Chuck Hughes on Living in Mexico, Becoming a New Dad, and How He's Ready to be a Mentor


Portrait-of-chef-Chuck-Hughes-in-Le-Bremner-photo-credit.-Dominique-Lafond_9739-470-wplok.jpgChuck Hughes at Le Bremner 

It has been 8 years since Montreal chef Chuck Hughes opened Garde Manger. In that time, it has become a home to classic, fresh seafood staples, and one of the most talked about restaurants in the city. Garde Manger has earned its buzz. Most of us expect to see lobster risotto and fresh oysters on the menu at all times. More than anything, we all want that winning lobster poutine that earned Chuck the big-win on Iron Chef America against Bobby Flay. Since then, he has opened his second restaurant, Le Bremner, in Old Montreal. From hosting his own travel cooking show, Chuck's Week Off: Mexico, to his newly appointed judging duties on Chopped Canada, Chuck Hughes is evolving from local chef to a traveling representation for Montreal's current food culture.

After 8 years of riding the wild adventure that has been the success of his restaurants, cooking shows, and cookbooks, Chuck is ready to move forward as a mentor. In a conversation about his travels, Chuck took the time to talk to me about becoming a new dad and how he's ready to spend a year living in Mexico. 

Now that you are a father, what food values do you hope to pass down?

That's a really good question. It's a big concern for me because I never usually cook at home. When my girlfriend was pregnant I started cooking for her but it was different. I started thinking more about balance and nutrition. I'm a lot more conscious about what we're eating from that perspective. I'm looking forward to cooking at home now because it's just so important. For family, I think the best thing you can do for yourself and your child is to eat well in a healthy, balanced way. 

Anything you can share about what's happening or coming up in your life?

I just became a new dad, so a lot of diaper changing! Honestly, I'm going to try to make my way back to Mexico. The restaurant is 8 years old and I have this dream that when it hits 10 I'll be able to go to Mexico for 6 months or a year and really live a different experience. I've always looked at those people that leave for a year abroad and I've said "Oh, that's so lucky", and then I get caught up in restaurants and business. Now, I'm at a point in time where I think I'm ready to kinda try something new and experience something different. I'd love to do that, to take a year, and not necessarily off, but maybe do a pop-up somewhere in Mexico and live that lifestyle for a little bit before things start to get too crazy again with kids. At some point you need stability and you need to kinda figure out where you're gonna plant your roots. Hopefully, I can get back to Mexico and live exactly what I got a little bit of a taste of when I went down there for the show. I really fell in love and it'd be fun to go back, That's what I'm working towards right now.

What cooking techniques or food influences did you bring back with you to Montreal from your time in Mexico?

Oh, what a great question. I was kinda going to Mexico because I'd been before and I was interested in what I saw, but I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to learn more and I realized when you stick to certain places you don't get the full picture, so I wanted to explore the country as much as possible. Like Canada, Mexico is very regional, so different regions have things to offer. In terms of what I brought back, it's mostly a philosophy we try to live by here. With food now it's a lot about farm to table and using the whole animal. This is something chef's do now because it's kind of an old technique that's coming back, but in Mexico it's really a way of life. It's all about using every last ingredient and making everything last. There's such a respect for food and where food comes from. That's what I maybe wasn't expecting to find. We love to talk about organic, local, sustainable, and regional, but Mexico is all about that. Without putting any labels on it, it's a fact of life and it's a way of life. I was probably inspired the most by a lot of the people that I met which were not chef's at all; it was grandmother's, grandfather's, people who love food, people who cook, but cook because they love it. Some of the people I met cooked professionally but weren't necessarily professionals. It was really just about this guy does this so well that he's become known in his village. He's the guy that you go see if you want cochinita pibil, which is like braised pork that cooks underground and they cover it with cactus leaves and banana leaves, then you build a fire on top and it can take 13 hours to cook. I think I learned a lot about food and cooking mostly through philosophy - the philosophy of cooking. 


It's safe to say that you're heading the evolution of Montreal's food culture. Do you ever feel the need to bring your Montreal roots with you when you're cooking in other parts of the country or world, like on your trip to Mexico?

Yeah, I think that's the beauty of cooking and for me it's the one thing that brought me everywhere in life. You take your cooking skills with you, and you know, food is a great equalizer and a great communicator. It's that one thing that everybody does to survive, but we all view it and do it differently, yet, somehow, we all communicate through it. I think that's probably one of my biggest links to Mexico: my passion and love for food and the way that I can communicate and connect with everybody just through that common passion, you know what I mean? That's really what I can bring to the table in terms of bringing my Montreal aesthetics and my Montreal ideas to Mexico. To be able to kinda get inspired by their flavours, their techniques, and their ingredients yet put my own twist to it. I find it easier with Mexico because we do share a lot of the same common goals in terms of food. We share a lot of the same ingredients, it's just we just use them differently. In Quebec, pork and corn are a big part of our staples, less now, but traditionally, that was a big part of what we ate. If you go to Mexico, those are still some of the things you'll find are staples everywhere. 

In your latest cookbook, Chuck's Day Off, you talk about how your mother would bring home an array of seafood from her time as a stewardess. A huge part of your identity is centered with this culture of fresh oysters. In a city known for its poutine and steamed hot dogs, is Montreal becoming the place to eat oysters?

