Optimism correspondent Dyar Bentz and chef Hugo Ortega, a Oaxaca native and 2017 winner of a James Beard Award, share a conversation about optimism + ambition.
The young Hugo Ortega struck north for America knowing no English, without contacts, and no arranged job opportunities. What followed was a remarkable rise from a gig as a late-night kitchen custodian to a James Beard Award-winning chef and top restaurateur. To explain his success, Hugo credits motivation from loved ones and an interminable dedication to exploring and promoting the traditional culture and cuisine of his home country, Mexico.
Dyar Bentz: I saw some old friends, and every single one of them freaked out when I said I was going to meet you. One friend specifically said, “If you care about food in Houston, then Hugo is your guy.”
Hugo Ortega: Thank you very much. We love this incredible city of foodies, you know. Here, it’s become a destination, believe it or not. Of course we believe in what we do, but now, the foodies, the millennials, they’re marching with us. It’s just an incredible movement when it comes to food, to culture … you have to know when it’s the time to move and be hands-on and be part of this incredible, wonderful city.
DB: So, we’re here in this Oaxaca–themed restaurant, which really excites me. I’ve spent about a month travelling through Oaxaca, so I’ve seen its culture and food and geography, all so fascinating. Let’s start there. I understand you spent some of your childhood in Oaxaca?
HO: I did. I was born in Mexico City, and at the age of seven or eight we moved to the countryside, right at the border of Oaxaca and Puebla. It was an incredible time in my life. Probably the most exciting and unique period. You just had to be part of what happened on a daily basis, and I ended up helping my grandmother.
My grandmother lost her husband at the tender age of 19, so she was a powerhouse. Very independent, very driven, nothing was impossible for her. We’d get up around 5:30 in the morning, put clay jars on my donkey, and we’d go down the hill and bring water for two hours solid. I was also a goat herder. I’d take close to 300 goats to the mountains for the day, come back around three, take the goats to drink water at the river, and then pasture the goats for an hour or so, then bring them to the corral. That was, more or less, my life.
DB: Moving down that timeline, I think you were a teenager when you immigrated to the United States?
HO: I was. You know, for all of us, at some point, it’s just time to move on and find yourself, find who you are. We had come back from the country, from Oaxaca, and it was time to move. For me, it was time for what we call, ‘vamos al norte,’ in search of opportunity.
DB: And you had no contacts or job opportunities lined up, right? What was your mentality? You were standing there, with just a backpack, looking at this big city. What was your headspace like?
HO: Well you know, I was completely lost. As you can imagine, I didn’t speak a word of English. When you come for opportunity, you embrace another culture, but, at the same time it’s very sad because, in my case, the Mexican culture, as you know, is very rich, and full of traditions. The little things—food, family—that were very difficult for me to leave behind.
DB: How was it finding that first job? I understand you were working in the back of a kitchen?
HO: There is always a spark, or a beginning, in your life, you’re good at something … so, I was a really good soccer player. I got the attention of this friend of mine, he invited me to play with his team, and eventually, one of those friends invited me to my first restaurant. I was a janitor there. I worked nights, cleaning the kitchen, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., and that’s what I did for a while. That was my first experience adjusting to my new city.
DB: 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. So you were working all night?
HO: All night, cleaning that kitchen. It’s tough. You build character. At that point, I didn’t think about how tough it was. I was more happy that I had a job. I didn’t worry much about the schedule, or those kind of things.
“You know, for all of us, at some point, it’s just time to move on and find yourself—find who you are.”
DB: OK, and from there, it’s essentially been *rocket blast-off noise*. Can you describe how it’s been, going from working those night shifts cleaning the kitchen to winner of the James Beard award for Southwest Chef of the Year?
HO: Well, you have incredible people in your life. And I have my wonderful and beautiful wife, Tracy, and she always pushed me to do better. Some years ago she told me, you know, you can do it. I still remember the first time she said, why don’t you cook the food of your own country? I remember thinking, oh my God, that’s a lot of work! I knew from living in the mountains that it was hard work. But at the same time, Tracy said, “Somebody’s going to do it. Why not you?”
So she put a lot of fire in my guts and, you know, that’s the thing that I pursued … and that is a very rewarding feeling. It’s something I will carry with me. I will also carry the incredible responsibility of the heritage that I inherit from being Mexican, to have the opportunity to cook the wonderful food of my country.
DB: And to share it with everyone.
HO: Absolutely. I share it with everybody.
DB: Very cool. So, when you look back at yourself as a young kid, working here, trying to figure things out, and then you look at yourself now, what’s changed? And what’s the same?
HO: Now that I’m older, I know that my grandmother was a disciplinarian. She was always very on point, you know. It was difficult for her to laugh. And I understand that she was carrying this incredible responsibility to be an independent person … so that was something that I learned. I am still Hugo Ortega, the goat herder, but I am still Hugo Ortega [of] today, I understand my responsibilities and I understand what I need to do to continue to drive, and continue to be a part of this wonderful city and country, and to continue to help, and to embrace my heritage.
I can say today that Houston, culturally speaking, is much richer than any time in history. And that’s wonderful to see. To live it, and, you know, to be able to contribute to that, and help to build the incredible culture that this wonderful city thrives on. The most diverse city in America. I’m just so happy to be participating and to embrace the responsibility.
DB: That’s perfect, my next question was just that, about Houston being such an international city. So I’d like to know, what is the Houston effect? How has Houston shaped your cooking?
HO: Houstonians are not afraid to give a hand to the stranger. To give a hand to the immigrant. Houstonians are very open to that. I remember in the early years, when I came, I was scared. You know, everybody is so different, in every way…and I was thinking, how am I going to fit into that? But you know, the principle of this country, we are full of immigrants. I could not have come to a better city in this wonderful country than Houston. They give you a hand, give you opportunity, and that’s one of the reasons everybody wants to come over here. People are willing to give you a hand, give you a chance to do something with your life.