Steve McHugh is serving more than charcuterie at his San Antonio restaurant — he's serving a second chance.
Steve McHugh, the trim, bespectacled chef-owner of Cured in San Antonio’s historic Pearl Brewery complex, is standing in front of his baby: a 9-by-11-foot glass and metal curing case. Hanging inside, cuts of venison, lamb, and pork rest for months in a humidity-controlled environment, serving as a tempting testament to the age-old practice of meat preservation. They will become delicate fans of duck ham, taupe rounds of jalapeño-flecked sausage, and boxy slices of lamb and citrus terrine that will be artfully served on plates handmade by local potter Linda Perez.
But this shrine to charcuterie almost didn’t happen. While McHugh was working as the chef de cuisine at La Provence, a French country restaurant owned by famed New Orleans chef John Besh in Lacombe, Louisiana, he was tasked with opening Besh’s newest venture, Lüke, in San Antonio. In the midst of the planning, McHugh was diagnosed with cancer — non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“My wife [co-owner Sylvia McHugh] and I were debating whether we should move,” he says. “We almost didn’t, but then my doctor said, ‘Nobody told you to stop living just because you got cancer.’ ”
Eight sessions of chemotherapy later, McHugh was cancer-free, lauded for his work at Lüke, and about to undergo another life-changing experience. In 2012, the chef decided to leave his post and decade-long tenure under his mentor to venture out on his own.
McHugh opened Cured in the 109-year-old former administrative offices of the Pearl Brewery in 2013. “The name is the perfect way to confirm my incredible feat of conquering cancer,” he says. “Also, it shares my ultimate passion in cured meats. Luckily for me, no one else took the name.”
More than simply a chic charcuterie joint with an emphasis on fresh and local ingredients, the restaurant is a grateful embrace of a second chance, reflecting the chef’s new lease on life and his creative take on food.
It’s also downright charming.
The same goes for McHugh. I had prearranged to shadow him on his Saturday shopping trip to the Pearl Farmers Market, yards away from his restaurant. When I catch up with the chef, who is much younger-looking than his 39 years, he hugs me before I can extend my hand.
“I’ve already done one walk-through and don’t need much more, but there are folks I want you to meet,” McHugh says. He introduces me to Cora Lamar from Oak Hill Farms in Poteet, Texas, and to John Peterson from Wholesome Harvest Farm in Guadalupe County. During our tour, a pair of sous chefs trails behind us with a hand-truck of produce crates.
“Sometimes I’ll see a farmer’s carrots and take all of them,” McHugh chuckles, motioning to his cooks to add more vegetables to the rolling stacks. “My guys will look at me like I’m crazy and ask, ‘What are we going to do with all those?’ I don’t always know, but we’ll figure it out.”
After our trek through the market, we head back to the restaurant, where the staff is in the thick of lunch service. Still, McHugh offers to show me around the eclectic space, which is filled with a smorgasbord of contemporary, reclaimed, recycled, and original elements. It was important to him to reuse items from the original building, he says, but on two conditions: “One, it had to make sense to our overall design. And two, it had to once again have purpose, not just sit and look pretty.”
To demonstrate, he leads me into a vault behind the U-shaped bar in the restaurant’s center. When he took over the building, the fireproof structure that once held Pearl Brewery’s business files was disguised beneath several layers of paint. During renovation, McHugh had the decades-old paint painstakingly removed, layer by layer. What emerged was ornate gold leaf on black paint and the Pearl Brewery’s triple X mark, which was part of its logo since the 1890s. The vault now houses a stock of wine and beer, much of the latter from Texas.
The open framework of roof beams caps a back dining room, which is separated from the main space by an exposed brick wall. The original trusses, marked with delivery writing more than a century old, are still visible. Cured, like McHugh, isn’t interested in concealment: There is no pretense of refinery. Sure, some things seem fancy — evidenced by the care and the quality — but none of it is simply for show.
“I have always had a clear idea of the food I wanted to do; I missed the cuisine of New Orleans and wanted a place to go with my wife and eat like we remembered,” McHugh says.
His love of the Crescent City runs deep. After studying at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he moved to New Orleans, working with Christopher Brown at Metro Bistro and the Brennan family of the famed steakhouse. Then one day he ate lunch at Besh’s August restaurant. So impressed was McHugh by the namesake salad of dressed mixed greens finished with blue cheese and pumpkin seed brittle, he submitted his résumé to the restaurant the very next day. “I thought to myself that if this much care went into a salad at lunch, I could only imagine what the dinner menu looked like.”
And so began McHugh’s tenure with the Besh Restaurant Group. After working the line at Besh Steak, he helped open La Provence, where the Wisconsin-raised McHugh reacquainted himself with his family’s farm roots.
“We built raised beds for plants, planted citrus and fig trees, and built a barnyard for pigs, goats, lamb, and chickens,” he says. “It was quite fun because we had 2 acres to play with. The pigpen was divided in half so we could rotate the pigs when we needed to. We used an old outbuilding on the property for a chicken coop and constructed a runoff of the front door for them to forage. In the garden, we planted what was seasonal and always kept a bed of microgreens going for the kitchen. There were also herbs planted throughout the property.”
McHugh took his farm-to-table training to heart and brought it with him to San Antonio — first to Lüke and then to Cured, where he took the concept to the next, natural level.
“My philosophy as a chef, as always, has been one of complete utilization,” he says. “We buy whole animals. I didn’t want to buy a 300-pound pig and place half of it in the freezer because I couldn’t use it in time. Salting and curing parts of the animal allows me more time and more outlets for the meat. Time is so vital to all facets of life, and the concept and philosophy of Cured is one that is really rooted in time-honored processes.”
When my selection of charcuterie arrives on its Perez platter (“A friend once told me, ‘Handmade food should be served on handmade tableware,’ ” McHugh notes), I see an arresting array: an egg-white dollop of pork butter spiced with preserved Meyer lemon, wheels of smoked veal wurst, ribbons of lamb bacon, and a small jar of spreadable pork-shoulder rillettes. Pickled okra, cucumbers, and onions add texture and spunk; house-made strawberry, bloody mary, and whole-grain yellow mustards add color and tang; while cracker-thin bread provides the palette.
This delectable fare is as comforting as a bologna and French’s mustard sandwich, yet is as surprising as a Michelin-starred Parisian bistro. It’s also good for the soul — a portion of the sales from every charcuterie plate is donated to a selected charity that rotates quarterly.
“We put together a team of close friends and family to remove the charity selection from our hands,” McHugh says. “We get asked all of the time to contribute, and there are so many great charities that it’s hard to choose. We started out the year with an organization I’ve been heavily involved with through events and as a member of their South Central Texas Chapter Board of Trustees: The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”
I ask McHugh how it makes him feel to be able to give back through his cooking. “I’m the luckiest guy around,” he says. “San Antonio has been so great to my wife and me, to our team, and to the restaurant. All of this is a gift.”
If San Antonio gave McHugh the gift of a renewed life, the chef has given in return the gift of Cured. Here, fluffy masa-cloaked oysters buoyed by tapioca pearls, rounds of broccoli custards flanking pan-seared Texas quail, and platters of patiently cured wursts pay worthy tribute to the numerous culinary gifts that surround us. It is a welcome lesson in gratitude — for the land, its bounty, a skillful chef, and a life well-fed.