Just four months after opening his San Antonio restaurant Cured, chef/owner Steve McHugh found himself reaching for the telephone for an unfortunate "first." "I've been in kitchens since I was 14 years old [and] I'd never had to call 911 before," McHugh says. "I've never had to clear a dining room." An internal fire within one of Cured's walls billowed smoke out into the dining room and through the restaurant's air vents, leading to a temporary shutter that mercifully lasted for only five days. "It's just so scary to think that you've worked your entire life for something, and you finally achieve it, and you get there and then it's about to go down," McHugh says.
But McHugh is used to overcoming adversity. The chef, a 10-year alum of John Besh's New Orleans restaurant group, moved to San Antonio in 2010 to open Besh's first non-Louisiana restaurant, Lüke. Just a few weeks before McHugh and his wife packed up and moved, he was diagnosed with lymphoma, which he now calls "a blessing in disguise" noting the top-notch cancer treatment he received in Texas. "It was a scary thing," McHugh says. "It was really a blessing to be able to move here and to come be a part of this community. It changed my outlook on San Antonio — because not only am I opening a restaurant, but I'm also fighting for my life. When the doctor says, 'You have the all-clear,' it's just an amazing feeling, and I guess I never figured I'd go back. I got my life back here and I realized it was an opportunity to start anew, so that's when my wife and I decided that we would tackle our own little project."
"Not only am I opening a restaurant, but I'm also fighting for my life."
In 2013, McHugh left Lüke to open Cured, a restaurant serving his take on farm-to-table and whole-animal cooking. A large charcuterie case shows off hanging meat in the dining room; it's stocked with options like smoked vealwurst, smoked duck ham, and jalapeño sausages. McHugh sources products from the city's Pearl district farmer's market, which literally sets up shop right outside the restaurant. "We're not bringing in fancy wacky stuff from who knows where because we're trying to impress you," McHugh says. "We're just really cooking good, honest food from our farmers." As Cured approaches its first anniversary, Eater recently chatted with McHugh about regrouping after a fire, why frog's leg rilettes don't work, and how being "an old farm boy from Wisconsin" emerges on his menus.
At what point did you and your wife start talking about the concept that would eventually become Cured?
It's definitely one of those things that you think, "All right. We're not getting any younger. What are we going to do?" I knew that I could probably work for John [Besh] for the rest of my life and have a great living, be well-treated, and all is good. It wasn't like things were bad there. Things were great... It was a situation where a friend of mine, Johnny Hernandez, who owns La Gloria restaurant here in San Antonio, he and I had become friends throughout the years I'd been here. He said, "You know, I don't know if you're looking to leave Luke, but the Pearl Brewery" — which is where he has one of his restaurants — "is looking for other operators."... I'm an overly cautious person who just doesn't jump into things lightly, and they just made it very easy on me and wanted to know what my vision was for a restaurant, not what they were thinking, which is very important.
Tell me a little bit about the menu development.
I'm an old farm boy from Wisconsin. I grew up with six brothers and my parents [on an] old dairy farm that my parents bought. They were both working professionals, but at the same time we worked the farm: We raised animals, put in crops and a garden, we an had orchard that my dad put in when I was younger, so it was important to pick the apples and cherries and actually put it to use.
"When we raised hogs, that entire hog went into our freezer and got used."
For me to grow up like that was just an amazing experience. When we raised hogs, that entire hog went into our freezer and got used. I didn't realize it at the time, but as I grew up and I started getting around other chefs and other cooks, they just didn't have those experiences. And I think that they, to be honest with you, don't have the respect for the product, for the life of that animal... I know how hard a farmer has to work, and for somebody to not really respect what they're doing... it's kind of strange.
Obviously charcuterie is the focus at Cured. What about that way of cooking appeals to you?
When I started developing this menu in my head, I started thinking about a 300-pound pig and how I utilize that within an appropriate time frame. Because my goal was not to buy a 300-pound pig from a farmer, cut it up into little pieces, and put it in the freezer and deal with it later. Our goal was to continue to buy from our farmers and bring in product. To be honest with you, the charcuterie gave us that outlet and gave us the ability to be that friend of the farmer. The curing all of a sudden started creeping into my menu. I've always been a big charcuterie guy. John [Besh] had taught me a lot about butchering. I was a butcher previously at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse [in New Orleans], so making sausages out of trim and stuff like that was always a must. I started seeing this part of the menu get bigger and bigger, and it just fit.
Is that not common in San Antonio, the whole-animal approach to a menu?
