Chef Hughes falls for Mexico in new series

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Chuck Hughes is seen in this undated handout photo in Cancun, Mexico. Hughes' new series "Chuck's Week Off," debuts Aug. 28 on Food Network Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO - Food Network Canada - Riccardo Cellere

TORONTO - Montreal star chef Chuck Hughes says he hopes to open Canadian eyes to "a different Mexico" with his new TV series.

"Chuck's Week Off," debuting Aug. 28 on Food Network Canada, saw him venturing on and off the beaten path for two months in Mexico, trying everything from hiking to diving to lassoing with locals. Of course, he also helped make authentic Mexican meals along the way, including home-made ranchero cheese, beef jerky, chocolate clams, and head tacos (complete with eyes, brain, tongue and cheek).

Hughes says despite recent headlines surrounding violent attacks on Canadians in Mexico, and a travel warning from Ottawa urging Canucks to exercise "extreme caution" in certain states there, he never felt unsafe during his stay last summer.

"Unfortunately there's probably 5,000 people that give a country of 120 million a bad rap," he said. "I travelled for two months everywhere, I literally went everywhere, not once did I feel threatened, not once did I feel scared. People were more scared of me, if anything. They were like, who is that tall white guy with all the tattoos?"

Hughes was particularly taken with Mexico City, where he stayed in the French-influenced Condesa district.

"I feel like it's a place where almost, I belong there. I felt like I was home," said Hughes, 35. "I'd love to raise my kids in Mexico City. I love the whole country, it was amazing, but Mexico City in particular was just really eye-opening to me. It's probably cooler than New York, it's probably cooler than Paris, it's probably cooler than London. It's just a lot of creative young people.

"I wouldn't say it's a revolution, but it's like people are ignoring Mexico in a sense and they don't realize the arts scene right now is off the charts."

The eight-part series is the first spinoff of Hughes' Gemini Award-nominated "Chuck's Day Off," which is broadcast in 30 countries.

The co-owner and chef of Montreal hot-spots Garde Manger and Le Bremner chose Mexico for the spinoff because he know how to speak a little bit of Spanish and wanted to explore its terrain and cuisine.

"Everybody knows pico de gallo and tacos — well there's so much more," he said by phone from Garde Manger. "Being from Quebec, my whole life I grew up on pork, corn, potatoes, and when I look at Mexico it's the same kind of deal, only they have hot peppers and they use the corn in a different fashion. But basically our staples are the same ... and I just found that a lot of the dishes I was eating reminded me of my childhood."

Hughes said he loved that the food there was simple yet complex in flavour. Such qualities also define his cooking, which has seen him beat famed cook Bobby Flay on "Iron Chef America" and gain a spot on "The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs" series.

While Hughes boasts an iron stomach that can handle anything, including extreme spice, his digestive system wasn't happy when he visited a habanero farm.

"Most of the shoots would start at around 5:30 in the morning, so I remember that specific day, my day started off with a spoonful of habaneros at 5:30 in the morning. It was a bit of a rude awakening," he said.

"That was pretty much the only time where I felt I was a bit out of my league there. ... But in general, every morning I woke up, I would hit my taco stand and I'd pretty much every morning start with two tongue tacos and a nice, cold, real sugar-can Coca-Cola, in a bottle in an ice chest. If it wasn't that, my next favourite thing was cut-up mangoes, cucumber and coconut with a little bit of salt, chili flakes and a little bit of lime juice."

Watching Mexican locals cook with old-school methods — using local, in-season ingredients and minimizing waste — in remote areas with few resources (in some cases, with no electricity) taught Hughes a few techniques.

It also made him realize how lucky he is to have everything at his disposal at his kitchens in Canada.

"I think that's probably what I take back the most from my whole experience, is not necessarily any specific recipe but more of a philosophy and a way of treating the ingredients, looking at the ingredients and respecting the food," said Hughes, who released his first cookbook, "Garde Manger," earlier this year.

"My life revolves around it and I've always respected food a lot, but in terms of professional cooking, we're very, very lucky that we have water whenever we want and it's used in every stage."

While the trip didn't inspire a new dish at his restaurants, it did spur him to add another tattoo to his large roster of skin ink that includes images of bacon, lemon meringue pie, lobster and arugula. He got the new tat in Mexico City and said viewers will likely see the inking session in the season finale.

"It's a tattoo that has pretty much everything that I did in Mexico. It's really all about my whole experience."