Hugo Ortega is the Executive Chef/Co-Owner of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s and Caracol, three of Houston’s most critically acclaimed restaurants.
A five-time finalist (2012-16) for the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest, Ortega was born in Mexico City, the oldest of a family of eight children. In 1984, he immigrated to Houston with a cousin and a friend – with no contacts or job leads, determined to make a life for himself in America.
After a series of low-paying jobs and unemployment, Ortega found work at Backstreet Cafe as a dishwasher/busboy. His positive attitude, hard work and dedication made such an impression on Backstreet owner Tracy Vaught that she offered to enroll him in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College. Ortega graduated in 1992 and assumed the role of chef at Backstreet Cafe, becoming Executive Chef in 1995. He and Vaught were married in 1994, and in 1997 had their first child. Ortega became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
In July 2002, Ortega and Vaught opened Hugo’s. The restaurant was named a “Top Table” by Bon Appetit and “Where to Eat Now in 30 American Cities” and one of the “Restaurants We Love” by Gourmet. Ortega’s poignant life story has been featured extensively 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 magazine. Caracol opened to widespread critical acclaim in 2013.
Q&A with Chef Hugo Ortega
Biggest influences as a chef: My mother and grandmother. They cooked everything the traditional way. They ground their own chocolate, made their own cheese and made sauces and tortillas from scratch daily, just like we do at the restaurant. Each day, they went to the molino in the center of town to get their nixtamal ground into masa, made their own cheese, etc. We had a small farm and grew our own vegetables and peanuts. That influenced my cooking profoundly.
Why Houston is a great place to have your restaurant: Its proximity to Mexico helps us acquire the necessary ingredients for our food.
What makes Houston special: Houstonians are basically entrepreneurial. They appreciate and understand risk-taking. We are the most diverse city in the U.S. There is something for everyone here. Houstonians are not as class-conscious as some other cities. It’s wide open – almost an Old West approach and mentality. Anyone can make it here if they have the drive and the tools.
What you try to convey about the city/region with your menu: In whatever I do, I want it to have a sense of place. I want it to be anchored and to tell a story. I love Houston and appreciate the warm welcome I have received here more than 30 years ago and the love that I feel from the city to this day. I want what I to be worthy of their support and love.
Last meal in Houston before leaving town, first meal upon returning: Last meal is usually a new place I haven’t tried. The excitement of upcoming travel spurs me on to try a place I have been meaning to try. The first meal when I come back to town is something I’ve been missing. It is usually Gulf seafood – we have such great shrimp and crab here!