It's really not. I know that I have such a good relationship with these farmers because when I explain it to my cooks and my employees, it's — my wife says I say this too much — but there is no such thing as a pork belly farm. If I can teach that to these young guys, I think we're winning the battle.
"There's no such thing as a pork belly farm."
Because 10-20 years ago, it was all about, "Let's buy a case of the pork belly and let's braise it off" or "Let's go to the market, but I only want shoulders because it's the easiest piece to work with." That doesn't help the farmer who's trying to get the maximum amount of money per pound on their animal. I could put a filet mignon on the menu and just sell tenderloins all day long, but that doesn't help out my farmer. So I buy 1,200-pound steer once a month, and we utilize the whole thing until it's gone. Parts get braised, parts get grilled, some things get turned into pastas, we grind some of our lunchtime hamburger, we make tartare. Nothing goes to waste.
Do you get the occasional diner who is less receptive to eating an off-cut or offal?
I'm very conscious about trying to keep the menu [approachable]... You could come in and get fried oysters. We do a pork shoulder gumbo that we make with a New Orleans influence... there are some things that are a little bit more approachable. If you don't want to come in and have sweetbreads or bone marrow, you don't have to. The building, the menu, the way that we're dressed, the way that the tables look, everything was very much designed to be as un-intimidating as possible. We don't wear chef coats in the kitchen because I feel like it sends a message that it's going to cost you a lot of money. We don't have tablecloths. The servers actually wear their own clothing, the only thing that ties them together is an apron so you know that they're not another guest walking around the dining room. I think what we're doing, it is very, very new to San Antonio. I know it's not a very new idea, but it is new to San Antonio. It's been very well received, and we're extremely happy with the outpouring from the community.
Have you made any changes to the menu or to the style of service since day one?
It's interesting to look back at our menus a year ago. We just put our pumpkin salad back on the menu, which was a really popular dish last year when we had pumpkins in season. I looked at how we were preparing it last year and I tweaked it and changed it. For me it's always, "How could we do it better?" People love to say, "What's your favorite dish on the menu?" In all honesty, my answer always is "I can't have a favorite because if I have a favorite, I'll be afraid to take it off the menu one day." That's something that John [Besh] taught me... to have the courage to go, "Yeah, it's a great dish, but can we do better?" That's a valuable lesson.
"You have to go through those failures to really understand where you're heading as a chef."
I look at our menus a year ago and go, "Wow, I can't believe we did that. That's kind of goofy." I had this wacky idea to turn frog's legs into rillette, and there's just not enough fat in a frog leg, but I figured I could braise them in bacon fat and we'd figure it out. It'd be like the craziest, coolest thing ever and it's just ... It's one of the things you're like, "Gah, that was stupid." But you have to go through those failures to really understand where you're heading as a chef and as a restaurant for that matter.
So what are your goals moving forward?
Every day for us is an evolution. I feel like it took us a year to put together the best crew of people in the city of San Antonio, from management to service to kitchen — I feel like I have the best dishwashers I've ever worked with. They just really care; it's an amazing feeling. Of course, when people start talking about you and you start winning awards and things like that, everybody wants to know what you're going to do next. It almost feels like an impossible thing: It took me so long to find the perfect people to run this place I can't imagine trying to do it again.
I feel like Cured hasn't even really hit its stride. There's so much more we can do. I have so many fun ideas, things I want to try. And getting more of my staff involved in the decision-making has been something that's been really important to me... For this restaurant, my biggest fear is to take my eyes off of it. People ask me all the time about other projects, and I just tell them: "The one thing I can tell you is that I have a newborn on my hands and it's hard for me to think about having another one."
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Sometimes it feels like it's been three or four years and sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday. So much has happened. In March our restaurant caught on fire, and we were closed for a week. It was the scariest thing, because in March we were really just hitting our stride. ... When I look back now, the fire seemed so long ago. The contractor, the kitchen designer, and Pearl, they all felt for us, and they jumped in there literally the next day and just started cleaning and repairing. We probably should have been shut down a lot longer than we were. We actually were only shut down five days. It was amazing.
"It's been a long road for both of us."
It was crazy, but it was so great to have that support and people who are like, "We feel for you. We will make this right, let's figure it out." It was gut-wrenching, but at the same time you just realize how much people love you and what you're doing. It's such a great feeling. Like I said, it feels so long ago. But then there's things where just the other day, my sous chef and I were like, "Can you believe we put the pumpkin salad back on?" There's some things that just fly by. It's been such a fun year. With getting so close to that one year [mark], I'm so excited for it. My brother is also my business partner, and he's excited about it too, because it's been a long road for both of us. We put it all on the line. Him and my wife and myself just put it all on the line and it's been very rewarding.