Playing with his food – a day off with Chuck Hughes



Chuck Hughes is a fun guy. Bright, smiling and a little bit loud, he’s one of those guys you don’t expect to look in person like he looks on TV. Maybe that’ because he looks too good on TV, where he hosts Chuck’s Day Off on the Asian Food Channel and across other food networks around the world. He has a baby face, neatly trimmed hair and a wide, toothy smile. I expect that if one of Chuck’s long-lost childhood friends bumped into him unexpectedly, he would say Chuck hasn’t changed a bit. He’s that kind of guy, grown-up but still boyishly exuberant. And after just a few minutes in the kitchen with him I found myself feeling that way, too – it seems Chuck is contagious.

Chuck Hughes on his "shell phone."
Chuck’s recent visit to Singapore was hosted by the Asian Food Channel and American Express, as part of their Celebrity Chef Series, which aims to showcase extraordinary chefs from around the world to Singapore’s hungry enthusiasts.  In keeping with AFC’s outstanding reputation for airing not just high quality food programming but also limiting it to chefs with real passion, only the most fervent cooks are included in the series. So far this year Mark McEwan turned up the heat with European cuisine, and Adrian Richardson made perfect cuts to mouth watering meats. So it’s only natural that Chuck, with his youthful energy and effervescent sense of humor, would be asked to show some skills. And did he ever.

From the moment he took to the range in the beautiful AFC Studio at Orchard Central, Chuck glowed with energy and enthusiasm. His demeanor was relaxed and casual and he made a few jokes before addressing the mis en place on the counter before him. Next to small dishes filled with chilies, onions and other herbs and veg sat two Atlantic Lobsters, flown in live from Canada. And so he started to cook, slicing, chopping, squeezing and pureeing to make a sauce for his first dish, Jerked Atlantic lobster; his own riff on North East shellfish cooking by adding Jamaican flavor and fire.

He talked and laughed the whole time, and with each ingredient he took a moment to examine it, discuss its fine qualities, revere it. Simple items took on great importance, like limes which he squeezed then, after smelling the skin, decided to zest into the dish “because it just smells so good.” He extolled the often-disregarded wonder of celery leaves – "don't just toss them in a stock or throw 'em away" – before adding them to his puree. He inhaled the aroma of fresh rosemary and marveled at the beauty of a paper-thin slice of fresh ginger. That’s the kind of passion this guy has.

Jerked Atlantic Lobster

Suddenly the lobster – perfectly cooked to translucent – was done, plated and the fiery jerk sauce poured over it. The taste was a fine interplay of sweet shellfish and mild yet pronounced tropical spice; not an overpowering heat masking the tender meat, as I half-expected. But balanced and thought out. Gorgeous to all senses.

Seared Carpaccio with Homemade Potato Chips and Lemon Aioli.
 Watching Chuck cook is like watching a really big kid play with his food. He was as comfortable with a perfectly-marbled tenderloin – from which he made Pan Seared Carpaccio to go with his Homemade Potato Chips – as he might have once been with Lego. His movements were second nature and precise. His Japanese knives were like extensions of his hands, his nose the barometer of what he would do with whatever he happened to be holding. He admired the smoke when he seared the beef. He sang and laughed as he whipped oil into aioli. This guy wasn’t working – he was playing.



















He rolled dense chocolate ganache into soft pearl tapioca and formed them into tiny balls with all the excitement of a kid in a snowball fight. Dropping them in hot oil, he transformed them into delicate arancini for dessert. 

Chocolate Tapioca Arancini

And he plated all of his food with creative folly; a little of this, maybe some of that, “oh, and these look good; let’s toss some of them on, too!” And each dish delivered that casual, playful sensation in the mouth – borne from the hands of a talented man with the spirit of a kid and the happiness of someone doing what he loves to do most – cook. 
Chuck grew up in Québec speaking mostly French and hanging out with the same childhood friends that he hangs out with today. He discovered the joy of cooking at a young age and eventually, at his mother's suggestion, attended culinary school at Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec and later worked his way through several of Montreal’s hottest restaurants. Eventually he and two of those best friends opened their own place, Garde Manager, a laid back eating joint with an open kitchen so he and his staff could join in on the fun out front. Having so much fun – and success – they opened another, Le Bremner, to solid bookings and lines out the door. In other words, this guy has made a life out of his favorite passion, and on his day off he has buddies come to the closed restaurant to cook and eat to loud music.

Chuck's favorite temp: 275.
This love of food is not just always on Chuck Hughes’ mind; it’s on his body, too. In line with modern kitchen culture, Chuck has some tattoos – okay, a lot of tattoos. So I asked him for a tour. And like a kid doing show & tell he started running through them, each with a story. There's a lobster crawling on his forearm, arugula on his wrist (bacon on the other) and lemon meringue pie on a triceps (“some of my favorite foods!”).  These are intermixed with the occasional skull, words (including “mom”) and still more food: pineapple on his shoulder, oysters on an arm and a potpourri of produce wrapping around his bicep. My favorite was his universal cooking temperature – 275° – inked on his forearm (“so I won’t forget”). Then he surprised the room by showing his newest tat: the AFC logo. He laughed, admitting it was black marker as a joke (“But I’m thinking of maybe making it permanent!”). I suggested an artichoke would be cool – he nodded slowly with a broad, toothy smile and asked to steal the idea. Dude, of course….



 











 It’s always fun to watch an accomplished chef like Chuck Hughes make such tasty food look so easy. His joy is genuine; his passion authentic. And that transfers, almost by osmosis, into serious cooking, styling and taste. Because despite his boyish charms, Chuck Hughes is no child in the kitchen, as Bobby Flay painfully discovered last year when Chuck beat him on Iron Chef America.  But as serious as Chuck's cooking is, at no time does this serious chef take himself too seriously. And that’s what the joy of cooking is all about.

 
Watch Chuck’s Day Off  every Monday - Friday at 11:00pm on the