Vitals: The oldest of four brothers and four sisters, acclaimed chef Hugo Ortega was born in Mexico City and spent his formative pre-teen years in the mountainous country side between Puebla and Oaxaca. The time Ortega spent cooking alongside his mother he says, shaped his style of cooking forever, and after an inspiring meal at Houston’s Backstreet Café decided that he would pursue his love of food and family through a culinary career. Working his way up from bus boy to executive chef, Ortega is now the executive chef/owner of award-winning Hugo’s in Houston, Texas.
Awards: Hugo’s offers authentic, earthy Mexican cuisine across a variety of regions in an upscale atmosphere. It’s been lauded the “Best Restaurant in Houston” by a variety of local publications and its bar is nothing to sneeze at, having received recognition for its margaritas and wine program as well. Ortega was recognized as “Chef of the Year” at the 2011 Houston Culinary Awards and has been invited to cook at the James Beard House twice. As a 2012 James Beard Foundation award finalist, he was just one of just a handful of Latinos who competed against other nationally-acclaimed chefs.
Experience: Ortega’s mother moved her brood of children from Mexico City to the country when he was nine years old, and from then on, Ortega became immersed in food and cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen alongside a host of cousins and other relatives. “That’s how I learned the importance of the mole, of the game, how the village would all gather in celebration,” recalls Ortega. “Those four years spent in the country were the richest, more informative years of my life.”
Ortega continued helping his mother prepare meals for his seven younger siblings even after the family moved back to Mexico City. At just 14-years-old, Ortega struck out on his own and moved to Houston. He didn’t speak a word of English and didn’t have a job, but his outstanding soccer skills caught the eye of a local scout and he eventually joined a local team. It wasn’t until Ortega had a particularly memorable meal at Backstreet Café with some of his soccer teammates that he decided to pursue his passion for food. He eventually worked his way up at Backstreet Café from dishwasher, bus boy and eventually line cook before enrolling in Houston Community College’s culinary school. He became the chef at Backstreet Café in 1990 and in 2000 opened his esteemed restaurant, Hugo’s.
On being a 2012 James Beard Award Foundation finalist: “This is what life is all about. I’ve been so blessed. After this nomination I told friends, cooks and my beautiful wife Tracy that I will always be in debt this great country and I don’t know how I can ever pay it back. To think that I’m a finalist is overwhelming, unreal and so emotional.”
Love of Mexican cuisine: “That’s my country that I admire so much. I wanted to become a chef to represent my country in the highest way and I really think that’s through food. I want people to know that Mexico always welcomes people with open arms and its big heart. The inspiration I draw from my grandmother is something I try to share with others. My Hugo’s menu is set on the more traditional dishes from every region, ranging from mole poblano, escabeche Veracruzana, cochinita pibil from Merida and more, just all these dishes that reflect the interior, the coast and a variety of influences in Mexico. It’s a rich cuisine and my goal is to share that through food.”
Current passion project: “I started working on a cookbook two years ago with my brother Ruben, and we’ve just finished it. It’s called “Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico,” and writing that with my brother and working with Penny De Los Santos, the book’s photographer, was just wonderful. We traveled all throughout Mexico and experienced authentic, delicious street food like barbacoa and tamales. Learning how people invest in the food they offer on the street was so rewarding and I’m looking forward to offering that to readers when the book is released in August.”
5 ingredients you can’t live without: “It’s hard to pick 5- how about 6 or 7? I have to have corn tortillas, because for Mexican people, it’s the corn that makes us who we are. I love a beautiful chocolate, fresh fish, lime and peppers, just all varieties of peppers ranging from fresh, dried, spicy, mild and aromatic. I’d also include cilantro, onions, tomatoes. Those are the ingredients that are native to our country and it’s what we represent, a la Mexicana – the colors of our flag and integral to our cuisine.”
Favorite snack: “I love to snack on peanuts, and here at the restaurant we toast our own peanuts which makes it special. From time to time I indulge in a little tacquito with guacamole and chicharron – it’s one of the greatest combinations. So unique, crunchy, full-flavored, and salty. I’m addicted!”