Turns out, Chuck Hughes took my request for an interview because Maine and because seafood. Turns out, Chuck Hughes visits Maine every summer with his family and has done so since, well, forever, “My parents have been going to Maine since before I was even born.” He even gives these trips to Maine credit for setting him on his path to working in the restaurant business.
I wanted to interview Chuck Hughes, co-owner and chef at restaurants Le Bremner and Garde Manger, because this one time he cooked for Cypress Hill. Well, that’s not only the reason. He’s an accomplished chef who radiates a joy of seafood and does so because he loves the product as well as the culture that it elicits and not because of anything precious or pretentious or trendy. I asked him about the first time he ate lobster, which he has a tattoo of on is forearm, and he said, “I assume it was memorable because I haven’t stopped [eating lobster]. We had family in New Brunswick that would send lobsters and oysters and we would put newspaper on the table and rules were out the window. Have fun and make a mess! That stuck with me. I associated seafood with all these great things; a way of eating that is less formal, having a lot of fun, family. My first experience was not just about the lobster but the whole experience. As kids we were excited to put our elbows on the table and there was an element of play.” He described his mom as a seal which I thought was hilarious and as soon as he described what he meant, I totally got it, “It’s almost horrible to watch the way she’ll go through a lobster. She’s from that generation that eat the eyeballs, the green, the coral.”
Herman’s great aunts used to do that, too. Sometimes we would have to hide the lobster bodies from them because we didn’t want to be sitting at the table all night. But they would sit there; their little old lady fingers getting every morsel of meat from the knuckles and between the eyes and the back. It’s one of the things I miss most about not having them around; sitting around the dinner table picking lobsters till well after the meal was over. Or shrimp. We never got just enough shrimp for dinner. There was always leftovers and we would sit there till every shrimp was picked listening to them tell stories that we had already heard a hundred times before.
The seafood product that is one of Chuck’s most favorite to experience in Maine: “The culture of steamer clams is alive and well in Maine,” to him, “steamer clams embody the idea of seafood and what seafood should be.” As soon as Hughes gets to Maine the first thing he does is go get his rec clamming license. Then he heads out clamming with his 4-year old and they don’t stop eating clams till they leave. I asked him about what he eats while he’s here and what restaurants they visit, “It’s the one week of the year that I allow myself to eat fried clams every day. We cook lobster at home and we take it easy. We go to Maine for the opposite of going to restaurants.”
How does he cook his seafood? Wicked simple, bub, and I love that: “As a chef it’s hard because people want you to impress them. Basically, people just need to start cooking fish and stop thinking fish smells. I have a common-sense rule, ‘if it smells like fish or its slimy then it’s not good.’ One fool proof way that is not complicated is en papillote, or in parchment paper; make a pouch, put white fish or salmon or whatever the hell you have it doesn’t really matter; put a piece of fish down, salt, pepper, season it, little bit of olive oil, toss in a couple asparagus and a sprig of dill, butter, squeeze of lemon, 400 degrees for 25 minutes. Literally the easiest way to eat fish at home.” He says he has to fight against attempts to make fish more complicated than it should be nearly every day, “I’m kind of against the whole fifty-six ingredients in a plate with smoke coming out; why are you using a tomato if you’re going to boil it, crush it, cook it, smash it, make it in a powder, rehydrate it; you’re missing the point here. All these beautiful fresh ingredients are here for a reason and you’re using them for a reason. Basically, you need to harness whatever the flavors are in a simple way and make them shine. I don’t like stuff that’s too overworked.” For example, here’s his favorite recipe for clams: “Steam the friggen clams. When they’re open, shove ‘em in your yapper. There’s a million things you can do to them but the more and more you add the further away you’re going from the reason you’re using them in the first place.”
Other than food, fishermen and chefs have another thing in common, and that’s tattoos. Each industry has its own unique set of tattoo trends and there are some images that appear on both chefs’ and fishermen’s arms, like lobsters or oysters, both of which show up on Chuck Hughes. When I asked him about the lobster on his forearm, Chuck jokingly said, “They were out of scorpions that day.” He started getting tattoos over 20-years ago when they were still a bit taboo and less cool, and mostly to piss off his mom. He liked them and thought they were a little punk rock so away he went, “As I started getting more tattoos I was like, ya know, it’s a pretty permanent thing. I’m not saying it has to be calculated, if you have 150 there’s going to be a couple that aren’t your favorite but, in that essence, I was like, what do I love? You know what I love? Seafood. So, I have shrimp, sardines, oysters, clams, crab; it was all about being unique and different and getting stuff that I love. No matter what happens I’m always going to love lobsters.” He reminisces about when he first started asking for what was then sort of untraditional tattoo requests, “Back in the day it was all hearts and daggers and when I would go in and ask for a lobster or a shrimp they were always like, ‘Of course, I’ve never done that.’” He even has a tattoo of a can of sardines because it’s one of his favorite things to eat, “There’s something about cracking open a can of sardines. It’s still one of my favorite things to do. Salty crackers, hot sauce, really with lemon or not. It’s the simple pleasures in life that I basically tattooed on my arms.”
I asked Chuck for any last thoughts and his comments were en pointe because they sum up exactly that culture, experience, and feeling that Maine and its fishing communities prompt:
“When I got the request from you to do an interview, I basically didn’t even look at anything, all I saw was fishermen from Maine and I thought, ‘Oh, 100%.’ I’ve been going to Maine every year of my life and I associate my summers with it, and I feel this kinship to Maine and the whole idea of lobsters and clams; it’s part of my identify. If I meet somebody and they go to Maine for the summer, and it’s like the floodgates open, because we have so much in common. Not really, but it’s the person who lives the Maine lifestyle. I’ve always felt this to connection to Maine and even if we’re here in Montreal and see a Maine license plate we’re like, ‘Oh man, look at that Maine license plate; must be a good guy. Wonder if he’s a lobster fisherman?’ It’s a saltiness and down to earth coastal way of doing things that I love. Every year is a countdown to Maine.”