About Chef Hugo
Hugo Ortega, executive chef/co-owner of Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe, a finalist for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards, was born in Mexico City, the oldest of a family of eight children. At 15, he began working at one of several Procter & Gamble factories in Mexico to help support his family. “In Mexico, we have a saying, ‘If you’re born poor, you’ll die poor,’” says the eldest Ortega. “I knew I wanted more from my life.”
In 1984, Ortega immigrated to Houston with a cousin and a friend. He had no contacts or job leads, but was determined to make a life for himself in America. “My family has always had a strong work ethic,” he says. “And I strongly believe that if you work hard, people will respect you.”
Slowly, step-by-step, Ortega began to set down roots in the bustling oil capitol. He shared an apartment with several friends, and followed up on leads for jobs in nearby restaurants. He was happy to find his first job, as a dishwasher, at a popular bar and nightclub. While the pay was meager, Ortega grabbed at the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of the restaurant business and find contacts to help him improve his English.
Later, he moved on to a downtown Houston restaurant as busboy during the day and, at night, he cleaned the floors in office buildings to supplement his income. “I was fortunate to have two steady-paying jobs,” recalls Ortega. When his friends in Houston planned to move to California, he opted to stay in Houston. With an unexpected turn of bad luck, Ortega found himself without work.
“It was a very bad time for me,” Ortega remembers. “Most of my friends had moved away, I was out of work and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.” A friend took Hugo to Backstreet Cafe, where he found employment as a dishwasher/busboy. It was at Backstreet Cafe tat, according to the chef, “the great opportunity of my life came.”
Tracy Vaught, owner of Backstreet Cafe and Prego, was impressed with Ortega’s positive attitude and willingness to learn. She thought he showed a great deal of promise and offered him a position on the line in the kitchen. He worked diligently, familiarizing himself with every aspect of the kitchen and was soon promoted to the kitchen at Prego, where he worked side-by-side with Executive Chef John Watt. Impressed by his hard work and dedication, Vaught offered to enroll Ortega in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College. He jumped in with both feet.
Immediately, the student chef impressed his instructors with his zeal to learn and his zest for work. Culinary Services Department Head John Abercrombie says he has always been impressed by Ortega’s intensity, dedication and creativity. “Hugo is a great all-around talent who receives great pleasure from his work,” says Abercrombie. “He is a group leader who leads by example, and we are very proud of his accomplishments.”
Backstreet Cafe’s menu is an eclectic one, and Ortega’s talented hand in its development is evident in some of cafe’s most popular dishes. Examples include a Roasted Lamb Loin in a Dijon-hazelnut crust, served with scalloped potatoes, a spinach timbal and tender baby carrots; Jumbo Sea Scallops, quickly seared and served with a red pepper polenta, spinach timbal and portobello mushrooms; and the Mixed Grill of duck breast, venison sausage and boneless quail with creamy polenta and marsala sauce.
Ortega graduated from HCC’s Culinary Arts program in November 1992 and assumed the role of chef at Backstreet Cafe; he became executive chef in 1995. The talented chef has made two guest chef appearance at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. In 1999, Ortega was named “Up-and-Coming Chef of the Year,” by My Table magazine; and one of the city’s top chefs in Inside Houston magazine. Among his professional affiliations, Ortega is a member of the national organization Chefs Collaborative 2000.
In July 2002, Ortega and Vaught opened a third restaurant concept, Hugo’s, serving Authentic Regional Mexican Cuisine. With the opening of Hugo’s, Ortega has journeyed full-circle to rediscover the true foods of his homeland. “This is the restaurant that I have dreamed of opening ever since I started my career in the restaurant business, even though I never realized it,” says Ortega. “I left Mexico for America as a teenager in search of a better life. Even though I was far from our home in Mexico City, I always carried Mexico in my heart.”
Since its opening, Hugo’s has been lauded by local, regional and national media, including being name a “Top Table” by Bon Appetit, and “Where to Eat Now in 30 American Cities” and one of the “Restaurants We Love” by Gourmet. In addition, Ortega’s poignant life story has been featured in print and electronic media, and is a source of inspiration for many.
Ortega was named Chef of the Year in 2002 and 2011 at the Houston Culinary Awards, and Hugo’s was named “Restaurant of the Year” in 2003 by both the Houston Press and My Table magazines. Ortega and Tracy Vaught were married in 1994, and in February 1997 they had their first child, Sophia Elizabeth. Ortega became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
In early 2012 Ortega was named a semifinalist for the 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards, and a finalist for the prestigious awards in March 2012.
Ortega is publishing his first cookbook, Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico [Bright Sky Press, $34.95], which will be ready for nationwide distribution in late summer/early fall 2012. His brother Ruben, executive pastry chefs for both restaurants, worked with Hugo on the book, which features more than 100 recipes, from tacos to guisadas, salsas to dulces. The book features beautiful photography by award-winning photographer Penny de los Santos, who traveled to Mexico with the Ortegas to capture the book’s images.