Chef Hugo Ortega 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 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. Step by step, Ortega set down roots in the bustling oil capital of Houston, Texas. He found employment as a dishwasher, busboy, and office cleaner and worked to improve his English.
After an unexpected turn of bad luck and unemployment, a friend took Ortega to Backstreet Café, where he found employment as a dishwasher and busboy. It was at Backstreet Café, according to the chef, “the great opportunity of my life came.” Tracy Vaught, owner of Backstreet Café and Prego, was impressed with Ortega’s positive attitude and willingness to learn. Ortega worked diligently, familiarizing himself with every aspect of the kitchen. Vaught not only promoted him to the kitchen at Prego, but offered to enroll Ortega in the Culinary Arts program at Houston Community College; he graduated in 1992 and assumed the role of chef at Backstreet Café, where he became executive chef in 1995. Ortega became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
In July 2002, Ortega and Vaught—who married in 1994—opened a third restaurant concept, Hugo’s, serving regional Mexican cuisine. With the opening of Hugo’s, Ortega journeyed full-circle to rediscover the foods of his homeland. Since opening, Hugo’s has been lauded by local, regional, and national media, including being named a “Top Table” by Bon Appetit, and making both the “Where to Eat Now in 30 American Cities” and “Restaurants We Love” lists in Gourmet. Ortega also has made two guest chef appearances at the James Beard House in New York City.