Chef Steve McHugh’s restaurant is called Cured for two reasons. It refers to his craft of masterfully curing foods to serve his patrons, but it’s also a marker of his identity as a cancer survivor.
About 10 years ago, McHugh overcame non-Hodgkin lymphoma after a year of eight rounds of chemotherapy. At that time, he had just moved to San Antonio from New Orleans to help open Lüke San Antonio, a restaurant downtown. After prevailing through treatment and the challenges of opening and serving as executive chef at the new eatery, McHugh decided to “stay and do something for myself,” he told the Rivard Report. That’s when he decided to open his first restaurant as chef and owner.
When it came time to open Cured in 2013 at the Pearl, McHugh realized that his cancer journey inspired more than just his new endeavor’s name. He and his wife, Sylvia, had started thinking more critically about their health, in particular about what they were eating and the quality of food they would serve their restaurant customers.
Today, Cured is renowned for its innovative, ever-changing menu of fresh and tasty offerings ranging from meats to salads to fish and, of course, the chef’s specialty: charcuterie boards with items that have been cured anywhere from one month to a year. McHugh’s farm-to-table approach keeps him and his chefs on their toes to come up with new menu items daily, depending on what’s available in the kitchen, and every part of every animal is used to make something.
As McHugh and his wife made healthier lifestyle changes for themselves, they wanted to pay it forward to their patrons and serve pure, high quality, and regionally-sourced food in a sustainable way.
“I knew that if I’m going to be a chef and run restaurants then I have to be conscious of those choices,” he said.
About a year and a half ago, McHugh took his sustainable restaurant practices a step further. He started participating in the James Beard Foundation’s Smart Catch program, which helps chefs source and serve seafood in a responsible and ethical way. Participating chefs submit invoices every three months of their food supply purchases, answer questions about their seafood supplier’s products and practices, and then receive a rating based on their responses and how they align with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guidelines. The guidelines cover everything from deterring overfishing to ensuring fishermen and other seafood harvesters are getting paid livable wages and working in safe environments.
Even though the Cured menu might feature just a few seafood dishes, McHugh still wanted to “talk the talk” when it came to the restaurant’s promise to only source top-notch foods in the most sustainable way for the environment and for food industry workers such as farmers and fishermen.
“I realized that the small part of my menu that did have [seafood], which was either crab or mussels or fish or shrimp, I wasn’t putting any research into it,” McHugh told a group of about 50 chefs, restaurateurs, and food suppliers last week at a James Beard Foundation event in Austin promoting Smart Catch, “and it almost felt like a bit of a fraud in that regard.”
Serving up regional ingredients prepared with techniques he picked up during his 14-year chef career in New Orleans has garnered McHugh consistent recognition from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. The chef is a four-time nominee and three-time finalist for the organization’s Best Chef of the Southwest award. His achievements are fodder for his drive to constantly evolve his culinary practices and philosophies, especially when it comes to sustainability.
“We’re always trying to improve and do better,” he said.
McHugh grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin with his parents and six brothers, but didn’t necessarily grow up cooking. In high school, he got a job washing dishes at a local restaurant, which was his foray into the culinary world. The camaraderie he found in the kitchen was one of his favorite parts of the job, he said.
“I was always around food, but didn’t appreciate it while I was there,” he said. “I just enjoyed being with goofball knuckleheads like myself, just working. I’ve always had a really good work ethic.”
After high school, McHugh went to college to study the saxophone but knew his passions lay elsewhere. As a student who “didn’t always have the best grades,” he was never a big fan of sitting in a classroom all day.
“Not that I was dumb,” he said, “but I was more of a hands-on learner.”
He eventually made his way to the Culinary Institute of America in New York City where he thrived. Later, he moved to New Orleans, where he met his wife, worked in a number of esteemed restaurants such as Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, and also cooked to help feed FEMA workers after Hurricane Katrina.
The cooking techniques McHugh learned in New Orleans have remained at the core of his practice. The only thing that’s changed since moving to San Antonio and cooking for a new regional audience, he said, are the ingredients. Here, he said, he cooks with a lot more chilis than he did in Louisiana, and uses other regional ingredients such as mesquite beans and hominy. His dishes, such as his “barbecue-esque” smoked pork gumbo, carry a distinct Southwest flair.
“[Those recipes] fit our region really well,” he said.
As McHugh has settled into his role as a successful San Antonio restaurant owner and chef, he also has developed a deep love for the city itself. He describes it as a “big town, [where] everybody knows each other and people are extremely nice.” Considering the city’s revival of downtown and continued growth in businesses, the culinary scene in the past 10 years, “has been a really quiet-kept secret for a long time,” McHugh said.
Cured, located in the historic Pearl Administration Building, is a gastronomic staple in San Antonio, but McHugh isn’t interested in keeping the status quo. He’s always looking for ways to evolve the restaurant’s offerings — both in and out of the kitchen — for his customers, staff, and the larger community. This has taken different forms over the years, including the restaurant’s policy to donate a dollar of every charcuterie plate served daily to a different nonprofit every three months.
McHugh credits his cancer diagnosis and his journey to overcome his illness as motivation for him to be more conscious about his personal health and also how he and his business are impacting the larger community. Cured is not necessarily a health restaurant, McHugh said, but he still hopes his cooking and business philosophies “set up” his family, particularly his daughter and grandson, for success in as healthy a world as possible.
“Cured’s foundation has always been based on doing the right thing and trying to be a healthier restaurant,” he said. “Healthier to ourselves, healthier to our employees, healthier to our environment, [and] to our oceans.”