Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe
HOUSTON . . . Hugo Ortega, executive chef/co-owner of Hugo’s and Backstreet Cafe and a three-time finalist for James Beard Foundation Awards (2012, 2013 & 2014), was born in Mexico City, the oldest of a family of eight children. At 15, he began working at one of several Procter & Gamble factories in Mexico to help support his family. “In Mexico, we have a saying, ‘If you’re born poor, you’ll die poor,’” says the eldest Ortega. “I knew I wanted more from my life.”
In 1984, Ortega immigrated to Houston with a cousin and a friend. He had no contacts or job leads, but was determined to make a life for himself in America. “My family has always had a strong work ethic,” he says. “And I strongly believe that if you work hard, people will respect you.”
Slowly, step-by-step, Ortega began to set down roots in the bustling oil capitol. He shared an apartment with several friends, and followed up on leads for jobs in nearby restaurants. He was happy to find his first job, as a dishwasher, at a popular bar and nightclub. While the pay was meager, Ortega grabbed at the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of the restaurant business and find contacts to help him improve his English.
Later, he moved on to a downtown Houston restaurant as busboy during the day and, at night, he cleaned the floors in office buildings to supplement his income. “I was fortunate to have two steady-paying jobs,” recalls Ortega. When his friends in Houston planned to move to California, he opted to stay in Houston. With an unexpected turn of bad luck, Ortega found himself without work.
“It was a very bad time for me,” Ortega remembers. “Most of my friends had moved away, I was out of work and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.” A friend took Hugo to Backstreet Cafe, where he found employment as a dishwasher/busboy. It was at Backstreet Cafe tat, according to the chef, “the great opportunity of my life came.”
Tracy Vaught, owner of Backstreet Cafe and Prego, was impressed with Ortega’s positive attitude and willingness to learn. She thought he showed a great deal of promise and offered him a position on the line in the kitchen. He worked diligently, familiarizing himself with every aspect of the kitchen and was soon promoted to the kitchen at Prego, where he worked side-by-side with Executive Chef John Watt. Impressed by his hard work and dedication, Vaught offered to enroll Ortega in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College. He jumped in with both feet.