Playing with his food – a day off with Chuck Hughes

Chuck Hughes showing some ink.

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 boyish 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 enthusiastic. And after just a few minutes in the kitchen with him I found myself feeling that way, too – seems he’s contagious.

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 Hughes, with his youthful energy and effervescent sense of humor, 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 make a few jokes before addressing the mis en place on the counter before him. Next to small dishes filled with chilies, onion 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 heat and spice.

He talked and laughed the whole time, and with each ingredient he took a moment to examine it, discuss it’s fine qualities, revere it. Simple items like limes which he squeezed then, after smelling its skin, decided to zest into the dish “because it just smells so good.” He extolled the often-disregarded wonder of celery leaves – not just to toss in a stock or throw 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.

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.

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 fried arancini for dessert. He plated 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 mothers 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 all night long. Having so much fun – and success – they opened another, Le Bremner. In other words, this guy has made a life out of his favorite passion, and on his days off he has buddies come to the closed restaurant and cook to loud music.

The 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, lots of tattoos. So I asked him for a tour. And like a kid he started running through them, each with a story. Like 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 am arm and a potpourri of produce wrapping around his bicep. My favorite was the universal cooking temperature – 275° – 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 was thinking of maybe making it permanent!”). I suggested an artichoke would be cool – he nodded with a broad, toothy smile and asked to steal the idea. But of course….

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