Chef Interview: Steve McHugh of Cured, San Antonio

Chef Steve McHugh is not new to the industry, but his new restaurant, Cured, has brought something entirely fresh and unique to the San Antonio restaurant scene. Housed in a stunning, historic building from 1904 in the city’s lively Pearl Brewery, the chef and proprietor, along with his wife, revamped the interior with elegant, contemporary touches that complemented the building’s unique character. McHugh takes advantage of seasonal, regional ingredients and has crafted a menu centered around cured foods, from charcuteries to vegetables. And speaking of charcuterie, the menu ranges in offerings from port pate to smoked duck ham and jalapeno sausage, to name a few, and it’s all made in house and displayed in their attractive, humidity-controlled locker. All of these meats are cured from 60 days to 10 months! Aside from the charcuterie, the venue has delicious salads, homemade soups, cabrito sliders, roasted lamb legs and wagyu beef tartare, and that’s just skimming the surface. Their seafood calls to mind great southern traditions and flavors, from crawfish “love letters” to masa flash fried oysters and seared redfish. Read on to learn more about the man behind Cured who’s making a big splash in San Antonio:

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When did you first realize you wanted to be a professional chef?

I started working in kitchens when I was 14.   When I graduated High School I went to college to play music. I loved the saxophone when I was younger but it just wasn’t for me. I liked playing music but I didn’t want to study it. So I left after a year. I went back into restaurant work and it was my father that suggested I go to culinary school. Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin I had never even met a real chef. That was big city stuff. I left that summer to attend the CIA in Hyde Park New York and the rest is history.

Did cooking play a large role in your upbringing and childhood?
As a child I didn’t realize the role it played but as I came into my own as a chef I started to see the lessons. My Mom canned during the summers for winter and when we raised hogs the entire pig went to good use. It was important for my parents because they were raising 7 boys. Nothing could be wasted when you have that many mouths to feed.

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Share with us a special food memory that sticks with you today.
One particular food moment for me was when I was about 15 my father took my younger brother and I to New York City for a quick trip. I remember going into a Times Square Deli and having a Rueben. The sandwich was good but I couldn’t get out of my head how good the pickle and cole slaw was. I seemed odd to me that these two items I’ve eaten all my life could actually have some value to the meal.

What advice do you have for aspiring chefs, students and hopeful restaurateurs?
What you see on TV is not real. I know I’ve been on TV. Restaurants are hard work, plain and simple. It requires more time than you think and if you aren’t willing to put in the time you will never make it.

Tell us about your career path- where did you start off, what were you doing before?
I’ve always been in kitchens. I grew up on a farm and wanted to move to the big city. When I graduated culinary school in 1997 I moved to New Orleans and just immersed myself in the history of the city. New Orleans taught me to cook with respect to my ingredients as well as those that came before me.

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Tell us a little bit about Cured.
My wife Sylvia and I wanted a place where we could go and eat. It sounds funny but we longed for some of that New Orleans comfort. We also wanted to be a friend to the farmer and knew the only way to do that was to buy whole animals. The curing became a result of that. A good friend of mine came up with the name Cured because I had a bout with Lymphoma a couple of years ago and it fit not only my cooking but my history as well.

What experiences do you think have shaped you most as a chef?
The most important thing I can do as a chef is travel. You need to get out and see what others are doing. Get out of your own comfort zone. I tell my young chefs that a day trip to Austin or Houston will open your eyes.

Where do you see the San Antonio food scene heading and how do you think it stands out in relation to Austin, Corpus, Dallas and Houston?
It is amazing to me how far San Antonio has come since I moved here in 2010. So much has changed in just a few short years and I feel great to be apart of it. There is so much energy now and the customers are only getting smarter thanks to TV and the Internet. You can ‘t fool people like you could years ago. I honestly think that San Antonio has a leg up on the other Texas cities because like New Orleans we have a truly indigenous cuisine rooted solely in its history.

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What are some of your most prized tools in the back of the house? Any Mission Restaurant Supply favorites?
I am a big fan of the simplest pieces becoming workhorses in the kitchen. My favorite Mission piece is a 6-foot cheese-melter that we use and it is extremely versatile. It holds sauté pans hot for when you need them, keeps food warm on the bottom shelf and browns on the top. Mission set themselves apart because of service. I had the honor to work with Jim Conner. Jim had been designing kitchen so long that I felt he had probably forgotten more about them than I have ever learned. After his untimely passing Don Brawner stepped in to make sure we didn’t skip a beat.

