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Running my hands over the smooth and
 nubbly turrets of green nopales, the cactus pads that Chuck Hughes is trying to de-needle on camera like an habitué, I follow along as he picks up the items on his grocery list: yerba santa, an aromatic that tastes like nutmeg and mint, and huitlacoche, bulbous black mushrooms that cling to old corncobs like rotting teeth from a witch’s gums (but are particularly delicious).

Sanjuana’s pozole stewSanjuana’s pozole stew (Guadalajara).

Hughes is filming Chuck’s Week Off in Mexico City, and I’m along for the ride. When he invited me into the heart of Mexico – the location of the show’s first season – I didn’t hesitate. But now, after the crew’s late night of fresh-lime margaritas and ceviche in Condesa, the 3 a.m. wakeup call for a shoot in Central de Abasto (the Distrito Federal’s massive food market) is a reality check. Watching the market wake up like a giant slumbering anthill, I realize it’s almost too early even for the farmers, as the hardworking diableros are only starting to bring in their teetering loads.

The hectic schedule of a reality television shoot – scouting locations, setting up shots, priming guests – actually leaves a surprising amount of off-camera breathing room for Hughes to do what he loves: loiter in the landscape and keep a nose out for the next big snack. After shooting a sequence on the snow-capped Popocatépetl, he ambles down the mountain, grinning the big wide grin of an overgrown kid – one who just drove up a volcano on an all-terrain vehicle for work and snacked on homemade blue-corn tacos with foraged mushrooms at a roadside food stand at the top. Over chiles en nogada we talk about his unpretentious appeal – equal parts mama’s boy, tattooed scooter mod and 
matinée idol.

Hangin’ in the kitchen with Hughes.Hangin’ in the kitchen with Hughes.

“If I could do anything in the world, it would be this: travelling around Mexico, seeing the parts off the tourist trail. This is me living my dream – the camera just steals my life,” he says. Hughes shows me his new tattoo, which he had inked by famed tattoo artist Indio Reyes. It’s the Virgin of Guadalupe holding a lucha mask in one hand and a welding torch in the other, flanked by a marlin Hughes caught in Cancún and the big pink-tongued almejas (clams) he dove for in Nuevo Laredo. “Those clams were a revelation,” he recalls. “My only regret is that I didn’t eat enough. I’m probably going to eat clams a thousand more times in my life, but they will never taste like that. They nicknamed me the killer whale because I just couldn’t stop.”

Hughes is an apt observer of people’s eating habits – he watched me regretfully eschew last night’s ceviche and margaritas, and guesses my secret. He brings me hand-selected 
flautas and tacos and tamales to feed the baby during my first trimester, and has me sampling the sweet, sustaining arroz con leche that he describes, happily, as “rice pudding in a breakfast drink.” At a street fair in Cholula, my professed love for churros with dulce de leche causes three different varieties to arrive in my hands.

Mamá Conchita’s chorizo enchiladasMamá Conchita’s chorizo enchiladas (Mexico City).

On a day when the crew has the afternoon off, Hughes spends his downtime eating. He’s just walked off his fifth meal of the day (oysters and shellfish) at La Morena on Michoacán in Condesa when he mentions he’s made a dinner reservation for everyone that evening. As night falls in the big city we head off for clamatos and coctel de camarones (shrimp cocktail). With Hughes at the head of the table, I feel like part of the family.

Chuck’s Week Off, the television show in which chef Hughes goes on a food tour through Mexico, launches August 28 at 7 p.m. on Food Network Canada.

Tags

COOKING     FOOD & DRINK     MEXICO     MEXICO CITY    

Getting There

Air Canada offers the most non-stop flights from Canada to Mexico City with one daily flight from Vancouver and two daily flights from Toronto.

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