“To be a good cook you have to have a love of the good, a love of hard work, and a love of creating.” — Julia Child
It’s fair to say that Army veteran-turned-home-cook-turned lifestyle/fitness trainer Dustin Hogue lives by Child’s words. He has spent his adultlife doing good for country, serving two deployments to Iraq, and good for family and friends, for whom the home cook creates some pretty fancy dinner parties.
Hard work has been the driving force through all of it, and if you’ve been watching the Food Network series “The Julia Child Challenge,” you’ll immediately see that a love of creating is at the core of his cooking skills.
Those skills have earned the Chicago-based Hogue a spot in the series finale at 8 p.m. Monday, facing off against fellow Chicago resident Bill Borman and Californian-by-way-of-the-Amazon Jaíne Mackievicz.
In the series, which takes place inside a down-to-the-whisk replica of Child’s kitchen, contestants put their spins on the recipes contained in her iconic cookbook (and culinary industry bible) “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” using the techniques Child made famous through the book as well as her groundbreaking PBS cooking show, “The French Chef.”
Each episode features two rounds of competition: The first requires the cooks to create a dish inspired by one of Child’s, the second is a meal served family-style, featuring a second Child-influenced dish from each competitor.
The competition is curated by head judge and celebrity chef Antonia Lofaso and a series of guest judges. One cook is sent home each week.
The winner (eight contestants started the weekly competition back on March 14) gets an all-expenses-paid, three-month cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, the same school where the late Child received her professional training more than 70 years ago.
On the show, Hogue revealed his love of cooking means his friends and family are treated to a five- to six-course meal when invited to his house for dinner. Occasionally he hosts ticketed pop-up dinners. He’s also a yoga, cycling and high-intensity interval training instructorat Studio Three in Chicago and the founder of the Live Good Journey lifestyle program. He was introduced to Child and her legacy in his 20s, mostly through her cookbooks and watching YouTube videos of her show.
Hogue, who makes his home in River West, recently spoke to the Sun-Times about competing on the show and his love of cooking. Answers have been edited for length.
Q. How did you come to make Chicago your home?
A. I grew up in Kansas City. I moved to Chicago in 2011. I was in the military out of high school. I joined the military to pay for college and deployed to Iraq twice. After my second time overseas I just felt it was a good time to move up to Chicago. … It’s one of the best food cities in the world. I love eating [laughs], and there are so many good spots there.
Q. When did your interest in food start?
A. There was always something in me that was attracted to food. I grew up very humbly. We didn’t eat fancy stuff, just very simple dishes that my mom made with a ton of love. She worked two jobs, and she did what she could. I would help her cook by chopping onions or bell peppers and things like that. I was in elementary school. I was the kid watching Food Network instead of cartoons. … I’ve always watched food shows. After my first tour I was working in Kansas City in restaurants, tending bar and serving. I’ve never worked in the kitchen in a restaurant, but with serving and bartending you end up trying a lot of food. It opened my eyes to a lot of things. As a broke college student it was more accessible to learn to make dishes on my own than to go to restaurants. When I first started cooking I wasn’t very good by any means, but I don’t like being bad at things. If there’s something I latch my teeth into I put a lot of effort into it. And so cooking has become a passion of mine.
And I read cookbooks all the time. I’m always watching food shows. It’s my favorite time of the year now because all the farmers’ markets are starting, and I can go shop. All the ingredients change, and I love to experiment with what’s in season.
Q. I think there’s more to your cooking than skill, because your dishes on the series so far have been highly praised by the judges and your fellow competitors, and there’s a real art to what you create.
A. The cookbooks I read, I read for the techniques that are in them. Once you have a toolbox of techniques you can venture off and experiment. And I like to spend time outside my comfort zone in my life, not just in cooking. That’s what helped me get better with cooking. I’m OK with making mistakes and learning from them and getting better, as long as it teaches me something about an ingredient or a new dish. Cooking is all about working with flavors and understanding how to balance them and adjust them.
Q. Did you learn anything about cooking from your time in the military?
A. Well, the food we had was not the best food ever [laughs]. But they tried to give us a variety of food, and we ate a lot of different things. I don’t think I ate a ton of vegetables until I was in the military because vegetables at home were canned or frozen.
Q. Do you have a favorite cuisine?
A. I always struggle with this because my main goal is to cook as seasonally and locally as possible. I do love making fresh pasta, but I also love Mexican flavors. I traveled to Thailand, so I love Southeast Asian flavors. I try to take my experiences and travel and have that guide my food.
Q. What made you decide to compete on the show?
A. Julia Child wanted to make good food more accessible to home cooks. And I see myself as a home cook and as somebody who kind of has that same mission, in sharing food with people and letting them know they can make really delicious things at home, and it doesn’t have to be intimidating. The opportunity to go on this show based on someone who had the same view as me and compete and cook alongside other home cooks who have the same passion was very attractive to me.
NOTE: Dustin Hogue is hosting three upcoming Step Outside fitness events. For information and tickets, visit eventbrite.com.