Q&A: Chuck Hughes, celebrity chef

On his personal brand, his new show and what he really does on his days off.

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(Photo courtesy of The Food Network)

When Chuck Hughes opened his first 40-seat restaurant in Old Montreal in 2006, he never imagined it would be the start of a personal culinary empire. Young, tattooed and dimple-cheeked, the chef has made a career of biting off as much as he can possibly chew. In addition to running two of the hottest restaurants in Montreal (Garde Manger and Le Bremner), he’s starring in two Food Network shows (Chuck’s Day Off and the upcoming Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico) and celebrating the English-language release of his bestselling Garde Manger cookbook. Oh, did we mention he also found time to beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America last year? Hughes may have built his empire on his knack for taking time off, but as he tells Nancy Won, behind the laid-back veneer lies a hardcore workaholic who’s more likely to measure his downtime in hours than days.

Born: 12/31/1976
Hometown: Montreal
Number of staff employed at his restaurants (Garde Manger and Le Bremner): 54
Some of Chuck’s 20-odd tattoos: Lobster, bacon, Lemon meringue pie
Number of towns visited during the filming of Chuck’s Week off: Mexico: 16

You’ve made a name for yourself by taking days off, but from the looks of it I’d say you’ve had a pretty busy year.

Yeah, I’ve been lucky and blessed that everything has gone so well. But honestly, I’m the kind of guy that needs to be constantly doing something, so it works great. We’re just starting work on a new cookbook based on the Chuck’s Day Off series, and next week I start filming for a new show coming out in the U.S. called Chuck Eats the Street. It’s basically me travelling through the States, checking out iconic streets and discovering American cuisine, from street food to markets to old places that have been around for 150 years. So yeah, it never stops.

How do you keep track of it all? Do you have an assistant? An entourage? Are you addicted to your BlackBerry?

You know what? It’s a lot of lists and a lot of organizing. For me, it’s all about having a really good schedule. I do have a manager and a publicist, but no assistant. Eventually, I might need somebody but, to be honest, I’m constantly moving at 100 miles an hour, so it would be kind of hard to have anybody following me around. For now, I just need my schedule and I’m good to go.

These lists and schedules, are they of the pen-and-paper variety or are you a digital kind of guy?

It’s funny, because if I’m at home I’ll write my lists out on paper, but then I’ll transfer everything to digital afterward—I’m kind of old-school like that. I like to scribble, I like to write things down, but I have to have everything organized in my phone and in my Dropbox. All digitized!

Of all the hats you wear—entrepreneur, chef, TV host, author—which one do you enjoy the most?

It’s hard to pick a favourite because I really enjoy all the jobs I have. The beauty for me, and why I love it so much, is that every day is different. It’s kind of why I got into the restaurant business: I wanted to travel, meet people and experience new things. When you go to cooking school, you learn a craft that follows you wherever you go—it allows you to see the world. But ultimately for me, the most rewarding and fulfilling job is cooking at the restaurant. It’s my first love. No matter how many things I do, or how many amazing things I get to experience, in the end the most gratifying for me, the most fulfilling, is just to see someone take that one bite that might change their night or make their evening. That’s still the most important thing to me.

Are you able to be in the kitchen as much as you’d like with so much else going on in your life?

Well, according to my schedule, if I’m in Montreal, I’m at the restaurant, that’s 100% guaranteed. I was there last night, and I’m working there again tonight on the line—I’ll be a chef, a cook, a dishwasher, whatever I need to be. I try to work as much as I possibly can. It’s what started it all, so it’s very important for me to keep in touch with that.

It looks like you’ve given up most of your so-called days off to filming. Do you even get any real days off?

Not really! I try to take at least two weeks off a year, but I’ll be honest, I don’t really want to relax. It’s not something that’s super important to me. I’d rather take mini-breaks every day, like go to the gym or play hockey. I think that’s the better balance for me. Sports are a big part of my life, so I try to stay active on my off hours. I hit the gym every day, maybe go for a run, do Hip Hop Abs, anything.

So in reality, we’re talking more like “Chuck’s One Hour Off.”

Exactly! And somehow that works well for me. I’m happy that way. You know, after five or six days on vacation, I start to get nervous. I feel like I should be doing something. I don’t do so well by just sitting down and not doing much.

Should we expect to see Chuck Hughes salad dressing at the supermarket anytime soon?

At this point, I’m not saying yes or no to anything, but we’ve built our brand and our business around being honest and authentic and real, so for me, as long as we can find those things within that world, then yes we can make it happen. But when you talk to these big companies, they need certain things in their product line. Do I want a Chuck Hughes electric wine opener? Probably not. We’ve been approached many times by different people, and everybody’s been very nice, but the underlying tone is pretty much “Sign on the dotted line and you’ll be rich,” which is not really what I’m all about. Obviously everybody wants to make money, and so far our businesses have done well. We’re not at Donald Trump levels, but we’re happy.

Any truth to the rumour that you’re thinking of opening a third restaurant in Toronto?

I’m always kind of thinking! I love Toronto. I think the food scene is amazing there right now, and there are lots of great chefs, tons of people and tons of money. It’s a big city, and it would be fun to be a part of that, but there’s another part of me that wants to do something else. More and more I want to get out of the city and do something that’s closer to the earth.

And although I’m pretty busy right now, there is always that space in the back of my mind that’s thinking about the next step and wanting to take on a new challenge. One day I’ll wake up and want to open in Hong Kong. The next day I want to go to Toronto. If we were to do another restaurant, I think I’d want it to change my life. It’s got to be something that will test my limits and push my boundaries a little bit more, and I don’t really know where or what that would be, We’ll see!

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