Originally from Mexico, Chef Hugo Ortega immigrated to the United States working as a night janitor and dishwasher in restaurants, gradually becoming a line cook in Houston in 1990. “I worked on my English skills and was able to graduate from Houston Community College Culinary Program and I became a working chef at Backstreet Café in 1992,” says Ortega.
After apprenticing at Rick Bayless’ restaurant, Frontera Grill in Chicago and El Bajio in Mexico City, Ortega travelled back to Mexico to ‘re-familiarize’ himself with the regional cuisine. The detailed preparations in Ortega’s food are unquestionably meticulous— making fresh queso fresco, roasting cocoa beans, and grinding blue corn—all intended to add authenticity to his regional Mexican cuisine at Hugo’s. Ortega proudly adds “we serve chapulines (fried grasshoppers) here. We don’t use any bar mixes – we hand juice approximately ten to twelve cases of limes per week and make our own simple syrup.
We are the largest purchaser of squash blossoms in the U.S. when they are in season and we seek out seasonal produce in limited supply at farmers market like chipiles (a type of green), quelitas (wild spinach), and popalos (summer cilantro) to bring in.” Ortega’s love of regional Mexican cuisine originates from his own family’s cooking as well as what he has learnt from other Mexican cooks.
His staff is eager to serve diners with warm hospitality, something Ortega attributes to the fact that the majority of workers are of Hispanic descent. “This is the food they grew up eating and I hope we are honouring it at Hugo’s. I think it is fun for them to explain the menu to our customers. I think they feel they are representing Mexico,” he gushes.
The vibrancy at Hugo’s is perhaps the greatest representation of Chef Ortega himself. As he puts it, “Being a chef is a creative outlet and it makes people happy. That is rewarding.”
This is an excerpt of an original article. For more about Chef Hugo Ortega see the Winter 2010 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.