Hugo Ortega: From Busboy to Best Chef

The Oscars of the culinary world are coming up next week. The James Beard Foundation awards are one of the highest honors for chefs in this country. This year — a Houston chef is nominated as a finalist to be named one of the best chefs in America.

Hugo Ortega is dressed in his chef's whites, drinking coffee from a styrofoam cup in his kitchen at Backstreet Cafe.

"I'm just going to follow you around and get you to just kind of give me a tour."

"Okay."

He's clearly at home here, his face lighting up as he shows the fridge full of gulf seafood and array of fresh sauces and ingredients.

"Right now this is to make our ice creams. We make our own ice creams here, every single flavor — we have, I don't know, ten different flavors."

"Is that what he's working on right now?"

"Yes, we're beating the egg yolks with sugar and we're going to temper that with the hot milk that we have over there on the stoves. Then we're just going to add the flavor, whether it's chocolate or chicory..."

The cozy restaurant on S. Shepherd in River Oaks is famous for it's cobblestone courtyard and French Quarter vibe.

Ortega immigrated to Houston from Mexico as a teenager. When he was about 16, he got hired by Backstreet Owner Tracy Vaught to work as a dishwasher. Vaught started giving him more responsibility, from dishwasher to busboy, to prep work in the kitchen, eventually sending him to HCC's Culinary Arts program.

"The kitchen, it was easy to feel good. You learn something right now and then tomorrow you are doing it, right? So it's a very easy transition from to learn something and then put it on the plate, or produce in this case at Backstreet, make it 500 times."

He worked his way up to executive chef and owner. He also married Tracy Vaught, saying he knew there was something special about her from the moment they met.

In 2002, they opened another restaurant, Hugo's, in Montrose. The focus is regional Mexican cuisine. It's an area where Ortega gets to take some culinary risks, for example, pan sauteed grasshoppers rolled up into little tacos, or braised rabbit cooked in a banana leaf. Ortega says he was terrified that Houstonians, with their passion for tex-mex, would hate it. Turns out, they loved it.

"We opened on a Thursday and then by Saturday night we didn't have any food to serve."

Chef Hugo had to close his infant restaurant at 8 p.m. that Saturday and spent a frenzied 24 hours making extra barbacoa, cabrito and half a dozen mole sauces.

"Every mole, every recipe calls for close to 20 ingredients to put one recipe together. So from toasting and charring, to make the chocolate, to put the last ingredient Mole Poblano, for example, it's ... it was complex."

It's that kind of cooking that got him noticed by the James Beard Foundation.  

Ortega will fly to New York this weekend and find out next Monday whether he will be named Best Chef of the Southwest. He's up against five other chefs from the Colorado, Arizona and Texas.

If he does win, he says he's ready for all the attention, and crowds, the award will bring. And if he doesn't win, he says he's already received all the appreciation he needs from the city that gave him a chance.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...