Chuck Hughes didn't even think he was going to be a chef when he headed to culinary school on his mother's suggestion. The Montrealer knew he wanted to be in the restaurant business, but figured he'd be an owner.
He went to chef school anyway, so that, as he says, "I would know what my chef was doing." But as soon as he chopped his first onion on his first day, he knew he'd never want to leave the kitchen.
Since then, Hughes has gone on to be the owner and chef of two hot spots in Montreal: Garde Manger and Le Bremner. And after becoming the youngest Canadian to beat Iron Chef America's Bobby Flay in a culinary duel, he reached the strata of star chefs, and hosts his own Food Network Canada show, Chuck's Day Off. On Saturday, he'll be joining the ranks of such food greats as Julia Child when he hosts his first Christmas special: Chuckmas.
Globe Life caught up with Hughes last week to find out what he likes to eat when he's not cooking at his restaurants, baking with his mom, or cheering for the Habs.
What was the first dish you remember making?
It was actually an apple pie, which was a big deal back then. I was maybe 5 or 6. I was allowed to cook but not use the stove. So I got up very, very early and started the recipe so that my mom could put it in the oven when she woke up. I had seen her make it before but I really wanted to surprise her. She was astounded by the fact that it really was an apple pie. We ate it and it was really good.
What ingredient is always in your fridge at home?
Sriracha hot sauce. I haven't figured out why I love it so much but I put it on everything. I literally, literally, literally put it on everything. It's the first thing that goes on anything I eat, and it's the last thing.
What is your favourite late-night meal?
Chinese food. Soft-shell clams, steamed garlic oysters, razor clams. You always have to start with roasted duck soup. But yeah, Chinatown is the bomb. We also do the deli, though – being in Montreal. For me, I'll have a chopped-liver sandwich and a side of egg salad and a cherry coke. Sweet dreams!
Is there a food you're obsessed with right now?
Kimchi. Once I learned how to make it, I started to add it to the menu at my new restaurant, Le Bremner. It's the best condiment. It's pretty versatile. If you take it and put it in a blender, you make a nice spicy sauce. Or you can throw it into salad. Or buy a roasted chicken at the store and you can serve the kimchi as a side. Plus it's good for you – it's cabbage.
What's your favourite city to eat in?
When I really want to eat and keep it simple, I know it's weird but I like to go to Miami for stone crab. Nothing fancy, nothing clubby, nothing at all Miami. Give me the cheap, cheap, cheap Cuban food. Like when they deep-fry a whole snapper. Ah, you're in heaven. Give me that.
Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to food?
I'm a big, big fan of sweets. One of the things I do every night is Popsicles. I've somehow convinced myself that it's not fattening and you can eat as many as you want. Sometimes, I make my own, like a coconut-and-mango purée. But even store-bought ones are good.
Every day, at a specific time, right when I'm done everything – I've taken my shower, I'm in my pyjamas, everything is all good – I'll go to the freezer and then eat a Popsicle in bed while I watch the hockey highlights on the television. It's the last thing I eat everyday.
Street meat or burritos?
Burritos. As ghetto as possible.
Sparkling water or tap water?
Sparkling. I drink, like, eight litres of it a day.
Greasy spoon or Zagat-rated restaurant?
Greasy spoon, no question. I stay away from anything Zagat-rated.
This interview has been condensed and edited.