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The Last Word: Chuck Hughes

Wednesday, 19.10.2011 / 11:25 AM / CANADIENS magazine
canadiens.com



Running one of Montreal’s hottest restaurants, Garde Manger, is one thing; couple that with your own TV show, Chuck’s Day Off, and a victory over the renowned Bobby Flay in front of millions of viewers on Iron Chef America and you have the recipe used by 34-year-old Saint-Sauveur native Chuck Hughes to become one of North America’s premiere celebrity chefs. We caught up with the inked-up gourmand and lifelong Habs fan to see what’s cooking in his future.

We referred to you as “Celebrity Chef Chuck Hughes” on our cover. Hope you don’t mind.

CHUCK HUGHES: (laughs) No, no. But, you know what? I would never consider myself a celebrity. Every time I hear someone introduce me like that, I think, “Me? Seriously?” It still doesn’t feel real.

What makes a true celebrity chef? Or do you think that whole concept is just silly?

CH: A little. It’s not us chefs who decide that stuff. It’s an image or persona we’re given and it’s kind of out of our control.

Chuck hard at work in the kitchen.

How did your show, Chuck’s Day Off, come to pass?

CH: I started getting a lot of offers once the restaurant started running really smoothly. I was a bit hesitant about the idea at first. After talking it over with some friends, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. We’re already in our third season.

You grew up in Saint-Sauveur and Montreal. So just how big a Habs fan are you, really?

CH: For Montrealers, the Canadiens are a religion. I’m not a huge stats guy, but I try to watch every game if I can. We don’t have TVs at the restaurant so during the playoffs the manager goes from table to table giving score updates to our guests. I might even get a tattoo of the logo at some point – our initials are both CH, after all! 

Did you play hockey growing up? What kind of player were you?

CH: I started playing when I was four years old. I was pretty good but I was a bit of a nervous player out there. I had to travel to another area of the city to play because there was no team in my neighborhood so I didn’t have a ton of friends on the team and it was tougher to fit in.

Still, we bet you were always very popular at team potluck dinners!

CH: (laughs) Not really. Actually, back then, the biggest hit was whenever our coaches ordered chicken from Côte St-Luc Bar-B-Q!

Some lucky patrons dining at Chuck's flagship restaurant, Garde Manger.

How often do you see Canadiens players at Garde Manger? Are you friends with any of the guys?

CH: They come in all the time but I’m too shy to go up and talk to them. I turn into a nine-year-old kid around them! (laughs)

Which specialty of yours would you prepare for the Habs after a big win?

CH: I love cooking for a big group with a big appetite. I’d start with a huge seafood platter followed by braised short ribs in a red wine sauce.

You’ve said that working in a kitchen requires excellent communication and teamwork. Are you kind of like the Jacques Martin of Garde-Manger?

CH: Exactly! Every kitchen has its own identity just a hockey team. You have to make sure every one is pulling in the same direction towards the single goal of serving the best possible food to your clients. Just like Jacques, I have to make sure I’m leading my team effectively and using their strengths.

Chuck sees himself in Jacques Martin.

Your restaurant, Garde Manger, has been open for more than five years and it’s still nearly impossible to get a reservation. What’s the secret to your success?

CH: Pay attention to details and be honest with your clients. And don’t be afraid of a little hard work.

If you’re having your buddies over to watch a hockey game, what kind of tailgating food do you serve up?

p>CH: I don’t really cook at home, so I usually order sushi for games. We eat enough fried food and junk at the end of the night at the restaurant.

How did you get into cooking? Be honest - it was to help you meet girls, right?

CH: I always loved to eat, so my mom introduced me to cooking at a young age. I was her sous-chef. When I was in sixth grade, she signed me up for cooking classes after school and I loved it. Once I got to CEGEP, I realized how much potential it had to help me meet girls. Brunch was my forte so I made a lot of breakfast dates.

Is the secret to a woman’s heart also through her stomach?

CH: Now, more than ever! If I’m going to be in a serious relationship with someone, it’s really important to me that we have similar tastes. Food really is the best way to get to know someone’s true personality. You can learn a lot about a person that way.

Give us your go-to date night meal.

CH: I like to go against the idea that you should dirty as few dishes as possible. I love seafood so it would be a mix; fish, lobster, crab, oysters, etc.

Chuck's quintessential Quebec dish.

What’s really the quintessential Quebec dish: smoked meat or poutine?

CH: I love them both, but so many places have their own versions of them. I’d actually argue that the Montreal-style bagel is what separates us from other cities. To this day, no one has been able to duplicate them.

How much did growing up in Quebec affect your cooking style?

CH: In terms of the products I use, it did, but on the technical side I’m more open to different things. You can use Quebec ingredients without it always being maple syrup or blueberries. The atmosphere in Montreal is so unique that our restaurant probably wouldn’t work someone else.

Do chefs ever worry about their cholesterol levels or blood pressure, or is achieving deliciousness always the overriding goal, regardless of ingredients?

