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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Gainesville chef works magic at Kickin’ Devil Cafe

Chuck Hurley fills a lunch order at Kickin’ Devil Cafe, 2017 NE 27th Ave. He’s been working as a chef for more than half his life in Gainesville, New York and Paris.
Chuck Hurley fills a lunch order at Kickin’ Devil Cafe, 2017 NE 27th Ave. He’s been working as a chef for more than half his life in Gainesville, New York and Paris.

A mohawk never stopped Chuck Hurley from working.

Neither have two sleeves of tattoos or a jail record.

In fact, he’s never even turned in a job application. Doesn’t need to; Chuck lets his food do the talking.

Since he was 16, Chuck has run  kitchens all over Gainesville.

First was Phil-nick’s. Armed with a good set of social skills to compensate for his lack of experience, he walked in for lunch and walked out with a job.

Now he can be found in the warehouse district on Gainesville’s east side. Among the auto shop garages and pest control stations is a cinder block building with a red, blue and yellow paint job and hand-painted signs advertising homemade food — Chuck’s handiwork.

This, the fusion of Cajun food and honky tonk, is Kickin’ Devil Cafe.

Even the phone number is devil-themed. The last half contains the number of the beast — 666.

Inside, sleepy blues music plays — live on most nights — and waitresses lay the “honey” and “darlin’” on thick.

In back under a fluorescent light and between rows of stainless steel counters and grills, Chuck works his magic.

His personal touches are all over the kitchen. On one counter sits a roll of masking tape, a paint brush and a pack of Lucky Strikes. A Halloween mask hangs from one end of the ticket string.

In another corner, a bowling ball waits in its bag for Chuck’s lunch break. He walks over to Alley Gatorz most afternoons to shoot a few games where he finds his latest favorite food — bowling alley hot dogs — cooked under a humming heat lamp.

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On a shelf in the back of the kitchen, an iPod plays rap music through computer speakers. It’s lo-fi music compared to the blaring punk of his first kitchen.

He adds those touches to his skin, too. Pictures of a red onion, scallion, radish and garlic clove decorate his left forearm. His other arm reads “beautiful friends.” It’s still red. The ink is still setting from last night.

Further up that arm is a five-pointed nautical star listing the four cardinal directions. The fifth reads “lost.”

As he talks to a waitress, he throws together a batter for crepes. In go four eggs, a few cups of flour and the better half of a Budweiser. He measures none of them.

He dices a zucchini and tosses it in a pan. While it sizzles, he carries it over to a spice chest and piles on pinches of orange and red powders without glancing into the pan.

But those seemingly careless measurements have cost him over the years.

On his palm, he sports a scar the size of a pen cap. He had tried to cut a sample off an 80-pound wheel of Parmesan. With all his weight, he pushed down on the wide edge of a knife. Finally, the cheese gave way. He slipped. The knife gouged through the meat of his hand. Sideways.

Another scar is from a busy night catering a party. He used a knife to open a pack of sirloins. The knife sailed through the plastic and through his finger, slicing it like a banana.

But those come with the territory of a executive chef position. He would rather take those than paper cuts.

“It would really suck if I couldn’t cook and had to get a real job,” he said.

Luckily, he hasn’t.

At 19, he was leading the kitchen staff at Cafe Gardens as the highest paid employee. Punk music screamed out the doors of the kitchen he refers to as “a punk rock pirate ship.”

By 22, he dropped out, married and made his way to Rochester, N.Y. He snapped up a job at Tonic, an up-and-coming restaurant, before swinging up north.

There, he cooked up a passion for new recipes and food design. He had homework, too. He read three cookbooks a week, searching for new dishes to try on his customers.

“You can’t be sacred to try new s---,” he said. “It’s going to go one of two ways. They’re either going to love the food or they’re going to love the food.”

The closest time he ever came to losing a job was when his boss at Tonic asked him to write a resignation letter after he had missed a couple busy days.

Instead, Chuck wrote a high-school love letter. He kept his job as executive chef.

Eventually, those 70 to 80 hours a week in the kitchen cost him his marriage. Food was his woman. The kitchen his home.

And just like home, he could always go back.

Once on a road trip to Gainesville, he stopped for lunch at his old stomping grounds at Cafe Gardens. He walked straight into the kitchen and started working.

He picked up another job just as easily. He walked into Pilo’s Pasta, a former downtown Gainesville restaurant, for lunch. Clad in a leather jacket, leather pants and a spiked-up mohawk, he approached Pete Corsa, the old Italian owner. After a few minutes of foodie talk, Corsa could see that Chuck knew his way around the kitchen. He got a job that day.

He got his latest job the job at Kickin’ Devil the same way.

After a few conversations with the owner, Mary Jane Brunel, he landed the Sunday brunch shift, noon to 5, despite the fact that he was on work release from Alachua County Jail after his second count of driving without a license.

She didn’t care. She had tried his cooking.

“He’s a culinary delight,” she said. “When that stuff comes out of the kitchen, it’s not only good food, it’s amazing food, and it looks amazing.”

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