There’s a secret sauce bubbling in the Houston restaurant world, a differentiator which sets it apart from the glitzy kitchens of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
The hidden ingredient?
“I think, without any doubt, it’s the diversity,” says chef Hugo Ortega, the 2017 James Beard Award-winning chef who rules the city’s enviable culinary scene.
It’s a difficult point to argue. Picture something quintessentially American: A vanilla ice cream cone. Its story isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
Ancient Mesoamerican cultures were the first to cultivate the vine of the vanilla orchid, incorporating the aromatic caviar of seeds and pulp into their food and drink. They shared their concoctions with Spanish explorers in the early 1500s, who were so taken with the spicy, fragrant flavor that they brought bushels of the shriveled black beans back to Europe, where their popularity spread. The pods found their way to France, and eventually into the hands of an inventive chef who whipped up the pulp with sugar, cream, and egg yolks, then stirred it over a bath of ice and salt—a technique borrowed from fourteenth-century China—until it solidified into ice cream. Some fifty or a hundred years later, a traveling Thomas Jefferson purchased a scoop, fell in love, and brought the recipe back across the Atlantic. It was another 120 years before an enterprising Syrian concessionaire rolled up a thin zalabia pastry at the St. Louis World’s Fair and handed it to the ice cream vendor next door. Finally, an American classic was born.
History—of food, of painting, of government—is awash in such stories. Behind every new idea, every new dish, lies a lineage of individual ingredients and practices that come together to create something wholly unique—something better than the sum of each composite part.
Such is life in Houston, a living, breathing symphony of ideas that has fast grown into one of America’s foremost cultural and economic powerhouses.
Houston is characterized by its status as the most diverse city in the country, and visitors can scarcely travel the length of a city block without seeing an array of cultural markets and boutiques, hearing the thud of chopped-and-screwed music from a car whizzing down the road, or smelling the enticing aromas emanating from a multitude of restaurants. It’s this strength, in particular, that has put Houston on the map. Ours is a culinary city.
“The diversity of this wonderful city is what has opened it up to international flavors, to accepting people from different parts of the world,” chef Ortega purports—and he knows firsthand about Houston’s capacity for acceptance.
Hugo left his native Mexico when he was just 17 years old, arriving to “a beautiful spring day” in Houston after a harrowing overnight journey. It was 1982, and Ortega was just one face in a crowd of over 100,000 undocumented immigrants flocking to Bayou City following the economic boom of the late 1970s. He did not know the language; he did not have a job; he did not come with family. His early years in the U.S. were lonely, full of odd jobs and a fair share of frustration. But Hugo was determined not to give up.
The Stars Align
“I was hungry to do something with my life. I needed to ‘make it,’” he recalls.
Five long years after he made his way to the city, Hugo found his chance. In the spring of 1987, he arrived at the back door of Backstreet Café, a fledgling bistro set in a charming 1930s home in River Oaks, unaware of the Shakespearean twist his life was about to undergo. He applied for a job as a dishwasher and was hired by Backstreet’s owner, Tracy Vaught.
“You know, that was the turn of my life,” Hugo muses—not something many people can say of their first day washing dishes. Of course she didn’t know it at the time, but it was the turn of Tracy’s, too.
Vaught had walked away from a budding geology career a few years prior. “I just found myself looking out the window a lot, and thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I wasn’t inside this high-rise building. I wish I was walking around in the sun,’” she remembers.
Tracy began to develop her interest in cooking, and when she found the perfect location for her concept, she gave her uncle a call. “I asked him if he would help me, and what did he think, and he said, ‘Oh yeah, you’ve got to follow your dream.’”
Hugo puts it simply: “Tracy is a rebel.” And Backstreet Cafe was a good place for rebels to dream.
Hugo worked his way up through the Backstreet kitchen, progressing from dishwasher to line cook to grill operator to the sauté pans.
“Backstreet is very close to my heart,” he shares. “Every corner has so much history. The patio is like my second home. So it means everything to me. And I hope that we’ll stay here for another 100 years. There’s a lot of love here.”
Love for cooking, certainly—but Hugo and Tracy formed a connection, too.
“We had a company party down at the beach,” Tracy recalls. “All the employees came down, so that was where I got to know him more on a personal level.”
“It was very romantic,” Hugo enthuses over Tracy’s protestations. The two struck up a relationship shortly thereafter.
Ever his biggest supporter, Tracy put Hugo through culinary school at Houston Community College. Hugo graduated in 1991; he and Tracy married three years later. Today, their business, H Town Restaurant Group, owns four of Houston’s most acclaimed restaurants: Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi. Xochi, Ortega’s latest triumph, is a swank new concept located downtown in the Marriott Marquis, serving traditional Oaxacan cuisine elevated to dazzling contemporary heights. It was recently named the best restaurant in town in the Houston Chronicle’s annual report.
Taking Passion from Authenticity
Hugo’s ascendancy is one that few could have seen coming—the kind of pull-yourself-up story that Hollywood dreams of. His journey from undocumented immigrant to dishwasher to award-winning Executive Chef and head of a blossoming restaurant empire is nothing short of inspirational. But beneath each uniform he wore, his heart beat with a love for food that can be traced to his earliest days.
Hugo was born in Mexico City, but moved to the mountains of Oaxaca to live with his grandmother when he was seven years old. “It was such an incredible transition for me. I went from being a city boy to being alone in the mountains with 300 goats!” he recalls.
“There was no electricity, there was no running water,” he continues. “I traveled with my donkey about half a mile to get water from a well. My duties started at six o’clock in the morning. I remember my grandmother, a great individual, being on her knees and working the metate to grind masa from corn to make tortillas.”