You all have landed in a honey hole with your location at the Pearl. Tell us a little bit about the building and about what your location adds to the experience.
The building was something that we talked about for a long time. Once I cooked for the higher-ups at Pearl and they had a chance to see my vision we realized it matched their vision for the Admin building. It is the original administration office for the brewery. It was built in 1904 and we are grateful to be able to come to work there everyday.

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Which tastemakers, mixologists & foodservice professionals inspire you?
My career is heavily influenced by John Besh, whom I worked with for 10 years. He is one of the most giving people I know and that is reflected in everything that happens in any of his restaurants. I catch myself on a daily basis saying to myself “would you serve that to John”?

Can you share with us your favorite culinary destinations?
In San Antonio, Fruteria, for me. It’s all about learning and I know that Johnny has traveled extensively and I learn something new every time I eat there. In Texas I love day tripping to Lockhart for Blacks BBQ or off to Houston for Chris Sheppard’s Underbelly. In the U.S. one of my favorite cities in Chicago. Pretty much anything Paul Kahan touches is gold and I am a big fan of Girl and The Goat by Stephanie Izard. Around the world, Chartier in Paris. Its one of the oldest Brasseries in the city and you can eat a full lunch for about 15 euros.

What towns/villages/cities are you’re dying to go and explore for yourself? Any particular dining destinations on your list?
I’ve become friends with Johnny Hernandez over the years and he is always going on and on about Oaxaca and I’ve traveled a lot throughout Europe but have never been south of the U.S. so it will be on the itinerary for 2015 for sure.

The whole aesthetic at Cured from the furnishings to the integrity of the building, to the bar program and the presentation of the food is really something. What were you trying to achieve with the “look and feel” of Cured?
My wife and I tend to agonize over details. It’s probably why what was supposed to be a 6-month project turned into 14. It had to not only be perfect but it also had to make sense. We tried to do the impossible which is to make a place for everyone. We feel like we got as close as we could and are extremely happy with the support of the community.

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Do you have a personal creed or ethos that you live by?
Not really. My Mom passed away 5 months before we opened and for my brother (also my partner) and I it was tough for us because she never go to see it finished. I do imagine that she is watching and it makes me want to work harder because I know she would be proud.

“Charcuterie, Dining & Subtleties” is the motto at Cured. How do those things infuse the Cured experience?
We want people to know that we are trying. You will never see me go through the motions. It’s that little something extra, cologne in the men’s room, the garnish on your drink, turning beets into cracklings instead of croutons on your salad. It was about setting ourselves apart.

Lay out a perfect meal and wine/cocktail pairing for a first timer to Cured.
I get asked all the time what is your favorite. It changes everyday. We do get a lot of comments on our poutine and so I will tell first-timers to make sure they try that. Also get the Cured Cocktail because it’s a moonshine infusion. And of course try some of the charcuterie. Make sure you come with someone you enjoy sharing with because it’s all about being communal.

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What’s your favorite dish?
There’s no way I have a favorite dish. If I get to to attached to something I’m afraid I will be scared to take it off the menu. We have to be able to keep things fresh and new.

What has been the biggest surprise in your life?
Cancer. It doesn’t run in my family and when I heard that word it was a complete surprise. I’m a relatively healthy person and you want to know what you did wrong.

What’s up next for Chef Steve and Cured? Any fun quirks you can share about yourself?
We get asked all the time if we are going to do something else. We have worked so hard this first year to put together the best team of people in the city of San Antonio and the team gets stronger and better with every new person we hire. It’s hard to think of doing that all over again. Our People make Cured.   I’m a total goof in the kitchen and I love to crack jokes. It’s important to remind the team that we’re all human and its okay to enjoy your job and the people around you.


Check out Cured the next time you’re looking for a fun lunch or night out in San Antonio! You won’t be disappointed. Thank you Chef Steve for visiting with us!
All Pictures Courtesy of atpearl.com and tastingtable.com

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