You know, I think I owe it all to my mom in that respect. My grandparents are from New Brunswick so it was a big part of their history and a big part of growing up. Back in the day they were very poor and lobsters and oysters were the staple foods. Unfortunately, it became an elitist food because it became expensive. Back in the day it was really all about sustainability and what you have around you that you can eat, so I think that's a big, big part of the reason I love it so much. The second real answer is that, you know, most all of the seafood brokerage that's done from the east coast is in Montreal. If it`s not New York, it's probably Montreal. A lot of my oysters come out of the water on Monday and end up on the table to my customers on Tuesday, and by the time Wednesday rolls around I'm already receiving another shipment. So, the proximity to the oysters is, in terms of timeline, as close as it`ll ever be. I get most of my oysters flown in fresh from Air Canada Cargo before they probably hit the tables in PEI. There's this kind of offer and demand in the sense that because we are a culture that loves those oysters so much, and because we buy so many, we get a lot of great fresh produce. When you're cooking with shellfish and seafood in Mexico, it`s also a big part of the culture and the food scene. When you`re cooking shrimp, clams, and octopus, ultimately the flavor is really in that ingredient. You don't need to add much: a little bit of salt, a little bit of spice, a little bit of freshness, maybe a little bit of lime. Really it`s kind of like the best way to cook for me because the ingredients do the talking. To me, seafood is the best way to express myself in terms of cooking and food, just because you just don`t have to do too much.

chuck-hughes tatty.jpgChuck's love for oysters inked on his arm 

We`ve learned a lot about Garde Manger from your tv show and cookbooks, but if someone hasn`t been to Le Bremner yet, how would you describe the food you`re putting out, and how does it differ from Garde Manger`s identity?

Well, I mean, in terms of inspiration and philosophy we're kind of on the same wave length. You know, what I would say at Bremner we're maybe a little more adventurous and we kinda go off the beaten path a little bit. Garde Manger has been there 8 years now with these staples that will never leave the menu. People come from all over the place to try these specific things where now a lot of these dishes have become classics. It was very hard for us to change the menu and do different things. People would come and I would have to fight with them all the time, instead of giving them what they want. So, Garde Manger has become its own little world and we try to keep it that way. I want to keep it in the inspiration that we had when we opened and not defer from that too much. I want to give the people what they ultimately want and what's worked for us for the past 8 years. Then with Bremner it's all about raw shellfish, raw fish, raw seafood, maybe trying things that we wouldn't necessarily try at Garde Manger. Different location, different, area, whole different world, so I would tell people to definitely try them both!

NIC4_Chuck-Hughes-Bio_s4x3_lg.jpgOn the other side of the chopping block

Major congratulations to you on your judging spot on Chopped Canada; I'm so happy to see you there! How are you enjoying the opposite side of the fence for a change?

Yeah, it's honestly been a lot more fun that I thought. It's fun not to feel the pressure every moment and after these years to be more of a mentor;  more of somebody who can hopefully be an inspiration and guide people with my comments. In no way is it me trying to break people down or break their spirit. It's inspiring to see people come and battle it out for $10, 000. Somebody is really going to have their life changed that day. It's pretty unique and it's a lot of fun to be a part of. I admit I'd rather be on the judging side than the competing side. You know, 15 years ago it was a different story. I was just not there and now I think that after all these years, I'm a little more comfortable in that mentor role and I'm happy. I'm happy you're enjoying it!

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In a Live Twitter event last month, Chuck answered some of my questions about the food he experienced while in Mexico. Here's what he had to say in 140 characters or less.

What dish most stood out to you?

Street food in Mexico City! Consume (chicken broth) it is hard to tell you how beautiful it tastes.

Did you try any chilies in Mexico that you hadn't before? Anything we might be able to find in MTL?

Guajillo! Love this one!

Did you have any delicious coffee or soda brands from Mexico that stand out as memorable?

Juaritos which is flavoured soda and the Mexican Coca Cola with real sugar cane.

Besides cilantro, what herbs do the locals use in their dishes?

Epazote but you can't get it here, hoja santa is also commonly used

What was the salsa like in Mexico?

Fresh, hot, delicious and really diverse. There's a salsa for every occasion.

Do you have a favorite restaurant in Mexico City?

Wow. El Borego Viudo.

Loved Chuck's Week Off! Any chance you'll continue that series in the future?

Definitely thinking of it and I'd love to, and we could do another whole series on Mexico.

Any Mexican inspired dishes at Bremner?

Yes, we do a raw fish with chamoy - sweet and sour salsa.

Chef-Chuck-Hughes.-photo-credit-Dominique-Lafond 444.jpg

After the shop talk, I wanted the inside scoop on what Chuck is listening to and where he gets his late night eats.

What are the 3 bands/artists you currently can't get enough of?

The new Arctic Monkeys, produced by Queens of the Stone Age

Bob Marley for Babies

Cartel de Santa

Do you still cover long shifts? Where do you go out to eat in Montreal after a long night of service?

When I'm in Montreal, I try to be as much as possible at the restaurant. Whether I'm washing the dishes, helping the guys on the line or just sweeping up, that's where you'll find me.

As for late night restaurants, I'd have to say Bethlehem XXX on St. Laurent. It's a unique, off the charts, weird experience. It's art, it's food, it's cool, and it's open really late. 

I write a lot about Montreal markets. Do you ever visit any of the markets?

Always. I order from large suppliers for the restaurants so I'm not there every day. I go to Jean Talon Market for different reasons; I go to Atwater market for different reasons, but I do use both of those a lot. Just to bring it back to Mexico, you have to look up Centrale des Abastos. If markets are your thing, go to that one! It's probably one of the most amazing. Just to give you an idea, the statistics of that market is like one baby is born every week in the market, and its huge, it's crazy. There's a death, there's a birth, there's a fight, there's a fire, there's an earthquake; it's its own little city.


A big thank you to Chuck Hughes who was incredibly kind, down-to-earth, and a blast to talk to. Want to know more? Keep connected to the latest by following the links below.

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Photo Credits: Diary of a Social Gal, Food Network, Square Space, Beyond Vision, LH8, Chuck Hughes, Strategy

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