"Houston has a lot of people and a lot of money," Chuck Hughes says. "Fortunately or unfortunately, you need people and money for restaurants. Houston has everything going for it."
This was a surprise to Hughes when he visited Houston at the end of May to tape his Cooking Channel show, Chuck's Eat the Street. Hughes is a French-Canadian chef who's competed on Iron Chef (and beat Bobby Flay) and is currently a judge on Chopped: Canada. He's better known in the United States for the Cooking Channel shows Chuck's Day off and Chuck's Week Off, as well as Eat the Streets, which brought him to town. The show centers around a single street in any given city and what culinary gems Hughes can find on that stretch of asphalt.
The third season debuts on July 10 with a look at Lamar Boulevard in Austin, and later in the month, on July 31, we'll get to see Hughes take a trip down Westheimer and eat at some of the loooooong road's best restaurants.
"First we find a street, and then we find the restaurants," Hughes explains. "Westheimer was definitely on the radar. It had all the elements." Then he pauses and drops his voice. "Honestly, if it was just me, I'd go to every ratty taco stand where I could potentially get shot. But you want to have a bit of variety, like on Westheimer."
Hughes is into the type of authenticity that small, ethnic restaurants demonstrate, but, he says, he was pleased with what he found at some of the better-known Houston restaurants. During his visit, he ate with Chris Shepherd at Underbelly, Hugo Ortega at Hugo's, John Sheely at Osteria Mazzantini and Anita Jaisinghani of Indika and Pondicheri. Though Hughes's meal at Pondicheri didn't make it into the final episode, he says that was one of the most impressive stops on his whirlwind tour.
"Stop the press, like wow," he says in his typical over-the-top banter. "That place makes me want to come home and never pick up a knife again. If you'd said to me, 'You're going to have the best thali platter in your life in Houston,' I wouldn't have believed you."
He also had nothing but kind words for Hugo Ortega, who he called a "humble, really genuinely nice person."
"We made chocolate with cocoa beans at Hugo's with this old grinder in the back, and that was something I'd never done," Hughes says. "I've been to Mexico and made Mexican food a lot, but that I'd never done. And he was so excited to teach me. I'm so lucky to have someone like him to teach me."
At Underbelly, Shepherd taught Hughes how to make his crispy ham ribs, then took Hughes to Black Hill Farms to meet the...um...family of the pig he'd just eaten. At Osteria Mazzantini, Hughes learned how to make simple Gulf red snapper with squash and cabbage from a recipe that's been in Sheely's family for generations.
"It's like the ultimate in simplicity," Hughes says of the Mazzantini dish. "It's just so simple it's stupid. Like a fish with greens. Just really well done. That's the kind of food that I like to make and like to eat."
As for what he thought of Houston in general?
"There's obviously been a food scene there for a while," he says "but it's not as talked about or as well known as other cities in the country. Houston is an interesting place."
We couldn't agree more.
The Houston episode of Chuck's Eat the Street where you can see all of these restaurants and get more of Hughes's signature wisecracks airs July 31 at 9 p.m. on the Cooking Channel.