By Lori Acken
Chuck Hughes still can’t believe what’s happened to him. Specifically — fame.
The 34-year-old, tattooed star of Cooking Channel’s popular Chuck’s Day Off — and star-struck competitor on Food Network’s upcoming “Super Chef” version of The Next Iron Chef (premiering Oct. 30) — would love to call his meteoric rise from Montreal restaurateur to food TV favorite a dream come true. But “honest truth” — a favorite Hughes expression — he can’t.
“It’s way more than that,” Hughes exclaims in a charming French-Canadian-with-a-dash-of-Brooklyn accent, “because I never dreamt this big! I’m a normal guy! I cut carrots for a living, man — and now I’ve got all these different things!”
Between shooting Season 2 of Chuck’s Day Off, premiering Oct. 2 with an unplanned trip to the hospital (where Chuck is delighted to learn his hospital eats are largely homemade), and battling nine of his Food Network and Cooking Channel brethren for Iron Chef supremacy, Hughes found himself wandering through Mexico, TV cameras in tow.
“I’ve got a new show called Chuck’s Week Off coming out on Cooking Channel, Nov. 8.,” he explains. “But I’m not in the kitchen — I’m out and about in Mexico, and I’m there to learn.” And to get another of the food tattoos that are his trademark.
“How many people get that chance in life to be asked such an open-ended question!” he marvels of the opportunity. “‘Where would you like to go, and what would you like to do for your next project?’ It’s a once in a lifetime chance!” It’s also why Hughes says he considers himself to be on both sides of the food TV phenomenon — fan and fledgling famous guy.
“The reality is that I do own two restaurants (Montreal’s Garde Manger and Le Bremner) that I actively work in when I’m not away — and I see that people’s enthusiasm for food and food TV is palpable. People now come to discover a city through its restaurants. [Chuck’s Day Off] plays in so many countries, so people have come from Puerto Rico, they’ve come from Brazil. They come to Montreal to see me and you see the level of enthusiasm there. As much as when I’m going to Boston to try Neptune Oyster, because I heard that it’s amazing. I sit down with the bartender and we’ll talk while I eat and she’ll say, ‘Wow, you came down here for us?! That’s so special!’ And it is.
“I love it, because I’m that guy as well. I do the same thing!”
Still, Hughes says, getting used to cooking for cameras in addition to diners took a little getting used to. “This is the other aspect of this whole TV life,” he says. “I come from a background of actually cooking-cooking for a living. Cooking in real life is all about being very fast — on TV you have to take your time, explain every step, really walk people through everything you’re doing. And for me it was a very bizarre way of looking at things, because I never really thought about why I was doing things — I just did them. So not only did I kind of revisit everything, it’s just a totally different vibe.”
Still Hughes insists upon keeping his shows as real as possible, for his sake and for the viewers’.
“From a restaurant perspective, when I started doing [TV], I couldn’t understand why there were so many shortcuts,” Hughes admits. “It’s a fine balance between really doing things and making good TV. I like to keep it as real as possible — it makes me excited, it makes me have a good time and it makes for good TV.
“People seem to have caught on to the fact that it’s real,” he adds, “and I like to keep it that way. Basically it’s an honest depiction of what really goes on in the restaurant kitchen. And hopefully people enjoy it!”
Getting to Know Hughes
What are you reading now?
“Keith Richards’ autobiography! He name drops like, ‘Oh I’m just hanging out with Andy Warhol.’ And I’m like, ‘What?!‘”
What did you have for dinner last night?
One of my favorites — which at my house is called platter night! It’s roasted chicken cut up into finger food. And there’s cut-up cheese and cut-up avocado, carrots, cucumber. Then tzatziki and hot sauce. We eat with our hands. Exactly how my mom doesn’t like people to eat. But it’s emotional and it’s dirty and it’s so real.
What is your next project?
My Christmas special — we’re calling it Chuck-mas right now. And hockey! I would definitely say my next project is my hockey league. I gotta get my stats up this year.
What was your last vacation — where and why?
I can tell you exactly why and where. This is a vacation I like to take a lot, because it’s simple, it’s easy and it’s not too far. Miami. Stone crab. And coconut cake. That’s it. That’s all. For us in Montreal, it’s a two–hour flight. And because it’s such a popular flight, it’s called The Weekender. By 9am Friday morning, you’re on the beach and by 11:30 Sunday night you’re home. But for me, Jerry’s Famous Deli’s coconut cake and Joe’s Stone Crab for three days straight — that’s living life!
Read more about Chuck Hughes, The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, and how Hughes and his family celebrate Thanksgiving (with oysters!) in the November issue of Channel Guide Magazine.
Photo credit: Cooking Channel