Chuck Hughes, the star chef from Montreal who's known as the host of the popular cooking show "Chuck's Day Off" and who also gained major star power when he beat vet Bobby Flay in the "Iron Chef" kitchen stadium, has a number of unique projects he's wrapping up as well as embarking on. He was gracious enough to give CraveOnline a nice chunk of time to chat about his new series "Chuck's Week Off: Mexico" and "Chuckmas" special, his restaurant projects (possibly in Toronto?), and the secret to a perfect poutine.
CraveOnline – Tell us about "Chuck's Week Off: Mexico" – had you been to Mexico before?
Chuck Hughes – I've been to Mexico many times before and it's a place I always really loved. I love Spanish and the food and culture of Mexico.
"Chuck's Week Off: Mexico" is basically a road trip through Mexico. I go through many different towns and villages, meet and greet people, eat a lot of great food, and there's a lot of adventure. The reality is you get into cooking because you want to travel and get inspired and try new things, but after working in restaurants and owning two, when you become the big boss, you lose all that freedom that you had. It's a trade-off and good but I realized that I had to go out and learn more. So this was really an adventurous learning experience.
CraveOnline – What other projects are you working on? Aren't you on the "Next Iron Chef"?
Chuck Hughes – I survived to cook another day, which I'm happy about!
I also have a Christmas special called "Chuckmas." I've worked in the restaurant business my whole life and I haven't seen that many Christmases, so I finally have what I call my first "real" house, and this year it's my turn to host the family dinner for the first time.
But no matter what my mom's still the boss (laughs).
CraveOnline – Your Montreal restaurants Garde Manger and Le Bremner are a huge hit and always packed. Is it true you're considering opening a restaurant in Toronto next?
Chuck Hughes – Ohhh… how can I say… if you'd asked me that five years ago I would have said no, but now moving forward it's not something we planned 100% but it's something we're thinking about. I've been with the same partners for years and we still get along great, we're best friends, and there's a possibility but we're not actively looking.
CraveOnline – That's a great way to dodge an answer.
Chuck Hughes – (Laughs) Well if I had a concrete answer I would tell you! Toronto is a great big city and a great restaurant city right now and it would make a lot of sense, but the honest answer is we don't have an answer.
CraveOnline – How has Montreal's food scene changed over the years?
Chuck Hughes – The Montreal food scene is always going to be ever-changing. As much as we have our classics there's so many restaurants sprouting up and so many talented young chefs, and not just chefs but sommeliers and waiters and managers. We're lucky to have such a great community of restaurants.
Ultimately everyone pushes everybody to do better – there's healthy competition but it's a real foodie city, and the more people from around the world realize that, the more we're going to get the culinary tourism. People are coming to Montreal for Jazz Fest but also the food – I get to see a lot of that at the restaurant. It's a very unique place in the world. I'm from here and I love it, and I love to promote it and get more people to discover Montreal. It has one of the best food scenes not only in the country but in North America.
CraveOnline – So tell us – what is the secret to a perfect poutine?
Chuck Hughes – The secret lies in its simplicity. It's all about how you like it – there's isn't a perfect or exact way of doing it. The real ghetto OG poutine is made from traditional poutine sauce from a can, cheese curds, and fries. It's hard to beat.
CraveOnline – Everyone's been buzzing about your win on "Iron Chef" – has it changed your career?
Chuck Hughes – Yeah, a lot. In terms of life experiences it was probably one of the most intense hours that I've lived, but in terms of one hour of TV, the repercussions are huge. I can't be introduced without it being mentioned. We were happy to win and it's been amazing.
CraveOnline – Would you do it again?
Chuck Hughes – Ummm, yeah I think I would. The fact is when you're there you're so nervous and there are so many things you have to deal with. Me and my crew were so nervous, so if we did it again, we would breathe a lot more. It's all a blur to me.
CraveOnline – Are there any areas of the world that you have yet to explore and would like to?
Chuck Hughes – A whole bunch. In February I'm going to the Philippines, Singapore, and Malaysia on a huge Asian tour, and then if everything goes well I will be going to Greece, Turkey, and Croatia at the beginning of the summer. I take so much from it [the travel] – it's so enriching in my life and I'm so blessed and lucky to have the chance to do this.
CraveOnline – You inspire so many, but who inspires you?
Chuck Hughes – I get inspired by a whole bunch of people – not necessarily their accomplishments but I get inspired by people in other ways. Sometimes it's just the simplest things in life that just make something special. I'm lucky that I work with so many great people and every day is a different unique experience.
But if I had to say who inspires me in the cooking world it's definitely every grandmother I met in Mexico, from the greatness of their hearts and personalities to the way they cook and look at life and find happiness in family, food, and the fact we're alive. It's amazing to be inspired by people who don't have it so easy but are so happy and really living a great life.
CraveOnline – What ingredient can't you live without?
Chuck Hughes – Water. We don't think about it much but when you go to Mexico you realize we take it for granted. We need water for every stage of cooking, from washing vegetables to making stocks and sauces – everything starts with water, and we're so lucky to have these high-tech kitchens that we rarely think of the bare necessities. That's one of the things I took back from Mexico.