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Q&A with Chuck Hughes: the hunky Garde Manger chef on tattoos, Mexico City and poutine appropriation

(Image: Yves Freypons)

Since Chuck Hughes opened Garde Manger in 2006, he’s been steadily rising in the celebrity chef world (he even bested Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America back in March). Five months ago, he opened his second restaurant in Montreal, Le Bremner, and then rushed south to shoot Chuck’s Week Off, in which he ate his way across Mexico. When we caught up with him at the Chef’s Challenge fundraiser this weekend, the Montreal native really seemed like he was warming up to the idea of opening up shop in the soulless Big Smoke.

How often do you make it to Toronto?
Too often. [Laughs] I come all the time, but I never get to experience or enjoy Toronto because I fly in and out; it’s like commuting.

Do you have a favourite Toronto restaurant?
I went to Buca, and it was amazing. The doughnuts were great. I also love getting peameal bacon sandwiches. I had my first one three weeks ago and now I’m hooked! Now, every time I visit I have to get one.

Do you cook any Anglo food?
My grandfather was from New Brunswick, so for me it’s all about the rustic, traditional East Coast fare. Especially the stews. I guess I’m kind of done with Montreal….I love Montreal, it’s where I’m from, I just find that we have such a style that we rarely break out of that mould. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’d also love to change my horizons a bit and explore. I love Toronto because it’s huge and it has so much to offer.

Let’s not kid ourselves, there are two things you guys in Toronto know nothing about: poutine and hockey.

What’s your take on the Toronto poutine craze?
How can you not love poutine? My only concern is that over the past few years poutine has become known as a Canadian dish, and it’s totally NOT a Canadian dish. It’s Québécois! Let’s not kid ourselves, there are two things you guys in Toronto know nothing about: poutine and hockey.

Any new food tattoos?
I got this one in Mexico [he points to a mosaic of food he caught, cooked and ate while filming Chuck’s Week Off]. One of the biggest revelations this year for me is Mexico City: that is the city of all cities. I have never seen so many cool, young, beautiful, fun people in one spot. I want to move there.

If you were to open a restaurant in Toronto, which neighbourhood would you consider?
I’ve seen names being tossed around—Leslieville, Ossington. I don’t know, if we ever do open in Toronto it would take a month of driving around. We’re very space specific. Luckily one of my partners is from Toronto, so we wouldn’t be too lost.

What was it like being booted off The Next Iron Chef?
It was a unique and amazing experience. For me to be mentioned in the same sentence as these guys? It’s a life changer. I’m happy that I lasted that long to be honest. It’s like a mental breakdown every day; they hammer you, they bring you up and they bring you down. It was so tough, but I had a great time.

Do you still work the line at your restaurants?
At Garde Manger, I can’t do it any more—it’s physically impossible because the kitchen is so open that everybody is in there with me asking for pictures and autographs. It’s another world now. It’s hard—the guys on the line don’t want to cook with me because I’m always doing something else, and then the clients suffer. I haven’t been on the line there for a year at least.