Chef Chuck Hughes’ Culinary Path to Salvation
For celebrity Chef Chuck Hughes, the road to redemption from years of partying like a rock star to famed restaurateur, author, television personality, and family man came by way of the kitchen. “Cooking saved my life,” declared the 37 year-old Montreal native of his years of excessive drug and alcohol abuse. “I didn’t think I would make it! I was living a hundred miles a minute … it’s the nature of the business and I got caught up in the game”
With an early stint as a roadie catering for such bands as punk group Planet Smashers, the trip to substance abuse was an easy ride. The beginning of the end however came in 2006, the year that Hughes partnered with some friends and opened Garde Manger in Old Montreal. The restaurant was an instant hit and remains a celebrated success. But the long hours, stress of service, easy accessibility to alcohol, and the generous cash flow took its toll. After a brief “white-knuckle” run at sobriety, Hughes found himself back on a dangerous spiral into a black hole of alcohol and drugs. By May of 2007, he had enough.
Now seven years clean and sober and the only visible remnants of the reckless rock star persona are his tattoos, the majority of which are food related: lobster, lemon meringue pie, and favourites bacon and arugula. “I made a choice to survive,” stated Hughes. “A lot of my family members had the same problem – my father was an alcoholic. I decided that it stopped with me.”
These days sobriety remains a tall order for Chef Hughes. “I battle addiction everyday,” he affirmed, “and will for the rest of my life.” Hughes path to salvation has been paved with personal lows and incredible highs. Today he is “living the dream” and candidly admits, that once on the path to abstinence, his food got better.
Host of the Food Network’s, Chuck’s Eat the Street, Chuck’s Day Off and Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico, Chuck Hughes is best known as the youngest Canadian chef to win Iron Chef America and do it by defeating the renowned Bobby Flay. “I had been cooking for 17 years,” he joked, “and that one hour of my life has defined me.”
Yet for Iron Chef Chuck Hughes, whose winning menu included lobster poutine, cooking isn’t about the celebrity, it’s a labour of love. In his autobiography/cook-book/ode to those in his inner-circle/HarperCollins release Chucks Day Off, he notes that he cooks because he loves it. “Honestly there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather do. Cooking allows me to connect with people on a fundamental level while expressing who I am with each dish.”
Connecting with people, whether on his own or with a television crew, has taken Hughes around the world in search of culinary inspiration and plain old good eats. From North America to Asia and all points in between, of the many stops on his gastronomic quest, Mexico seems to have captured the Chef … heart, taste buds, and soul.
Cruising through Mexico in an open-air jeep, ingratiating himself within the culture and cuisine of the locals for Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico, Hughes initially set out to discover the diversity of the country via it’s flavours and recipes. What he found instead was a culture that celebrates the essence of food, generation to generation. “People there have a real respect for culture and tradition,” said Hughes. “I discovered that family, food, and love are the key ingredients to happiness.”
Inspired by the back to basics passion of the people of Mexico, Hughes wrapped up filming with a renewed respect for the art and trade of his industry. “Those of us in the restaurant business typically try to limit waste in order to cut costs and turn a profit,” he explained. “Instead the people of Mexico use everything, farm to table, out of respect for the food and the land from which it came.”
Back on Canadian soil and the co-owner of Montreal’s Garde Manger and Le Bremner can’t wait to haul it back to Mexico. “I felt comfortable in my surroundings,” he beamed. “There is so much left to discover. Regions that I missed, rural to coast.” And, Mexico can’t wait to welcome him back. In a joint venture to help promote the land where gang and drug violence has left tourists weary, the Mexican Tourism Board recently invited Hughes to share his tastes of Mexico with press and public at an industry night at The Ontario Art Gallery.
As part of the “Mexico: Live it to believe it” publicity campaign, Chef Chuck Hughes wowed the crowd with a live demonstration of a Hughes rendition of Scallops Aguachilé followed by a meet and greet. Mission accomplished. The Chef with the boyish grin and varsity good looks left the crowd craving the Mexican gastronomic experience that extends beyond the sterotypical Nachos and Burritos. “Who new,” Hughes reflected, “that the best baguette that I ever had was in Mexico City.”