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Chuck Hughes

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By Malcolm Jolley

Montreal's restaurant scene is famous as a whole, but English-speaking celebrity chefs have been slow to come out of Quebec's culinary capital. Chuck Hughes, who is effortlessly bilingual, charming and good looking may be the first. Hughes, at 32, is a partner and executive chef at Garde Manger, an Old Montreal casual but high-end restaurant that has attracted praise from The New York Times and attracts a dedicated Montrealais following from foodies in the evening to hipsters at night, when Garde Manger becomes a bar. Hughes has paid his dues in the kitchen, but has graduated to the front of the house as his magnetic personality attracts attention from his patrons and, recently, Food Network Canada executives. 'Chuck's Day Off' recreates Hughes' home recipes, but uses the restaurant as a backdrop. While the food is homey, Hughes ( who sports tattoos of a lobster, lemon meringue pie and other delicacies up and down his arms) retains a Montreal edge.

I interviewed Hughes recently in Toronto.

Gremolata: You left the beginnings of a career in advertising to go to chefs school. How come?

Chuck Hughes: Well, I was having an ok time, but I was still working in restaurants on the weekends. I couldn't let go of the industry. So my mom was the one who said to me, "What are you doing with your life? If you truly love food and the restaurant business, then that's what you should do."

Gremolata: So, you were in the business before?

Chuck Hughes: Oh yeah. My first job, at 17, was as a busboy at the Banff Springs Hotel. And my mom owned a restaurant in the early-80s, although I was too young for that to have a major influence. But as a busboy in a big hotel, I would see the chefs and think these guys are the top of the top! You know, they get respect! And I loved the food and whole business: being a waiter, a bartender. So, by the time I was working in a marketing firm in Vancouver - I was kind of like an intern - it was too late and I decided to go back to Montreal to go to cooking school with the idea that if I wanted to own my own restaurant I had to know every aspect of the business. And when I got there, I really knew that was it. This is what I want to do, this is what I love doing. And then I failed cooking school and kept working in restaurants.

Gremolata: What?

Chuck Hughes: Yeah, I failed. The whole restaurant industry is about now - it's fast paced. I had a couple of exams to finish my schooling, but I was already working at a restaurant. There was 300 people in the books and my chef was looking at me like, "You're going to go to school today to write an exam on pots and pans, when really I need you here?" So it was like a no-brainer for me. I wanted to stay, be part of the team and got to battle. It's like a war every night.

I've changed a lot in the last 12 years. But when I started it was about no sleep, let's go...

Gremolata: I get it: you were in your 20s in Montreal and having fun.

Chuck Hughes: Yes! But I had a lot less responsibility then. I had 16 appetisers, or whatever, and I just had to concentrate on that. It's different now, owning a restaurant, working with my partners. I realise that those hotel chefs really did have it sweet! They could walk in, put an apron on, cook and get out. Now, for me, there's a lot more cleaning and dishwashing. A lot of hard work, but everybody works hard and I love it.

Gremolata: Montreal's a pretty competitive restaurant scene. I mean, the standards are pretty high.

Chuck Hughes: Yeah, I think we're really up there. And it's fun because it's not necessarily all big guns. There's a lot of small, little fun places. That's what I love about Montreal: you don't have to have 300 seats and crystal to eat well. There's all sorts of places with their own local feel. And it's a city full of foodies. That's why I try and keep our menu simple and stick to what I know. You won't find me making wontons, I go to Chinatown for that. I mean there's fusion, and then there's confusion, like a wasabi-ginger-polenta. Even having a long menu, with lots of fancy descriptions: you only get disappointed. We'll just say "tomato salad". It's the waiter's job to describe it, and when we have a new dish all the staff get to try it and we rely on that. We have great staff: we've been open for three years and most of our staff has been there for at least two. And great customers who love good food. Sometimes it's just about the food, instead of high heels or whatever.

Gremolata: The restaurant, the show: they seem very relaxed.

Chuck Hughes: We're very laid back. When you spend $200 on dinner, I think you should be able to relax. I don't want someone telling me what to do. I don't want to have rules. Why not just sit down, have a drink, or whatever, and have fun. Why does food have to be so complicated? When I think about my favourite dishes over the years, I think about my mom's spinach gratin as a kid. As we get older I think food gets more complicated and something gets lost.

Gremolata: But won't a chef get bored? Don't you want to try new things.

Chuck Hughes: Yeah. I like to discover new ingredients, and try them at other places. But I also have to realise where I am, in Montreal where it's winter for six months of the year. Duck and mango, for me, doesn't make sense. Maybe in Miami. But our restaurant is more about representing where we are. And it's amazing how many different dishes you can make with just four ingredients with a handful of really good techniques.

Gremolata: And what's it like to translate this to TV?

Chuck Hughes: Well the first thing is the speed. As a cook, we're trained to go fast. And that doesn't work in front of a camera. So I had to slow down, but not too much! The show is really meant to reflect the restaurant and what we do. I'm sure I have a lot to learn, but after 13 episodes, I think I'm beginning to understand how to do it. It's not like hockey, where you can go out and practice. You really need a camera and a crew to understand the whole process. So, I hope I can do more. It's been awesome so far.

Chuck's Day Off premieres March 30 at 7:30 p.m ET on Food Network Canada.


So I will be the first to comment and start the ratings at top marks '5' stars of course!

Chuck has the most amazing attitude and is totally inspiring, so wonderfully expressive you can almost feel the buzz in his restaurant and smell the food cooking in his kitchen just from watching the show. Cool to learn more because a few weeks ago I never heard of Chuck Hughes...wow I was missing out! So I've introduced the show to a lot of my friends 'Chuck's Day Off' is different its wicked Chuck's style really rocks in every sense.

Great interview, can't wait to visit Garde Manger when I visit Old Montreal later this year.
Kim Grant
[Director of Events currently residing Middle East]
Post Reply By kim in dubai on 5/25/2018 6:53:41 AM

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