Chef Hugo Ortega and the ultimate American dream

By | July 2, 2014
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Credit: Paula Murphy

To chef Hugo Ortega, the American dream is not a myth or a concept, it’s his life. Ortega immigrated to Houston from Mexico in 1984 looking for opportunities, and he found one eventually — a big one — that has since defined his career as well as the status of Mexican cuisine in Houston.

“The American dream is alive,” says Ortega. “Millions of people wish they could be here in this great country, and it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of. In my case, it’s being able to express the little bit I know about Mexican cuisine. It’s such a dream.”

That “little” bit he knows about Mexican cuisine came from growing up as the eldest in a family of eight children and learning to cook by watching his grandmother prepare meals.

“The first thing you learn to cook is a tortilla,” says Ortega. “You cook your corn and then take it to the mill, and then see how those huge wheels on the town molino turn and make the masa. Then you get home and make these masa balls and press it into a tortilla, then you eat it. If you put a little bit of sea salt, that’s probably one of the greatest experiences.”

Ortega carried those memories with him throughout his journey, which after arriving in Houston, eventually led him to Backstreet Cafe where he started as a busboy and dishwasher. His positive attitude and dedication was obvious to restaurateur Tracy Vaught who took notice, and offered to put him through culinary school at Houston Community College. Ortega seized the chance. He also stole Vaught’s heart and the two eventually became partners in matrimony as well as business.

It’s safe to say the match did not only Ortega and Vaught well, but the city of Houston. Houstonians embraced Ortega’s style of Mexican cuisine when Hugo’s opened in Montrose in 2002, as did the national audience when his reputation began to solidify.

The restaurant’s dishes embody traditional ingredients and techniques he’d absorbed from his upbringing in Mexico, and it shows on every plate.

“I think it’s my responsibility to do it in the way I was taught, and to respect the traditions,” says Ortega. “I bring in many ingredients from Mexico. There are people who import the coffee, the corn, the Mexican cinnamon, the peppers, the grasshoppers, the uniforms, the cocoa beans. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of satisfaction to open opportunities for all these wonderful people and make something great. Hundreds of people are involved and that’s a wonderful feeling.”

This attention to authenticity and a commitment to secure the best ingredients is also undoubtedly a factor in his three-time James Beard Award nomination as a finalist for the Best Chef Southwest. Ortega takes the recognition to heart, but is the first to share the nomination.

“I feel it’s the collective effort that we put in day in and day out that led us here,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s due to the managers, myself, Tracy [Vaught], our publicist Paula Murphy and more. It’s a high honor just to be nominated. It’s been great. We try to keep ourselves sharp and are thankful for the opportunity to express ourselves through this industry.”

*Chef Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught are also the team behind Backstreet Cafe and Caracol.*

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