Chef Chuck Hughes’ new show visits Iqaluit
Episodes to air tonight and Sept. 24 on APTN
When chef Chuck Hughes was standing in line at the Ottawa airport on his way to Iqaluit for the first time, he was carrying a hockey stick and his skates.
“I’m for sure playing hockey there,” he thought, “that’s one thing guaranteed, there’s ice.”
But as he stood there and started seeing other passengers dropping off large Rubbermaid bins, he remembers first asking himself questions like “What’s going on?” which led to others like, “Am I dumb?”
Then it hit him, “I’m exactly that guy,” he was out of his element and it showed, which is exactly where he wanted to be.
Hughes has spent over 25 years in kitchens. He’s the co-owner and executive chef of Montreal restaurants Garde Manger and Le Bremner, an Iron Chef champion and has been the host of numerous television shows that have taken him across the world.
As part of those travels, he occasionally found himself learning about Indigenous cultures in countries like Mexico which led him to realize he knew almost nothing about Indigenous groups back home in Canada.
“I wanted to learn,” said Hughes, “and obviously for me, food is always my way in no matter where I am in the world. It’s an international language.”
It was this idea that eventually led to Hughes’ newest show, Chuck and the First Peoples’ Kitchen.
Airing on APTN, the show’s 13 episodes will explore 11 different communities across Ontario, Quebec, Nunavut, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Two of those episodes are spent in Iqaluit.
When an excited Hughes arrived in Nunavut’s capital on a sunny April day last year, he immediately learned another lesson.
“I got off the plane and seriously could not breathe,” he said, “I’ve never been hit with cold like that.”
“I realized then what I was in for and it was probably one of the most beautiful, authentic and real experiences of my life.”
“You go to Mexico, you’ve had a taco before”
When Chef Sheila Flaherty of Iqaluit-based Sijjakkut first made Arctic Char sushi rolls nearly a decade ago, she never imagined where it would take her.
“My late mom always said, ‘you should have your own bakery’ and I just thought it was a mom thing but apparently it’s not,” recalls Flaherty, the former law student.
In the time since, she’s been thrust into the spotlight, first on Master Chef Canada and then on several other television shows that have come to Iqaluit over the years.
When she heard that Hughes wanted to visit Iqaluit with the intention of learning from herself and others she thought, “Great, that’s perfect.”
Flaherty sees her role as a chef both as a chance to preserve Inuit culture through food and harvesting but also as an opportunity to promote and educate others about the sustainability of country food, and “especially the deliciousness of it.”
Hughes met Sheila and her husband Johnny shortly after arriving in Iqaluit, and that evening the trio shared a country food meal.
“His eyes got so big looking at all the food,” recalls Sheila.
“He was just so excited.”
At one point during the meal, Hughes, who admits he knew nothing about country food, asked Johnny what polar bear tastes like. He expected him to say “chicken,” or give an equally generic answer.
“Polar bear,” replied Johnny. “You’ve got to try it.”
Typically on his travels, Hughes has eaten things he can relate to. “You go to Mexico, you’ve had a taco before,” he said.
But in that moment he tasted something entirely new.
Food he ate in Iqaluit left flavours in his mouth that he’d never tasted before.
“It’s rare that you can say that in the world,” he said.
The pair also took Hughes out fishing for char. Although they didn’t catch anything, the conversations they had were filling.
“When you educate people on food, when you talk about food and food sources, then you have the best chance at gaining an ally in respecting that food source,” said Sheila.
This has happened with visiting chefs before.
“It’s incredible how knowledge can change your perspective,” said Hughes.
In the time since filming last spring, Hughes has become an ally and a friend, staying in touch with the Flahertys.
He visited Sheila in Ottawa last spring when she was cooking for the annual Taste of the Arctic event, and the pair visited Hughes’ Garde Manger restaurant in Montreal last Christmas.
“For me, that’s a connection that’s lasting for life,” said Hughes.
“To hunt a bird that’s white, in a sea of white”
One of Hughes’ other motivations behind the show was to change the way he viewed ingredients.
“My thought is always like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do? How is it going to taste? How are we gonna cook it? What are we going to put with it?’ I’m thinking of the end result,” said Hughes.
When he went out on the land with Iqaluit hunter Solomon Awa and his daughter to hunt ptarmigan, that wasn’t the case.
“To hunt a bird that’s white in a sea of white, it was quite the experience,” said Hughes.
Then came time to eat it.
These days, a lot of people cook ptarmigan, says Awa.
“I heard that they’re saying, ‘We always cook them.’ Not me. Not my parents, not my grandparents,” said Awa.
“We got the ptarmigan, brought them over, got them out and ate it right there while there was still a bit of warmth from their body heat.”
Knowing that, Hughes elected to eat it that way.
Awa was surprised.
It was the experience Hughes was hoping for.
“Everything was really stripped down to living in that moment,” he said.
“There’s that deep connection to the animal and it’s a connection that a guy like me, who’s worked in restaurants for so long, has never even had.”
It’s a message Awa hopes that the show’s audience can also take away.
He recalls seeing a note on Facebook once that read, “Go to a store where there’s no animal being harmed.”
“Beef, pork, egg, chicken, ham, whatever you call them, those meats, those are animals,” said Awa.
“We harvest our meal from the land and put it on the plate and feed our family…we don’t always go to the store and buy groceries.”
For Hughes, it was a lesson in respect.
“You realize you really harvest what you need and you use 100 per cent of what you get and respect it from A to Z,” he said.
“That’s what I thought I was doing in my restaurant. I wasn’t even close.”
Rounding out his time in the capital, Hughes also had a chance to visit with Chef Michael Lockley of the Qajuqturvik Food Centre.
“There are so many lessons to learn when you’re there,” said Hughes, reflecting on his time in Iqaluit.
“Every step you take is a new lesson.”
When asked to describe how he felt about the trip, Hughes responded simply.
Although he experienced a lot during his two-weeks, he knows he only scratched the surface. But hopes it’s enough for his audience to also learn something.
His taste of the north has also left him wanting more. Although the pandemic has restricted travel to the territory, he’s already thinking of the day he’ll be able to return.
“Now that I’ve been to Iqaluit, I want to go further,” he said.
In the meantime, he hopes to meet up with Flaherty when she’s in Ottawa later this month for the Chef’s Table concert series at the National Arts Centre.
As for his hockey stick and skates, Hughes did find time to hit the outdoor rink across from Northmart.
“I had my little crew of hockey players and it was fun,” he said.
“I had a really good time.”
Chuck and the First Peoples’ Kitchen premiered last week and the first Iqaluit-based episode is set to air on APTN this Thursday, Sept. 17 at 8:30 p.m. ET with the second episode airing on Sept. 24.
The remaining episodes will air every Thursday through November.