Hugo Ortega Takes Home James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award
On his sixth time of being a finalist in the category, chef Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi, finally landed the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Southwest award in Chicago last night. The annual awards ceremonies are considered the “Oscars of the food world.” Ted Allen, host of Food Network’s “Chopped” cooking competition show and wellness and fitness expert Laila Ali presented Ortega with the award.
“It is a great honor to be recognized by and among the top talents in culinary world,” said Ortega in his acceptance speech. “I am so very grateful, and accept this award on behalf of not just myself but my entire restaurant family, my loyal customers and the great city of Houston. I also accept in honor of all the hardworking men and women across the country who spend long hours on their feet working to serve others, working to make a name for themselves and create a better life for themselves and their families. “
Ortega grew up in a Mexico City slum, the oldest of eight children. He began working a young age to support his family, making homemade dulce de leche at the mercado, herding goats on the mountainside and selling fresh fruit juices and food prepared by his aunt in the busy streets of Mexico City. When he was 17, he left Mexico, determined to make a better life for himself in Houston.
He began work as a dishwasher and busboy to learn the fundamentals of the restaurant business and found people to help him improve his English. With an unexpected turn of bad luck, he found himself without work or a home. A friend took Ortega to Backstreet Cafe, where he found employment as a dishwasher/busboy, and it was there that the great opportunity of his life came.
Tracy Vaught, co-owner of Backstreet Cafe and Prego, was impressed with Ortega’s positive attitude and willingness to learn and offered him a position on the kitchen line. Hugo said later that at that time, he was determined to prove himself, and his own benchmark was being able to make the restaurant’s signature pecan-crusted chicken. He worked diligently and was promoted to the kitchen at Vaught’s other property, Prego.
Vaught offered to enroll Ortega in the culinary arts program at Houston Community College, from which he graduated in 1992. He became a chef at Backstreet Cafe, and executive chef in 1995. Vaught and Ortega got married, started a family and opened Hugo’s restaurant in 2002, serving authentic regional Mexican cuisine to celebrate the food of his homeland. Many years later, in 2013, the duo opened Caracol, a Mexican coastal kitchen. Even more recently, their Houston restaurant empire expanded again with the addition of Oaxacan restaurant Xochi in January 2017.
Ortega is also the author of two cookbooks: Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico, selected by Saveur magazine as one of just six “essential Mexican cookbooks; and Backstreet Kitchen: Recipes From Our Neighborhood Café.
He joins the ranks of only three other Houston chefs named James Beard Best Chef: Southwest. Robert De Grande of Café Annie took home the award in 1992, Chris Shepherd of Underbelly won in 2014 and Justin Yu of recently-closed Oxheart grabbed the honor last year.
Last night, in his award acceptance, Ortega said, “I dedicate this award to the great city of Houston. What can I say? America is beautiful and I’m living the dream.”