To the Point with Chef Chuck Hughes
The culinary star explains how basic ingredients, sharp knives and mise en place can change the way you cook.
Chuck Hughes has made it his mission to inspire people to cook more often and have fun doing it. Through his acclaimed Montreal restaurants Garde Manger and Le Bremner, his television shows and many public appearances, Hughes has told countless stories through his food, and his new line of Chuck Hughes staples, available at Hudson’s Bay, are a way to try some of his favourite flavours in your everyday dishes.
Read on for our Q&A with Chuck Hughes where he shares tips and tales that are sure to enrich your time in the kitchen.
What have you learned from working in your professional kitchens that help your cooking at home?
The one thing I take home the most, and that I try to tell people, mostly my friends — though I also do a lot of food demos, food fairs and things — is preparedness. In professional kitchens, it’s mise en place, or “getting ready.” What I love is to inspire people to cook. I want them to think for themselves, enjoy, break the rules, have fun, try new things. I find if you’re more prepared, you’re allowed to be more creative and do more things.
First, read the recipe, get it all out in front of you, then start cooking like you would in a real restaurant instead of going back and forth to the cupboard. Get a good stable cutting board, a sharp chef’s knife — not a million dollar knife, just a good quality knife you feel comfortable with — then set yourself up. The ingredients are all in front of you, and you think, One clove of garlic? That’s not so much. I could put another. That’s when the recipe becomes your own, and you start cooking really as opposed to just assembling and being there. Get your mise en place and your setup bomb-proof so you can actually enjoy the task of cooking instead of complaining and saying, I don’t have time to do this. It makes things so much more fun. When cooking is fun, your life is better, and you make better choices.
People are so good with pizza at home, or how you build a burger. You know your condiment plate — lettuce, tomato, cheese — that’s how you cook. You get everything laid out, and it becomes habit. Once you get in motion, you think, I can make dinner for my family. It’s easy.
Is there a niche you are trying to fill with your new line of Chuck Hughes staples?
You know Oprah’s Favourite Things? These are my favourite things, and I’m starting on a small scale in a realistic way with people I actually work with in my real life. There are so many products I would love to do, but they’re not “me” in a sense.
The white balsamic vinegar is a great example: I had a show called Chuck’s Day Off, a how-to cooking show that takes place in my restaurant. I use a lot of white balsamic. People always ask me about it online and when I meet them. The white balsamic is a little sweeter, a bit less “black” than regular balsamic. People love balsamic and mozzarella, but it looks nasty. For me in a restaurant, the challenge was how to get that flavour without compromising the look.
Balsamic vinegar is made in Modena, Italy, and I was buying a specific one that I love so I reached out to them. In Canada no one is making it, so I thought, Why don’t I stick with the guy I love who has been making it forever?
My olive oil comes from the guy who has been my landlord for twelve years at my restaurant Garde Manger. The first day I signed the lease, he asked, “So are you guys going to buy my olive oil?” (his family lives in Crete and they have olive groves). Two days later there is a bit of olive oil at my door. I tried it and thought, this is actually amazing. I used the olive oil for ten years and then decided to say, “Hey, George, let’s make Chuck Hughes olive oil.”
One thing that’s important to me is that the olive oil is affordable and super high quality. I always tell people, “Life is short. You need to enjoy it.” I know there are $100 bottles of oil out there. I go to people’s homes and they’re not using them, because they’re nervous. It’s so expensive. That’s not how olive oil is meant to be used. Another example I use is a good knife. My friends have a super expensive knife. I go to their house and they say, “Don’t cut lemons!” That’s not how life works really. Use it! Enjoy!
My restaurant Garde Manger celebrated ten years about two years ago and I thought, What can we do that’s special? We hear about the chef but never the people behind the scene. My show Chuck’s Day Off was all about that, celebrating the people that you don’t see, that are all in the plate but you don’t see them. Now they’re put the farmers’ names on the menus, which is great and pays respect to them, but I thought, Maybe we can do something a bit different.
You grew up in Montreal?
Yeah, I grew up in Habitat 67. It’s a cool spot, though growing up there had its challenges. I spent early childhood in a little ski town called Saint-Sauveur, and then my parents moved to Montreal when I was eight or nine. I went from walking outside into the forest to the concrete jungle. I was a bit like, Ah! What am I doing here? But then again, skateboarding was like paradise. There’s stuff that was weird and stuff that was amazing.
What are some of your earliest memories of Hudson’s Bay?
My mom is an avid Hudson’s Bay fan. I grew up with the blankets and all the traditional stuff. Those things have become my go-to now when I’m giving gifts, because I know how special and unique they are. In my childhood, I went to summer camp at Algonquin Park for one month every year. The canoe trips, camping and old Canadian vibe has always been present in my life. Now I live four blocks from the Bay in Montreal, and the Polo shop there is my one-stop shop.
On my way here I was laughing… I have two young kids and I’ve become that annoying guy that has a flashlight in my car, a candle in my car, snacks everywhere, and I have two Bay blankets with the strap wrapped around, just in case! You never know… You have to stay warm!
What’s your favourite thirty-minute meal to make at home?
Now that I have young kids, I’m always trying to find options that are healthy and fast. I was the guy that owned two restaurants who never ate at home. Why would I make or order food when I have two restaurants? I was working non-stop. Then I had two kids, and I became the complete opposite.
One go-to one pot wonder that the whole family will eat is spaghetti and meatballs. There’s actually no meat in the meatballs, but the kids don’t know that. There’s kale, carrots, hummus. If I have wild organic salmon lying around, I put it in there. I’ll throw in egg, breadcrumbs, chickpeas, whatever, as long as it sticks. Then we toss them in tomato sauce.
Literally a half hour later, you’ve cooked with your kids, you’ve made a healthy meal, and they think it’s meatballs. Most of the time we don’t even get to the pasta part. It’s just meatballs and sauce, putting cheese on it and saying, This is so good. The non-meat meatballs are a hit at my house.
My other go-to — which is my favourite of all-time because it’s amazing to see young kids actually cook something and eat it — is make-your-own pizzas, but with store-bought naan bread. We get tomato sauce, cheese, whatever, and then my kid will say, “But, Daddy, I need broccoli.” It’s not really a pizza item, but okay! How many times have I pushed him to eat broccoli, but then on his pizza for some reason when he’s the boss, he says, “I need broccoli here!”
Have you travelled anywhere recently that made a big impression?
I’ve travelled and worked all over the country, from Vancouver to PEI. I’ve crossed the country maybe 25 times, cooking everywhere in the country, though I’ve never been up north. I really want to go to the Yukon.
Recently, I discovered Salt Spring Island in B.C. I’d been to Victoria, but had never been there. I went to Salt Spring last summer, and it’s like a utopia and Portlandia at the same time. You think, Okay, they’re pushing this too far. But when you’re there and in it, you think, What’s crazy about this? It’s something we’ve all lost in a sense. It’s all there in Salt Spring.
It’s a different way of life, more simple and earthy, whatever you want to call it. It’s a renaissance of being outdoors. I’ve always been like that, but when I went there, I realized they’re really taking it to another level, and to witness it is so unique. I don’t think there is anywhere in the world like that. They have it all there.
On our way there, we saw whales. They’re surrounded by the best fish. People spend thousands of dollars and go on vacations to see what people on Salt Spring Island see on a daily basis just by living. It’s a very inspiring and cool place.
Photography by David Pike.