We had the good fortune of connecting with Hugo Ortega and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Hugo, what habits do you feel play an important role in your life?
I think there are several things that have helped me to work towards and exceed my American Dream, and I think a few of them are bravery, desire to do better for myself and my family, and almost always saying yes. All of this with hard work and luck thrown in.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I am the executive chef/co-owner of H Town Restaurant Group, a restaurant family which includes Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi and URBE in Houston, Texas; and also a partner in Origen in Oaxaca, Mexico. One of the things I am most proud of is that I am the winner of Best Chef: Southwest at the prestigious 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards. I am the first Mexican-born chef to receive this coveted award. (I was a finalist for the award for six consecutive years, 2012- 2017 before I finally won.)
I was born in Mexico City, the oldest of a family of eight kids, and when I was 15, I started work at one of several Procter & Gamble factories in Mexico to help support my family. I knew I wanted more from my life and in 1984 I made my to the US. I had no contacts or job leads but was determined to make a life for myself. My family has always had a strong work ethic and I was determined. Slowly, step-by-step, I set down roots in Houston. I shared an apartment with several friends and eventually found a job as a dishwasher and took a second job as a janitor to supplement my income. I was slowly learning English and feeling good when suddenly my roommates decided to move to California. Then I lost my jobs. It was a very bad time for me.
A friend took me to Backstreet Cafe, where I was hired to be a dishwasher/busboy. It was here that the great opportunity of my life came.
Backstreet Cafe’s owner was (and is) Tracy Vaught, and she noticed my positive attitude and willingness to learn and my curiosity for cooking in the kitchen. She eventually offered me a position “on the line” in the kitchen, and I took that opportunity very seriously and worked as hard as I could to prove myself, to learn all that I could. I was so shocked with Tracy offered to enroll me in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College, but there was no way I was going to say no! So many times in my life, even when I had fear or doubt, I said yes. It is one of my biggest lessons for myself and to share with others – be willing to say yes.
I worked hard and learned all that I could, and I graduated from HCC and became the chef at Backstreet Café – the same place where I was hired as a dishwasher! I also became a US citizen. I have Tracy to thank for helping see things within me that I hadnt yet and for supporting me and encouraging me always. Since that time, we have opened Hugo’s, Caracol, Xochi and URBE to celebrate the food of my homeland of Mexico. I have a published two cookbooks with Tracy and my brother Ruben, our restaurant group’s executive pastry chef.
I am truly living the American Dream.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
This is a tough question because there is so much to do and see in Houston!
Since I spend so much time inside in kitchens, when I’m not at work I like to get outside. One of the things I like to do most is ride my bike, and one of my favorite places to do that is Terry Hershey Park. It’s a great stretch of nature along Buffalo Bayou and you hardly feel like you are just minutes from the hustle & bustle of Katy Freeway. I also love Memorial Park.
I grew up in Central Mexico and didn’t see the ocean until I was about 9 years old, but it had a huge impact on me. I love the water – and I loved seafood from my first bite on that first trip to the ocean! – so I love the proximity to Coast that Houston offers. It’s nice to be able to hop in the car and drive less than an hour to spend a day or weekend at the beach. So I would say we would take a quick getaway to Galveston and enjoy the beach, grab a bite (Bennos for crabs, Katie’s Seafood), and maybe even treat ourselves to some ice cream at La King’s. We also like Gilhooley’s in San Leon.
For dining in Houston, Tracy and I love Goode Co. Seafood and probably go every other week if not more often. When I am not enjoying my brother Ruben’s pastries, including conchas, I get them at El Bolillo. I like Roegels BBQ and its putmaster Russell Roegel, and am always looking for great Peking duck. Brennan’s of Houston is my connection to Cajun and Creole cooking, and a place we like to celebrate special occasions with family. In fact, this is where I went after my U.S. citizenship ceremony!
Like painters work with paint on the canvas, chefs work with food on theirs, and I enjoy shopping for fresh produce. I love going to the Saturday farmers market but sometimes to get some of the more hard-to-find items, you have to go to Canino Produce Co.
Houstonians are lucky to have so many wonderful performing arts groups in our hometown, and I would look into what was playing while my guests were here and book tickets. In any given week, you can hear live music by local bands, Houston Symphony or Houston Grand Opera; take in a play at Alley Theatre or Talento Bilingüe de Houston; see a musical at The Hobby Center; or experience the great masters of art at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are so many people I have to be be thankful for and to and to give shoutouts to…my wife Tracy Vaught, my grandmother who taught me to cook, my instructors at HCC Culinary School. So many others!
Credits are in file name or you can use Courtesy H Town Restaurant Group