Up to now, Vancouver chef Rob Feenie has been the only Canadian ever to win Iron Chef America. Some of our top culinary stars, including Lynn Crawford and Michael Smith, have competed and failed. Even the mighty Susur Lee only emerged in a tie. But that hasn't stopped Montreal's Chuck Hughes from tryingto restore our national pride.
Mr. Hughes, the high-octane chef of Garde-Manger restaurant and host of the cooking show Chuck's Day Off, faces off against Iron Chef veteran Bobby Flay in the culinary battle, to be televised on Food Network Canada on March 20.
How does Mr. Hughes' rustic, regional comfort food stack up against Mr. Flay's Southwestern American fare? We won't spoil the outcome for you. (But if you're curious, Mr. Hughes notes the show has already aired in the U.S., which means you can sleuth for clues on the Internet) But regardless of whose cuisine reigns supreme, his appearance on the show can only result in a greater public appreciation for Montreal cooking
Mr. Hughes tells The Globe and Mail what it was like to duke it out in kitchen stadium.
Will you be watching yourself on television when the show airs?
No. The last thing I ever want to do is watch myself on TV. Because if you catch me saying something like, "beautiful cinnamon"? I'd have to confront people every day, knowing that I said that. But I hope everyone else watches it.
What did it mean for you to compete?
Every cook, every chef wants to be on that show. It's a show that all my peers love and respect.
I'll be candid with you - Chuck's Day Off, I love making that show. It's so much fun. But there's definitely a lot of cooks who would look at my show and say, "Eh, he's a bit fruity." But with Iron Chef, you just can't say that.
Rob Feenie said competing on Iron Chef was the most stressful thing he'd ever done in his life. How was it for you?
I'd have to agree with Rob. Last time I saw him, I told him I was going to do Iron Chef and he looked at me with this kind of smile and smirk that said, "Oh my God. You are not ready for this." Because realistically, nobody is.
I've been in kitchens forever, pretty much. So if you think about it, I've been training for this moment my whole life. It's just kind of nerve-wracking and stressful knowing that your whole body of work will be judged in one hour. The actually cooking part is not such a big deal; it's everything that goes with it. It's the battle, it's the stadium, it's the cameras, it's the people.
So what did you do to prepare?
A couple Mondays the month before, me and two of my guys would go to the restaurant. We'd get the manager to choose five or six ingredients, put then in a bin and just give it to us. What we'd really practice was making five dishes in an hour. But there's not much you can do.
Don't they give you a list in advance of five possibilities for the secret ingredient?
Yeah, but that kind of even makes it worse. If you come in with a clear mind, not expecting anything and ready to go into battle, then you're fine. But if you take that risk and write up five menus, they're only potentials, so it doesn't mean you're going to get any of those items. Then you're stuck, as opposed to having an open mind, and thinking, "Whatever we get, I'm pretty sure we can make a good risotto out of it."
Chefs don't often get to hear immediate critical feedback. What was it like to hear the judges talk about your food?
Honestly, I don't remember anything. It was all such a blur.
The only thing is Kevin Brauch, who is Canadian [and provides commentary on the show] gave me such a pep talk. When I presented my first dish, they knocked it down. I was super disappointed. You could see it in my face. So when I went back to dress my second dish, he goes, "What is wrong with you? You've got to own this stuff. Stop being so Canadian and trying to please everyone. You tell them how it's done."
My attitude changed. I was like, "Dude. You're in a battle. You don't want to show any weakness."
Iron Chef has spawned a whole subculture where people throw their own Iron Chef-style competitions dinner parties and cooking classes. What's your advice to the home cook who has to whip together a meal on the spot?
For me, it's all about keeping it simple. Just because I'm on Iron Chef doesn't mean all of a sudden, I'm going to try to make the perfect gnocchi. When people are coming over and you're doing stuff like this, you need to stay true to yourself. Stick to things you know and do well. It doesn't matter if it's not fancy. People don't care about fancy. They care about good, honest, well-made food.
This interview has been condensed and edited.