When the Cooking Channel first debuted last year, I had heard that a fair chunk of its programming was imported from Canada. Well, if the Cooking Channel can be qualified as an emerging gastro-nation on the television grid, then its number one emissary of all around sweetness and gap-toothed light might be Chuck Hughes.
Hughes, the chef of one of Montreal's hottest Old Town restau-boites, Garde Manger, seems -- stereotype alert -- to sum up two of what I consider are a typical Canadian's strongest qualities: Loads of talent wrapped in an aw-shucks-modest exterior.
From the beginning, I've always arched a skeptical brow at Hughes' Cooking Channel program, Chuck's Day Off. I never trusted the altruistic premise of his 30 minutes on air. Supposedly, Hughes selflessly devotes his only day off to feeding one of his -- pick 'em -- flock, underlings, entourage, electricians, branzino wholesalers, family or just plain friends. It all seemed too saintly an incentive for a cooking program.
I had nothing but cynically fueled questions for chef Hughes. Like where's the entertainment sirloin to your show anyway? No band, pal? No studio audience guffawing on cue? No goofy menagerie of friends and C-list stand-up comedians (paging Nadia "Bitchin' Kitchen" G.)
The answer is that it's only 'bout the cooking on Hughes' program. His show is steeped in his totally unaffected, if thoroughly surface, appeal -- as skin-deep as the swarm of tattoos spidering up his arms. As such Hughes can get away with building show episodes on the slimmest of excuses -- or concepts.
Just the other night, he wanted to spend his day off cooking for his...drum roll please...his knife purveyor, a bloke named Paulo. Now, I will give Hughes style points for self-effacement in that during the show's first few minutes, he is seen rummaging high and low for maybe his favorite knife -- a scene of mounting frustration that lends credence to why renting is so smart as a new selection of cutlery is only a delivery away.
Hughes is nothing if not trusting of his own simple story lines. With his knife provider due for a visit, Hughes decided to build a meal around as many varied carving, chopping, dicing, mincing and slicing techniques as he could.
I will give him this much: Hughes has a way with a blade, unlike, surprisingly, Emeril, who I've always found to be unnervingly slow, if not borderline clumsy, with these sharp instruments.
As the unforgiving camera bore in, Hughes gave a master class in how to "brunoise" a hunk of aged Mimolette cheese so that it became miniscule cubes for his endive and pear salad. Hughes makes each onion ring achieve a perfectly sliced diameter, able to withstand his especially scalding 375 degree Fryolator. His knife located the desired against-the-grain angle as it sailed through his four-hour-braised beef brisket -- hardly an easy task as if one happens to cut the meat with the grain, then you are left with little more than beef string. And I don't think I've ever seen a corpulent pear reduced to a stack of matchsticks -- otherwise known as being julienned into submission -- with greater alacrity and surgical precision than when Hughes did it.
Maybe Hughes' niftiest moment with a knife, at first, seemed to be a goofy gimmick. He stacked a bunch of pale red grapes on an overturned plate, placing another plate on top of the wobbly grapes, securing them in place. Hughes then ran his long knife through the opening between the two plates, resulting in every grape emerging perfectly halved.
That must have been the kind of ingenuity that, at one point, made Chuck Hughes a highly successful advertising executive. But then he got culinary religion and has been wielding one of the Cooking Channel's most adroit knives -- instead of making power-point presentations - ever since.
(Chuck's Day Off airs 5:30 p.m.weeknights and 1 p.m Sundays on the Cooking Channel)