“Being a chef is like everything else in life, it involves hard work and passion … and you need to stick around me,” joked Chuck Hughes as he answered a young fan’s question at Twenty Valley Winter WineFest, part of Niagara’s Icewine Festival, on the weekend.
Hughes, of Food Network Canada’s Chuck’s Day Off and the Cooking Channel’s Chuck’s Week Off, gave a cooking demonstration and answered questions ranging from being a chef, his restaurants, to what kind of knife to have.
“My mom encouraged and pushed me … I never thought of it as an opportunity for a career, it was fun to do and as a job while I was in school.”
Hughes always gravitated towards kitchens and restaurants and was attracted to the industry.
“At 17 or 18, I realized I could get paid to do it,” adding hard work and passion are key to being a chef.
As Hughes went through what he, and Tracy Winkworth, chef/owner of The Belworth House in Waterford, were making for the first demonstration — an upside down red wine poached pear cake, risotto with pork chop and mushroom gravy and an endive salad, with pistachios, grapes, and blue haze cheese — he said people should make recipes their own.
“Take a recipe, follow the steps, but get inspired, switch things out and make it your own. You can break the rules … obviously I’m one to break the rules.”
People don’t have to stick to tradition, he said, except for the upside down cake. That drew laughs from the crowd, but Hughes said there are some things that are better left to tradition.
The chef, who owns Garde Manger and Le Bremner in Montreal, spoke about the time he made an upside down cake with children in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto.
“It was a lot of fun … the kids really came alive.”
That’s one of the beautiful things about cooking and why, to this day, Hughes enjoys cooking as much as he did when he first started.
“You can really communicate, touch people and make a difference.”
As Winkworth worked in the background, with Hughes jumping in, an audience member asked if he would ever be coming out with his own line of knives.
No, was the short answer from the chef.
“I probably never will.”
He said being asked to lend his name to a product is one of the downfalls of being on television. While he likes money, and could probably make a lot from something like that, Hughes told everyone he has to be able to sleep at night. He’d also worry about the quality of items produced with his name on it.
“I could probably have 25 things with my name on it if I signed on the dotted line.”
Though there are downfalls to being on television, there are positives, too.
He said it allows him to do things he might not be able to otherwise, bring ideas to light, do charity work, and travel.
“I’ve been to Asia and just spent two months in Mexico. I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to do this. There’s so many people out there that could do this …”
Hughes is lucky too, he said, that he has great teams behind him at both restaurants.
“Restaurants have traditionally always been about chefs. When the food is good, he gets the pat on the back. When the food is bad, he takes the brunt of it. ”
A restaurant includes everyone from dishwasher to bartender.
“I have a homeless man who sweeps the street in front of my place and makes sure our recyclables are organized. It may not seem like a big deal, but all the little things like that add up.”
Garde Manger has been open for nearly seven years, he said, and the backbone of that restaurant are a core of three or four guys who have been with Hughes since the beginning.
“I probably have one of the best restaurant staff in the world. They are passionate, into the food and wine … they are so committed, so positive and into the job.”