CH: Good question. I have the mentality that you always have to give your clients the best. I like to offer a variety of lighter fare and richer options. No matter what, I want all my dishes to taste great.

Athletes learn to ignore their critics among fans or the media. Though they may be infrequent, how tough is it for you to deal with bad reviews?

CH: When it’s deserved, I don’t have a problem with it as long as it’s constructive. When it’s not, I have a hard time holding back. I’ve spent some sleepless nights thinking about some of the crap people have said about me. I try not to do that too much, but it’s tough. You can’t please everyone.

Chuck's muse.

Yours excluded, what’s the best cookbook of all time?

CH: Entertaining by Martha Stewart. It’s an innovative book and it continues to inspire me.

If you could have lunch with one chef, living or dead, to just pick their brain on technique and approach, who would it be and why?

CH: Julia Child. She was like an encyclopedia who did everything her own way. She was authentic and her show really portrayed what goes on in a real kitchen.

Emeril Lagasse has his “Bam!” and Gordon Ramsay has the F-word. What’s your trademark phrase in the kitchen? We think it would be great if you shouted “Et le but!” every time you remove a dish from the oven.

CH: Well, I’ve noticed I say “Nice!” a lot. But I love “Et le but!” I’ll have to use that one in our next episode.

Who, in your view, is sexier: Padma Lakshmi or Giada de Laurentiis?

CH: (laughs) That’s a tough one, but I’ll go with Padma. Giada’s arms seem a little short (laughs).  I actually think Nigella Lawson is the hottest.

Padma, Giada and Nigella turn up the heat on the Food Network.

You made Canadian cooking history by beating Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America. How big was that moment for you?

CH: I never could have dreamed that one hour on television could have put me on the map like that. It’s crazy how many people watch the show and are huge fans. Of all the things I’ve done, that’s definitely the one I’m known for.

Just how badly did Flay need to be taken down a peg, anyway?

CH: We got a little bit lucky that day. Everything seemed to go well for us and everything seemed to go wrong for him. In terms of experience, Bobby Flay would win hands-down. That’s the beauty of cooking – it’s real and anything can happen.

Chuck beat Bobby Flay at his own game on Iron Chef America.

Between us, were you even a little nervous preparing poutine for the refined palates of the judges on Iron Chef?

CH: I knew that if I hadn’t served them poutine, I would have wished that I had. When we found out we had to use lobster, we didn’t have a choice but to make it. That’s one of our specialties at Garde-Manger. I’ll be honest, it could’ve been better but we only had an hour to make it.

You have some experience catering for large groups after filling the mouths of big name musicians for two straight years at Montreal’s Osheaga music festival. How do the tastes of Cypress Hill and Snoop Dogg compare to the likes of Elvis Costello or Arcade Fire?

CH: When I was starting out, I was actually the caterer for Simple Plan when they were on tour, so I knew what I was getting into. But it’s a very, very demanding job. The biggest challenge is accommodating everyone. With Cypress Hill, I tried to offer a variety of options based on their Latin roots and they loved it! I was also in charge of cooking for Eminem. He’s a huge star but he’s really down to Earth. The only thing he said to me was, “Can I get more meatballs?” I was in Heaven.

You even opened your second restaurant, Le Bremner, not that long ago. Was it a project you’ve been considering for a while?

CH: Our accountant explained to us a few years ago that we were losing money by turning away customers. We’re almost always packed at Garde-Manger. That’s where the idea came from and the menu at Bremner is really different. It’s a very difference experience.

Le Bremner

Montreal seems to be getting more exposure on the international culinary scene in recent years with you spots and several other high-profile restaurants. Fair statement?

CH: It’s very true and it’s about time! I really identify with Montreal and I love promoting the city when I’m on the road. It’s a really unique place. It always makes me laugh when I meet people from New York who tell me they’re dying to come here. I tell them it’s like a 45 minute plane ride and they can’t believe it!

Excluding your own establishments, give us your three go-to spots for food or drink in Montreal.

CH: I like places that are authentic. I love Lemeac on Laurier. When I’m going out with friends, I always know it will be perfect there. When I’m ordering sushi, I get it from Kaizen. You can’t beat it. The other place I go a lot is Main Deli Steak House on Saint Laurent. That’s my favorite spot for smoked meat.


We have an idea for a future episode of Chuck’s Day Off: you cook for some Canadiens players and we do an article on it for the magazine. Or we just eliminate the middle man and you cook for the staff of the magazine.

CH: (laughs) Any time! It would be a career highlight, for sure!

Head to foodnetwork.ca and cookingchanneltv.com to view the upcoming schedule for Chuck’s Day Off in Canada and the U.S., respectively. For more info on Chuck’s restaurants or his upcoming appearance on Season 4 of The Next Iron Chef, premiering Oct. 30 on the Food Network, head to his official Web site, www.chuckhughes.ca.

This article, written by Hugo Fontaine, was published in CANADIENS magazine Vol. 26 No. 1.