He's the star of The Food Network's Chuck's Day Off, the owner of two of Montreal's hottest restaurants, and the only Canadian chef with an Iron Chef victory under his apron. On Sept. 19 Saturday, Chuck Hughes appears at Toronto's Food + Wine Festival at Evergreen Brick Works. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including how you can't hear opportunity knocking if you're passed out drunk.
Listen to the Boy Scouts and be prepared
The best advice I've ever received is don't take the brown acid. No, no – I would say, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. That's from an old manager. He was a tyrant and really laid into us all the time about preparation and that was one of his famous phrases. We would always laugh and groan, but in retrospect, it is just so important in the cooking world. In the kitchen, everything relies on your mise en place, which is all of the prepared food. Mashed potatoes, for example, they've been cooked, they've gone through a ricer, they've been smashed. It's kind of 90 per cent there. Almost everything par-boiled, kind of ready. That preparation is the difference between doing 300 and 500 in a night.
You booze, you lose
I always say I'm a proud alcoholic. To me the term doesn't have to be negative. I have been sober for about eight years. It was a struggle to get here, but now I just think of it like people who are allergic to peanuts don't eat peanut butter – I don't drink. People will say, don't you miss having just a nice glass of wine? I laugh because I never had a glass of wine, I had 12 bottles. Part of it was being in this business where [alcohol and drugs] is a lot more accepted and even glorified and encouraged. I spent five or six years working on the line and waking up hungover, not knowing what I had done the night before and sleeping for half my life. When I opened my own restaurant, I had to make a choice and I did that. Being sober has definitely made me a better person and I can't imagine that I would be where I am if I hadn't made that choice. Opportunities don't come along when you're passed out.
Ignorance is (Iron Chef) bliss
Looking back on Iron Chef, I think the secret to my win might have been that back then I didn't know better. After the win, there was all of this attention and expectations, but before, we were these guys from Montreal meeting these huge-name chefs and it was just totally surreal. I think it's when you start to overthink everything, that's when you get into trouble. Instead, I stuck to what I was comfortable with. I'm not big on fancy food, so we stuck to what we knew – quality ingredients, not a lot of fuss. I think that really paid off. And then we were lucky with the mystery ingredient [which was lobster]. When it was revealed, it was great, but also like, oh my God, we better not mess this up. I have a lobster tattooed on my arm. I started thinking, if we lose this, I'm going to have to get it changed to a scorpion.
Call me Chuck
I'm not big on being called Chef outside the kitchen. Just call me Chuck. I get it, the industry and the culture of cooking has become such a big thing. Celebrity chefs get treated like rock stars, but really it's a pretty useless title that doesn't say much, but gives the air of importance. Today you see people getting on TV who have no idea what they're doing. I'm not judging, but I came into this business because I loved to cook. I chopped carrots in a basement for nearly 20 years. I certainly wasn't dreaming of TV. I'm just waiting until the trend moves [to a different industry]. Celebrity truck drivers! Chopped for accountants!
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.