Some chefs just can’t stay out of the kitchen. Chuck Hughes runs two hot Montreal restaurants and stars on the Cooking Channel’s “Chuck’s Day Off,” which follows what happens when he takes off his black apron.
Apparently not having enough on his plate, Hughes now embarks on another adventure, “Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico.”
In it, the much-tattooed chef explores the country in an open-air jeep, encountering the taco stands, food carts, markets and simple kitchens of Mexico.
The show premieres at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday on the Cooking Channel.
Hughes also is among 10 top chefs - including Michael Chiarello, Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian - on “The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs” on the Food Network, which premiered Oct. 30 and airs Sundays through December.
Hughes took some time recently to talk about tacos, travel and his latest tattoo.
Q.Why did you choose Mexico?
A. We were talking about doing something else and maybe getting out of the kitchen, and the question they asked me was, where would you want to go in the whole world? It’s a question nobody really gets asked. I remember my first answer was Alaska. They looked like, “Maybe you didn’t understand the question.” All I could think about was like crab and halibut.
I wanted a place where we could fish, and all kinds of terrain. And Mexico fit that bill. And I knew a little Spanish, but I didn’t know much. For me, it was a life-changing experience.
A. Mexico’s a very real place, especially working in kitchens and restaurants. When you go to a place like Mexico, everything is organic, everything is local, everything is fresh. It’s pretty real, and it’s pretty in your face. We visited this market, the biggest market in the world - there was a truck of green onions, bursting with green onions tied with rope, like three stories high, it’s immense. . . . There’s people with their families, vendors with newborns.
Throughout Mexico, I saw how family is the center point of everything. I would go to markets in Mexico, and I’d see mothers with their babies, at restaurants and food carts I’d see fathers and sons working together. And when they eat, the whole family comes together. I loved that, and I’m afraid we’ve lost that here.
Q.You and your partners just opened your second restaurant in Montreal - Le Bremner. Will you bring in any influences on dishes there from your Mexico adventure?
A. As much as I possibly can. It’s mostly all about technique, philosophy and just a way of doing things. I mean, it surprised me every time I walked into a kitchen in Mexico. There was nothing there - it was just a table and a heat source.
It’s about streamlining. It’s about doing that one thing, but really, really well. If anything, I’m still looking for my “one thing.”
Q. What one thing would you get on your menus?
A. Mostly the use of peppers. Just roasting them up with garlic and onions on the flat top. Every taco place I worked at, this was a garnish for pretty much every taco they served. It’s just kind of like a spicy onion-garlic mix. That’s one of the things I’ve re-created.
At the new place, everything is about having a Mexican flavor, in terms of garnish. For instance, our scallops will have pico de gallo. . . . We also make this sauce we had with those clams. Mayonnaise, sour cream, a little bit of water, onion, cilantro, salt, pepper and jalapeño. You buzz that up and it becomes kind of a thick, creamy cool sauce.
Q. Best food memory? What blew your socks off?
A. The clams back in Loreto was definitely the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. I regret not eating more of them - and I must have eaten 50. I won’t ever eat anything like that again. We were literally fishing them all day. The way they tasted - you can’t re-create that moment.
Q.You run two restaurants. What did you learn about cooking from your week in Mexico?
A. Definitely simplifying. I’ve never seen things so simplified. A lot of the work in Mexico is done at home, and it’s brought into the restaurant and served.
From the taco stands that I worked at to roadside sandwich bikes, . . . it’s a different lifestyle. It’s different rules. It’s really simplicity. Sometimes we get caught up in making things overcomplicated.
Q.One of the episodes has you meeting up with a notable tattoo artist in Mexico City, where he plans your next tattoo. What’s the plan?
A. We met up and had lunch at a seafood restaurant. We had aguachili - basically, raw shrimp in this loose green salsa, kind of a ceviche style. So we had that together and discussed the tattoo. This guy looks like a real tough guy - but is probably the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet. He’s got three kids - but he kind of looks pretty tough.
The tattoo is about everything about my trip to Mexico, all into one. There’s a little bit of seafood, a little bit of Mexico’s very religious history, there’s a couple of Mexican icons. It’s on my shoulder. Everyone from the crew saw it and said, “Oh my God, that’s so big.” But I would’ve gotten it bigger.
Cooking Channel Fall Preview: Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico
Chuck is hungry for a break from his daily grind, and wants to head somewhere he can trade in his black t-shirt and apron for a pair of shades. In Chuck’s Week Off: Mexico, he heads south of the border in search of fresh, authentic Mexican food and culinary adventures. From open-air Jeep cruises in the Baja to fishing in the Sea of Cortez, Chuck lives out once-in-a-lifetime experiences, meets awesome people and cooks and eats amazing food. Premieres Tuesday, November 8th at 10:30p ET.