The Garde Manger: Chuck Hughes Talks Life And Kitchens As He Drives Through Montreal

Above: Food Network star Chuck Hughes lets Amongmen in on what cooking really is (Photo: Dominique Lafond)

What does the guy on Iron Chef yell? “Allez cuisiner!” Is that it? 

Chuck Hughes is a chef from Montreal. He worked on the line for fifteen years ―“cutting carrots”― then got a shot with his own restaurant in Old Montreal, which he calls Garde Manger. It’s become pretty popular. Now, with the newer Le Bremner, opened in 2011, he has two restaurants and two shows on the food network, Chuck’s Week Off and Chuck Eats the Street. Needless to say, though it’s scheduled, he doesn’t get to hockey every day. But he’s heading there now.

We started talking as he was backing up his car. I can hear the shifter as he explains what Garde Manger, literally “pantry,” really means. One thing Garde Manger is is Chuck’s favourite position as a chef. It’s like a hockey center: the Garde Manger is in charge of the cold prep for dishes and the hub for appetizers, the guy that knows where everything is and where everything’s going: he’s the food guard.

It’s also an apt way of thinking about the chef Chuck is, and why he is that way. In old Montreal, where both of Chuck’s restaurants are located, there’s big stress on preservation of historical sites and a consciousness of your surroundings― it’s why neither of his restaurants have signs. Actually, “Bremner” was a word on an already present plaque when Chuck was deciding what to name his second venue. In other words, Chuck’s restaurants are part of the old world pantry, a cold-storage preservation of Montreal culture. Montreal, indeed French Canada with it’s walled in capital, is a national Garde Manger, and, as Chuck says “I’m definitely a product of Montreal. To be a good cook you have to embody where you are, and be current doing that.”

The youngest winner of Iron Chef America is a guy with a demanding life pulling him in a lot of different directions, but it’s quickly apparent the food guard uses a gracefully simple framework to orient himself within it. Right now he’s driving down the street, and he repeats again and again throughout our conversation “I’m on my way to hockey.” When we talk about what it means to be a good chef today, he notes “the game has changed.”

The change is the change in the kitchen we live in. Onus is on the chef to be conservative and conscious, unwasteful. Chuck is articulate in saying that the world is one of limited, ill-proportioned resources matched by data-attack from all sides. Making something fresh, simple and efficient ―something that keeps― is his answer to both seemingly opposing issues. It’s why the first rule in his kitchen comes down to cleanliness, and the second is communication: care and good data. The third rule is you damn well better want to be there.

Most TV chefs don’t have their own restaurant, he explains. They don’t work as chefs so much as chef-personalities. Chuck has two restaurants, and his day revolves around working in their kitchens, not promoting himself. Cooking, he says, gave his life purpose early on, and it’s both his means and end: the rush is being there in the kitchen. That’s it, that’s the rink at the end of the road. There’s a lot of old, alcoholic guys dying on the line. Those are chefs. It’s a full contact sport, and Chuck Hughes is AmongMen’s kind of player.

Chuck Hughes will be at The Gentlemen’s Expo, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto on November 24th for a live cooking demo and a discussion on what it takes to be a great chef.

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