Celebrity chef Chuck Hughes – owner of Garde Manger and Le Bremner, and host of numerous TV shows – was in Toronto on the weekend for a whirlwind of cooking demos and book signings at the Gourmet Food & Wine Expo.
He sat down to talk about cooking for the holidays, pro tips for home cooks, and why fries are ALWAYS a good idea.
What were some holiday traditions that you grew up with, some that you still hold onto, and new ones that you’ve created?
I guess they’re pretty much the traditional kind of boring, run-of-the-mill, what everybody does – kind of like the turkey and all that stuff, I kind of let my mom do that.
People always ask, “What’s your turkey recipe?” and I’m like, “Whatever my mom does.” I don’t really cook whole turkeys – that’s not something that I really do in my regular life at the restaurant. But that being said, for Christmas, normally we go to my mom’s house, so we keep things pretty traditional. I would say the things that aren’t as traditional – basically my girlfriend’s Jewish, so we kind of do a mix of both, so kind of take Christmas traditions and then we add a little bit of Hanukkah in there as well.
We do a choped liver that’s like my girlfriend’s claim-to-fame. It’s her mom’s recipe, and it’s not necessarily a Christmas thing, but it’s something that we end up doing it.
You know it’s funny because my mom lives in a small apartment and she has a smaller stove – she doesn’t have a full size stove – so I end up making the turkey at my house. My mom brings it over, I actually cook it in the LG oven, and then I bring it back to her house.
And then something that we always do is oysters, so not really a traditional Christmas thing, but we’ll bring, up to my mom’s country house, three or four cases of oysters for the holidays. Now I have young kids, so my mom doesn’t do as much as she used to. We always used to have this big wheel of Stilton cheese, like six, 700 bucks worth of cheese for the holidays, and she leaves it out. She’d put it away at night, but she always leaves it out on the on the table, so when people come over, they have dried fruit, nuts and cheese, whatever – now I have a one-year old and a three-and-a-half-year, so we can’t leave anything anywhere.
Now it’s all about the kids, so it’s a lot of fun, but it’s less like the old times, when we had so many people and the big parties. With my grandmother, we used to go to church at midnight and do the whole real Christmas thing. I think now it’s a bit more of a modern twist on Christmas, and I think the important thing is just to be with family and have a good time.
What are some new foods (i.e non-traditional holiday foods) you’ve seen become popular over the holidays in recent years?
Asia’s great, but it’s hard to recreate (the dishes). It’s so many good things you know, but it’s just hard to make it real and authentic when you come home. But I guess ramen is one of the things when I recently went to Japan. I mean, it exists everywhere you go, so I when you’re there, you’re just so into it. And when I came back, it was just like, every second night was ramen. So I guess I introduce maybe different philosophies on food and stuff, but less weird ingredients that are hard to find.
So at home, I try anything ’cause who cares, but at the restaurant, I stick to what I know – people are coming for our food. This year, I actually went to 15 different countries, so yeah, I got a lot of material and a lot of stuff. At home, do whatever you want. I always encourage people to try things as much as much as possible.
At home, it comes back to the same principle as in the restaurant when I’m using shellfish and fish and most ingredients. I need to be as sustainable as possible – I’m feeding two to three hundred people at night in both restaurants, I have to have a responsibility, you know? I can make a difference, everybody wants to recycle, but you’re one person feeding your family. I can really make an impact, so I need to make these decisions.
For my business, what I’ve built my success on is cooking local stuff and seasonal, but at home, I encourage everybody to try making sushi as long as you get fresh fish. Because that’s the beauty of cooking – you know you don’t have to be Japanese to make sushi.
But in my life at home, especially now that I have kids, discovering new flavours is one of those really important things, especially with young kids. You want to try and introduce them to as many different things as possible, I think. And they get to travel with me a lot, so they’re lucky that they get to eat different things. But it’s always the same – my kids just want macaroni and cheese. Like no matter how much you expose them to different things, kids are kids.
The holidays are a particularly stressful and busy time for people to be entertaining and cooking. What’s your advice for home cooks?
My best advice is always, “Stick to what you know.” I think if you have 15 to 20 people coming over for Christmas, it’s not the time to the new start trying out really complicated recipes. The most important thing about Christmas is family, so it’s not the food – as much as it’s important – there was a time, too, with my family, where everything needed to be so perfect, we lost the whole idea of what it is about. Christmas is not about doing everything perfect – it’s just about being together and having a good time.
I kind of tend to the classics ’cause I don’t need a whole turkey ever, except Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’m not a big fan of turkey, but I do like getting it twice a year, so I deviate a little bit but try and have some classics. I think that’s what the holidays are about here. Like I love stuffing. I never eat stuffing. I eat it at Christmas so I don’t friggin’ start making some bougie annoying thing, you know what I mean?
I say keep it simple – get your mise en place ready, make your readiness key. Like make sure that when people start walking in, you’re not in the kitchen sweating and looking like an idiot, ’cause then that sets the tone. Then you know, people are like “Er, should we come back in a half hour?” No, you want people to feel like they’re welcome, and so that’s always more important. For my vibe, I’m like, “Hi guy, come on in! Have a drink, enjoy. Have an oyster.” Serve a lot of drinks. That’s always good.
As a “fry guy,” is it acceptable to serve fries at Christmas?
Fries are acceptable at all times. Fries for breakfast, fries at all times, no? They’re not a Christmas tradition – whaaat?! Yeah, fries are good. All the time. Any which kind. Even like non-crispy beef, greasy, fatty, I don’t care, fries. Any kind of fries.
Actually one of the recipes that I have for LG is a kind of a no-fry fry, so it’s baked, and it’s kind of changing the world. I don’t want to put big words out there. So with the convection oven, basically you get the same crispiness as you will with deep-frying, but you get obviously a lot less fat, a lot less calories, and blah blah blah, it’s obviously way healthier.
Basically, I cut the fries exactly like I would normally cut fries, toss them in olive oil, salt pepper. The LG ProBake Oven, set on “Convection.” And the way I do it – I don’t want to tell everybody the secret – I put them in the sheet pan with parchment paper. I line up all my fries perfectly so they’re not touching, and then I put another sheet pan on top for the first 10 minutes. So basically that seals it. There’s moisture, it creates steam, and the potatoes get like a little bit what we would call “blanched.” You know, they get a little bit pre-cooked in the centre. Then you take that off, for the next 20 to 25 minutes.
With the air circulation, they become super moist inside and perfectly cooked, and then crispy and amazing. You can do it without that first step, but that’s why fries are always double cooked. You know they’re just better that way. They get to be a little bit cooked inside and then you crisp up the outside.
And this oven, the one I have at home and the one I’m demoing here, is actually amazing for that. It’s really hot all over the place.
That’s what cooking is. You try things out to see if it works. And basically, I have to give the credit to my girlfriend on that one.
Chuck’s shared some of his favourite recipes that fits right in for the holidays:
- Chuck’s Roasted Carrots
- For a great fry recipe, head to page 46 of his cookbook Chuck’s Day Off for Duck-Fat Fries with Homemade Mayonnaise. Want something more traditional? Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes on page 152 will do the trick.
- And his Turducken recipe on pages 120 and 121 is a holiday game-changer.
Fill the pantry and gift foodie friends with his carefully curated Kitchen Staples. Start with “My Greek Landlord’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil,” and go from there.