Co-written by Jason Salas and Ainsley Daschofsky
The interview started by saying how humbled we were to be sitting down with Chef Steve Mchugh of Cured. Chef Mchugh is a man that you want to know. A man to meet before you die, or at least try his food. In the interview, Mchugh divulged that he hopes the food speaks so loudly for him that he doesn’t even have to be at the restaurant. You taste his mind even if he is nowhere near you. For Jason, he is someone you want to aspire to be like as a chef. We knew that this couldn’t be just any type of interview. It had to be from our hearts. It had to have passion and respect for the man we were sitting with. We were nervous. Ainsley and I were ready. This one was going to matter.
Instantly we fell deeper as expectations met reality when we walked through the door and were greeted by a meat curing chamber.
Cured was a restaurant that we came across while on a weekend trip to San Antonio by saying to Ainsley “Hey I want to go somewhere that isn’t Mexican.” It has been the main cuisine from the bits of life Jason’s spent there. Ainsley consulted the Google Gods for farm to fork options and found the reviews of a restaurant called Cured. Aged meat and an Uber away and that is when the love started. A song without bad romance. Instantly we fell deeper as expectations met reality when walked through the door and were greeted by a meat curing chamber. After an eye closing first bite we decided that we wouldn’t take any picture. As food bloggers that’s saying goodbye to 67+ likes of Internet love. But we wanted the experience to be just for us. We are so satisfied with it being just our memories. It was the best meal we ever had. Well that was until today. But we’ll talk about that later. This interview was one that we were not sure we could get. Chef McHugh is a very busy person. He is up for a James Beard award right now. A high demand human some would say. So for us to be able to sit down with him for an hour and nineteen minutes was a feeling of making it as food bloggers. Only a couple parts of the interview will be touched on in this post and the full interview will be posted separately. This post is about seeing Chef Mchugh as a person and then as a chef. Listen to the interview to get the full story. This will be a two part post. Once again, it was truly an honor to interview Chef McHugh, chef to chef. This will be one we remember for the rest of our lives.
He was taught that you worked for what you have.
Steve McHugh grew up in Wisconsin on a dairy farm with his family. At a young age he was taught the value of work. He was taught that you worked for what you have. His mother was a doctor and taught him to care for everyone. No matter if they had money or not. With seven boys in his family there was plenty of work to be done on the farm from mowing the grass to picking the weeds from the garden. He joked about his brother strangling the chickens for fun. It’s just what they did as kids on a farm in Wisconsin. At fourteen he was old enough to get a work permit so he got a job washing dishes at youth camp. He spoke about how much fun it was to be in a kitchen with high school kids, guys in their 20’s and being part of a kitchen. It was the coolest thing. He was offered cigarettes and listened to rock music with the guys, “It was fun just being a dishwasher with them.”
The culinary industry is one of the last industries that you don’t have to have a degree. You can work your way up and become the chef.
Chef Steve has spent most of his life being in a kitchen. There was one year that he did leave for college. Still working in the kitchen Chef Steve studied music theory. He played the saxophone and went to school on a scholarship. One thing that Chef Steve realized is that going to school wasn’t for him. He didn’t make the best grades or care too much for music theory. He knew he wanted to create. While home with his family his father suggested that he go to culinary school. Being from a small town in Wisconsin he had never really met a chef. He worked for guys that called themselves chefs, but they were not real chefs. Then his dad started to buy the New York Times. In the Wednesday edition there were recipes and articles about chefs. Steve loved reading them. Steve went to culinary school at CIA in Hyde Park New York. The landscape was familiar. Dairy farms and grass everywhere made Steve feel at home. As someone who didn’t do well in high school or college he was surprised to be doing so well in culinary school. He found it easy. This was something that I could relate to with Chef Steve. For me growing up school was hard for me. I didn’t make good grades. I was never anywhere near that top of my class. Then suddenly we have that ability to create something. And do it daily. Ainsley jokes how cool it is that we get to do that. As a writer she writes things that people can read, but that they can’t eat. We as chefs create something that people can consume and enjoy. Chef Steve jokes that we just need them to keep coming back. One thing that he brought up is that the culinary industry is one of the last industries that you don’t have to have a degree. You can work your way up and become the chef. It just takes hard work Being a chef gives people like Chef Steve and I hope. It gives people without a degree to be the best chef in the world.
Steve jokingly said that Brown was the very first chef he was ever afraid of. There are just some people that you do not want to disappoint.
Chef Steve started his career in New Orleans by first working under Chef Stanley Jackson. He was one of those guys that just appreciated hard work. Taking Chef Steve under his wing he showed him how to make jambalaya, etouffee and how to fry a turkey. Afterwards he worked under Chef Chris Brown in many different restaurants. Steve jokingly said that Brown was the very first chef he was ever afraid of. There are just some people that you do not want to disappoint. Kind of like a parent. You just have that much respect for them. McHugh saw Brown as a mentor even though they weren’t far off in age. The respect level was just that high. He recalled a time when he overslept and he was so scared to return to work. We watched him shake a bit at the memory. Mchugh became the yes chef no chef person that day. Afraid to look up, he just kept his head down and cooked. After many other restaurants and owners McHugh found himself working for John Bess starting in 2003.
“No one at the French Laundry comes off the line and says man that was fun. This is hard work.”
John Bess was a person who McHugh saw as someone that outworked him. Which is really hard to do. As chefs we pride ourselves on work ethic. Jason is also someone that is at the restaurant hours before anyone else. McHugh shares the same passion. At this time John Bess only had two restaurants. Later on with McHugh, they were able to continue the growth and make it nine restaurants. Gaining pride working with John Bess lead to their team winning the James Beard Award, using that confidence as fuel. Then later he aired on Iron Chef. McHugh felt like he was part of this succes. McHugh tells his crew all the time that this is hard work. “No one at the French Laundry comes off the line and says man that was fun. This is hard work.” It’s intense being in the kitchen with McHugh. Not much laughing goes one. But one thing that is for sure is that everyone is happy. You can see it in their faces.
McHugh walked around the restaurant and pointed out that the base of the tables needed to be cleaned. It is things like this that makes going to Cured an experience you want to remember again and again.
We talked about the importance of having a perfect shift. Ainsley asked how much MgHugh thought perfection mattered in the kitchen. McHugh answered by saying that with Bess he would walk into the restaurant and look intently around for things he knew Bess would find. McHugh thought of it like a game. Bess would look around. He would find a chive cut incorrectly. He then would say “Chefs, what is wrong with this chive?” Then show them all how to properly cut a chive. For McHugh, he promises every customer when they come in that they will have a good time. On the day of the interview McHugh walked around the restaurant and pointed out that the base of the tables needed to be cleaned. It is things like this that makes going to Cured an experience you want to remember again and again. Pride is something that McHugh took from John Bess.
One of the best pieces of advice that Jason was ever given was from Aaron Franklin. Treat every restaurant like it is your own. This is something that he will never forget. Jason asked McHugh the same question. “What is the best advice that John Bess has ever given you?” McHugh took a deep breathe and painted a picture for us. McHugh recalled whenever there was something wrong at the restaurant he would gather all of the chefs together and said, “If you don’t care how do you expect all of the cooks to care. Why would you spend so much time platting and making the perfect plate just to throw it in the pass?”
Sitting down with a McHugh was one of the best experiences of my career. Not only to learn more about the person, but mostly to learn more about what kind of chef and man I want to be. Humility and compassion are things you won’t first see when you walk into Cured. But take a closer look, and you will see it everywhere.
Next week we will be posting the full interview with McHugh…