His younger brother Ruben, who joined Hugo in Houston in 1990 and eventually became the Executive Pastry Chef of H Town Restaurant Group, learned his own love of cooking through the same familial channels. “My aunt used to bake bread, make barbacoa, and sell the food in the market. My grandmother was an excellent cook. She was the one who had all the recipes for the moles, all the recipes for the food that they made in the village.”
“That’s how we learned it, got the passion for it,” Ruben explains. “My aunt used to make her dough in a hollow tree—the old-fashioned way, how it was done in Mexico. So we take our passion from that.”
It’s a passion that’s evident in everything the Ortega family does—from the delicate interplay of flavors on display at each of their restaurants to the meticulous handcrafting of ingredients in the traditional Mexican style.
“We wanted to do what was right to do,” Ruben says. “We make our own cheeses, all our moles are made in-house, our chocolate… Everything is produced in the most classic way, the way we grew up doing it.”
Ever in pursuit of authenticity, Hugo and Ruben travelled to Mexico to procure a stone grinder, the tool of choice for grinding cacao beans into the bitter, earthy paste behind the world’s favorite dessert: chocolate. “That’s how they do it in Mexico, so that’s how we do it here,” Ruben proudly declares.
That refrain echoes across all of their kitchens, but its call is particularly clear at Xochi (“so-chee”), which opened its doors to immediate acclaim in January of 2017. “Xochi is dedicated to the great Oaxacan cuisine,” Hugo proclaims.“Oaxaca is just a jewel, culturally and gastronomically speaking. I go over there often and get inspired.”
His inspiration is evident throughout Xochi’s menu, which is studded with Oaxacan staples like masa, chiles, and squash. Above all else, it is a rhapsodic ode to mole, the versatile sauce that underpins the region’s cooking.
“Mole is the essential,” Hugo declares. He references a Oaxacan nickname, “The Land of Seven Moles.” But he’s quick to point out that whoever coined the phrase underestimated—there are far more than seven moles in Oaxaca. In fact, there are seven moles featured on Xochi’s Saturday brunch menu alone.
“Mole comes in many different flavors, textures, colors, ingredients,” he explains. “There’s an incredible number of moles. If you hear a person say, ‘Oh no, I don’t like mole,’ it’s because they have never tried yellow mole, or green mole.” Or fig mole, a delightful invention currently gracing the menu at Xochi.
“I have a fig tree in the parking lot of Hugo’s, and I was sick and tired of the birds taking the figs,” Hugo remembers. “I said, ‘I need to figure out something with those figs.’ So I got inspired and created a mole recipe and we’re serving that.”
It’s one of many such stories of culinary ingenuity. “In the alley behind Backstreet Cafe, there is this beautiful bougainvillea,” Hugo shares. “So one day I looked at it and said, ‘What can I do with that?’ So I made a little sauce with bougainvillea, and now I infuse our salt with the bougainvillea flower.”
“It’s always like that, you know, when you have an opportunity to create a dish,” he reflects. “You’re just looking everywhere to see what connects. And you find inspiration everywhere.”
“I like to listen,” chef Hugo goes on. “I learn from everybody, every day of my life. I learn from the dishwasher. I learn from the waiter, the busboy. Those people, at some point in my life, I was one of them. So it’s very meaningful for me to listen to them, to pay attention to what they tell me.”
Hugo’s strong connection to the people with whom he works transcends borders. In 2016, H Town Restaurant Group partnered with chef Rodolfo Castellanos, whose Oaxaca City restaurant, Origen, serves local, sustainable cuisine to its guests. “I pay attention to what Rodolfo says and maintain a close contact with the people of Oaxaca,” Hugo relates. “When you go to Oaxaca, it’s like going back in time. The people are friendly, and the city of Oaxaca is very mystic—it celebrates life, and there is always something going on.”
The diversity of this wonderful city is what has opened it up to international flavors, to accepting people from different parts of the world.
James Beard and Beyond
Hugo knows a thing or two about always having something going on. 2017 was the year of Hugo Ortega in Houston: Just over three months after Xochi opened its doors, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, becoming the first Mexican-born chef to take home the culinary equivalent of an Oscar. He was the third Houston chef to bring down the prize in four years, following Chris Shepherd in 2014 and Justin Yu in 2016.
To chef Shepherd, the trio of Houston winners share a common bond. “I think the three of us represent Houstonians and the kind of food people want to eat. I also believe that all three of us are inspired by the city itself,” he says. “Hugo highlights the Mexican culture from the region he’s from. It opened a lot of people’s eyes about authentic Mexican food—not Tex-Mex, not a fusion cuisine of some sort. And he cooks from the heart, and it shows.”
Fellow chefs aren’t the only ones bestowing accolades. On June 20th, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner paid tribute to one of his city’s most successful sons, declaring it Chef Hugo Ortega Day in Bayou City.
Hugo was here when his city needed him most, too. When Hurricane Harvey’s inundatory rainwater displaced thousands of Houstonians and shuttered many businesses for weeks, Hugo and his team were back in the kitchen as soon as possible, working to serve their people.
“We opened up three of the four restaurants on Tuesday after the storm, and one on Wednesday,” Tracy recalls.
“We did it with a lot of love and support of our city,” Hugo adds. “It’s what makes us who we are. At the end of the day, we’re cooks. I felt a sense of responsibility to somehow get together and cook for a great city.”
Houston holds their star chef in the same high regard: Three of his restaurants grace the Houston Chronicle’s list of the city’s best.
Celebrating a year—and a lifetime—of extraordinary achievements, chef Hugo shares a satisfyingly authentic approach. “The only thing you can do is trust yourself,” he says. “Trust your flavors, trust all of those hours that you have put in this wonderful culinary world. And the most important thing: Trust your heart.”
Featured image by Debora Smail, courtesy of H Town Restaurant Group