Chef Chuck Hughes Tastes America’s Hidden Treasures on “Chuck Eats the Street”
Wednesday, October 17, 2012 • 1:23pm
I have a soft spot for Chuck Hughes. A big one.
Chuck is the first celebrity chef I interviewed. A year ago, I got a press release about his Christmas special, “Chuckmas,” and on a whim I put in a request to interview him. The Cooking Channel people said yes. Three days later, I was on the phone with Chuck, talking like old friends.
That’s just how it is with Chuck.
The article turned out great, and I got amazing feedback on it, and that was the beginning of my food writing adventure. So yeah, I kind of have this Chuck thing. When I got a call that he was going to be in New York to promote his new show “Chuck Eats the Street,” I dropped everything to be there.
If you’ve watched “Chuck’s Day Off,” caught the first episodes of his new show, or seen him on “Iron Chef,” you don’t need me to tell you what he’s like in person because you already know. He’s just Chuck – down-to-earth, friendly, funny. He’s the boy next door… if the boy next door was a big hunky tattooed dude with a Canadian accent.
Things that used to intimidate me to the point that I’d hide under the bed when anyone mentioned them, Chuck has always made seem do-able. Kimchi, for example. I always figured it would take days or weeks to make and probably you had to be Korean or it would come out tasting weird. But I watched Chuck make it – and then put it on a pulled pork sandwich to create one awesome sweet, savory, salty, crunchy pile of aww yeah on toasted bread – and all of a sudden it didn’t seem so scary.
His new show has much the same effect on me. “Chuck Eats the Street” explores off-the-beaten-path restaurants in cities all over the country, from San Francisco to Anchorage to New Orleans and plenty of places in between. He chats with chefs in their kitchens, learns their recipes, and eats with them in their dining rooms. He jumps into the unfamiliar parts of familiar cities and motions you to come along.
“Just one more bite,” he says before heading out on a new adventure. With all the eating he does in every episode, he still can’t resist just one more bite of whatever he’s got in front of him.
In the premiere episode, he makes his way down Walnut Street in Philadelphia, sampling a different version of poutine (one of Chuck’s signature dishes), Kool-Aid pickled watermelon (which I actually want to try now) and gelato so good he goes with the shop’s owner to visit the farm where she gets the milk.
Just one more bite.
Chuck told me the pattern of visiting out-of-the-way restaurants is one that will continue throughout the series. In New Orleans, for example, he visited Magazine Street instead of Bourbon Street. When you step off the main roads, he says, is when you’ll find the hidden treasures, the restaurants that aren’t chains, the food that the locals eat.
Just one more bite.
The show is a sort of awakening for Chuck, who is becoming an increasingly familiar face on Cooking Channel and runs two restaurants in Montreal while still finding time to make a life at home with his longtime girlfriend, Sabrina.
“I get so caught up in the business of running my restaurants and doing the TV shows that sometimes I forget how simple and awesome food can be,” he said. “For me, this show has been life-changing.” Two cases in point: a woman in New Orleans, way down on the bayou who, as he puts it, “makes pralines in a room the size of a closet and she’s the happiest woman on the planet,” and a man who sells nothing but peanuts with such enthusiasm that Chuck said all he could think about while he was there was, well… peanuts.
Just one more bite.
That’s what Chuck’s new show really boils down to – food, and the people behind it. They’re the reason he says he has “the best job on the planet.”
“I walk down the street, I meet people, I eat what I want,” he said, adding that he loves meeting the culinary world’s unsung heroes and discovering the hidden gems tucked away in history-rich cities across America, tasting the familiar and the foreign. He even ate reindeer sausage in Alaska, a bit of a consolation prize after the great salmon letdown.
“When I got to Alaska, they told me I’d catch a salmon. I said absolutely I’m going to catch a salmon. Naturally I didn’t catch a salmon,” Chuck grumbled before breaking into that big-kid grin of his that would have made me smile back no matter what he’d said. He had better luck with the lobsters in Maine, although he admits they are a bit easier to catch.
“I couldn’t believe how much manual labor goes into catching lobster,” he said. “You pull up the traps, you take them out by hand, you have to put the bands on each of the pinchers… it’s a lot of work to just do even one lobster, and in my restaurant, we go through sometimes hundreds in a night. I have learned so much more about food than I ever knew, just from making this show.”
Whether he’s taking a trolley through the streets of Memphis, running Rocky-style up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or just hanging out with me for a little while at the Food Network, Chuck seems less like a celebrity chef and more like the kind of guy you just want to go out for a beer with. As for “Chuck Eats the Street,” I promise … you’ll want just one more bite.