
"This book's really for everybody who's been involved in my life really from the get-go in terms of the restaurant business and it's kind of like a thank-you note to them," Hughes said.
"It's kind of a small biography of me without really going into details."
He writes about his landlords, suppliers who provide linen, spices, fish, meat, cheese, truffles, coffee and wine, staff in his restaurants, even people who walk his beloved dog or tattoo him.
While the personable chef loves being in Food Network Canada's "Chuck's Day Off" and "Chuck's Week Off," he was wary about taking on the role of judge in the network's new show "Chopped Canada," expected to premiere next winter.
"I thought, 'I don't want to sit in the studio and judge people. That seems like my least favourite thing to do.' But I decided I should try. Once again, you never know. I had the best time. It's a different angle for me. I'm always the one who's competing and now I'm more of a mentor and also I feel like I've been there in a lot of these situations and can speak from experience," he said.
"I'm not there to be an ass or to be a tough guy or the one to say 'I hate this.' I've so much respect for food and for people who are in the food industry, whether it be in a kitchen, school cafeteria or the best restaurant in the world.
"Food is food. I just love it all. I know what it takes to put food on the table."
His two Montreal restaurants, Garde Manger and La Bremner, each have 65 seats, and he is eyeing a possible Toronto expansion.
He's also enamoured of Newfoundland — "I make it a point to go there a lot to get a tattoo, to eat, hang out" — and showed off his newest tattoo, a stylized baby seal and Russian doll design, filling in a small space among the many emblems of bacon, pie, lobster and arugula lining his arms.
Hughes has also joined forces with Dynamo to launch the iPad app DeepDishMTL, a digital cookbook in English and French, which showcases recipes of Hughes and four other Montreal chefs.
"It's really a postcard to the Montreal food scene," Hughes explained. "We're hoping to add a lot more restaurants to it. That's the goal. What I love about the app format unlike a book is that we can always update it."