If celebrity chefs are the new rock stars, few people fit the part as well as Montreal's Chuck Hughes.
The famously dreamy and charismatic 36-year-old co-owner of Garde Manger and star of "Chuck's Day Off" is a former punk band roadie who's covered in tattoos and candid about his recovery from years of partying too hard with drugs and alcohol.
"It’s weird, there was a part of my life where I thought I was a rock star, and I thought I was the most important person, and I thought I was the shit," Hughes said in a recent interview in Toronto while promoting his new book, also called Chuck's Day Off.
"I thought I was a whole bunch of things and I think it was just me being young and not really knowing who I was and trying to project an image of Mr. Cool ... people have this vision of the industry that’s glamorous but really it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of long hours and no pay."
Well, Hughes is getting paid a lot more these days than when he was slaving as a line cook and catering music festivals. He's also gotten to travel all over the United States, Mexico and Asia thanks to his shows that include "Chuck's Week Off" and "Chuck's Eat the Street."
"Chopping carrots has literally brought me around the world, twice," he jokes.
His new book, part autobiography, part cookbook and part shout-out to his down-to-earth inner circle, doesn't go into his addiction and recovery, but it's a humbling ode to the dozens of suppliers, staff and other characters who have been the backbone of his success — from his mom, girlfriend (sorry, ladies) and mentors David McMillan and Frederic Morin of Joe Beef, to the linen guy, oyster shuckers, hockey team, and even the dog walkers he's befriended over the years.
Besides talking about opening his first restaurant in Toronto (he said he's serious about it happening in the next year or two), Hughes spoke to The Huffington Post Canada about the one thing he misses about drinking, the dirty things that happen in restaurant kitchens and the loves of his life.
What does 'Canadian' food mean to you?
I’ve struggled with that question a lot ... I really feel that it’s just really a cuisine of big, bold ingredients and kind of focusing on the elements that Canada brings to the plate, which is the best of everything. We have the best seafood, whether it’s on the East Coast or the West Coast. In between, the Prairies are phenomenal for everything from wheats and vegetables ... and in Quebec and even Ontario, we’re blessed with having such great markets and such great food, so I really think it’s a focus on really good ingredients. The more we’re defining ourselves in the world I really think it’s a focus on great ingredients and being able to use simple technique and kind of being humbled by the food and just letting it speak for itself. And that’s the trend that I see most in Canada. It’s weird that we don’t have a real definition. For a while if felt like people were associating Canadian food with poutine which is horrendous. It’s good stuff, I get it, but we can’t. So I really say it’s an ingredient-based cuisine which is full-on regional. We’re surrounded by the most amazing food, no wonder the Japanese and everybody else are trying to get all our fish. And that’s how we built our whole industry, from cod and from all that, so I think we’re focused on amazing ingredients.
What is one of the first things you crave to eat when you return to Montreal from abroad?
I’m a real big burger guy and something that’s truly Montreal is Dic Ann’s. It’s a weird burger that’s really flat with kind of a gravy sauce and that’s the one thing I crave. It’s awesome. It’s like traditional Montreal '50s style diner and they just opened a food truck. It’s a chain, but it’s a local Montreal chain and it’s amazing. They're flat burgers and they give you a popsicle stick because they're so flat you have to lift it off the plate. It’s amazing.
What's your favourite poison?
I don’t drink at all. I’m an alcoholic, like every other chef I know. I opened the restaurant (Garde Manger) seven years ago and decided that I’m the boss, I’m in charge. I used to work for other people that had the lock and key on the booze, and now I was the guy who was in control of it. There was a big history of it in my family and I’m the kind of like the first one that decided to stop and my life got so much better... Some people have cancer, some people are missing a leg, that’s my thing and I really embrace it, especially in this kind of industry, it’s rampant, drug use and alcohol. People have this thing where they see the chef as this guy sniffing wine with a white hat, but the reality is really it’s a lot of partying and a lot of hard work, a lot of stress, and people like to unwind. I got caught up in that for so long, so it’s really just a personal choice, and it didn’t happen (just) like that. I worked at it, and I still work at it every day. I talk about it and I try to tell other chefs and cooks, people in the industry and people who aren’t even in the industry, there’s such a stigma around it.
Now six years (since I quit alcohol and drugs), my life is completely different. It’s a lot of work. The thing is it gets easier and easier. And people are always like 'What about one glass of wine?' It’s like 'Yeah, a case?' Maybe. I’ve never really enjoyed a glass of wine. I would always think of the next glass or like the line that I’m going to do, or the drugs ... so for me it’s just been amazing.
So I guess there's no more boozy eating binges after a night out?
That’s the one thing I miss about not drinking is the late-night poutine freak-outs because now I still have late-night food, I’m just not unconscious. Nobody in their right minds will eat a whole poutine unless they’re wasted, so those are the binges that I miss because I’m too conscious of like 'I’m not going to eat this whole thing.' I miss that. Where you don’t give a shit... For me that’s my big thing, from one addiction, when I stopped drinking, then I started needing sugar, because there’s so much alcohol, I needed sugar. It became like anything...so I have to watch out.
If you could prepare only one last meal, what would it be?
I think it would probably have to be something like Alaskan king crab, something that’s just out of this world. I’ve only had the chance to eat a whole crab once and I’ve been to Alaska... It would be a whole Alaskan king crab, like a 10-pound one.
What would be in your emergency "survival pantry"?
Probably either salt, or hot sauce, those are the two things that I can’t live without, salt especially, I’ve tried to tone it down but...now as a chef and cook, I try to use as much salt naturally as I can but there’s something about...crunching on sea salt, I love it. It’s one of my favourite things. So I think salt would probably be mine, but you need a little spice.
What is the wildest thing you’ve done in a kitchen, culinary or otherwise?
I would just say that things happen in walk-in fridges...
What is the best restaurant in Montreal that no one’s ever heard of?
Bouillon Bilk. Nobody knows about this place and it’s dope, it’s amazing... I know the guys who cook there, we go to yoga class together ... and they’re just a mini local restaurant that just does really well, that’s super cute, and nobody knows about.
What would you be doing if you couldn’t be a chef?
I would love to play hockey in the NHL, that’s my ultimate dream but being a pro surfer is something that I would love, too.
What is your favourite cheap food thrill?
Things that I have to watch out for just because I could eat like non-stop? Probably chocolate chip cookies, homemade, warm out of the oven. Saturdays are my cheat day and without fail, every Saturday night, tons of sea salt though, really important. My favourite combo? I love spicy, I love crispy, I love crunchy, I love salty but salty and sweet together for me is like heaven.
What is the most memorable food city in the world?
I would say Singapore. Black-pepper crab, chicken rice, like the most simple, really, chicken and rice, but I don’t understand how good it is. Visually it looks like the worst dish you’ll ever eat and the flavours, the perfume, is just phenomenal. It’s awesome.
Which Canadian restaurants have you been to and would recommend?
What's the most unusual and delicious food that you would suggest people try?
Grasshoppers. Crispy and spicy, salty. Basically (in Mexico) we started with grasshoppers, a little bit of water and then just let them steam in the water and then the water evaporates and when all the water’s gone, oil, so they start to crisp up, then lime, salt and chili. It’s really unusual but phenomenal. It almost tastes like shrimp.
What are some of your favourite tattoos? I have bacon and arugula, the two loves of my life...and I just got a baby seal (illustrated as a Russian matryoshka doll) because I love Newfoundland and I just thought it was funny. The Russian doll was for my girlfriend. She’s not excited about tattoos at all, she hates it but she’s gotta live with it.
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