Hugo Ortega on Being a James Beard Semifinalist

Tue February 26, 2013 6:15 pm

Last Tuesday, the James Beard Foundation announced its list of semifinalists for the 2013 James Beard Awards, a yearly awards ceremony that honors outstanding restaurants, bars, restaurateurs, chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, sommeliers, and food journalists across the nation.

Texas sealed an impressive 25 nominations on the preliminary list, featuring such chefs as Uchi's Tyson Cole, Stephan Pyles, and more. The finalists will be announced on March 18, and a gala ceremony to announce the winners is on May 6 in New York City.

To commemorate the Oscars of the food world,  Texas Monthly spoke with a few of the Texas nominees about the James Beard experience. Here, Hugo Ortega, a semifinalist for Best Chef Southwest, details what it's like to lose to Paul Qui, his admiration for Houston's culinary scene, and his plans for Hugo's in 2013.

Layne Lynch: This isn't your first James Beard recognition. You were nominated for Best Chef Southwest last year, and Paul Qui ended up winning. Tell me a bit about the James Beard experience and what it's like to be recognized. How does it change you or your work?

Hugo Ortega: It was exciting to go to the James Beard Awards and see all these famous chefs, writers, and restaurateurs, and to be included among them. It was one of the biggest honors of my life. I felt a big responsibility to do my best every day to make sure I was worthy of the recognition that I had been given. I felt like I needed to raise the bar for myself.

LL: What do you think it is that makes you and Hugo's warrant this type of national recognition? Is it creativity? Pushing the envelope? Thinking outside the box? What's the secret?

HO: I’m not sure of the criteria the judges use and I don’t know of any secrets other than hard work, dedication, and humility. My team and I work very hard to keep the menu at Hugo’s interesting but always remaining true to the authentic foods of Mexico. You won't ever find foams and geléeson the dishes here, but diners often discover ingredients and dishes they have never seen or heard of before. It's fun to watch people try something new and react to it, whether they love it or not. We love to watch diners push their culinary envelope with our menu.

LL: You recently released a cookbook and you're possibly about to be nominated for another James Beard. What's next for you and Hugo's?

HO: Last year was such a great year in so many ways, and I'm so thankful. It makes me want to work harder. I’m currently working on a cookbook for Backstreet Cafe to commemorate its thirty years in business. It will be released later this year, and I plan on travelling to Mexico several times this year to learn more about lesser-known regional dishes. I look forward to recreating those [new] dishes for our diners.

LL: Houston is experiencing a lot of innovation in its culinary scene right now. How have you seen it change in the past two years? What do you think is driving all this change and evolution?

HO: Yes, Houston is an exciting place to cook and live right now. A lot of young chefs are coming of age and opening their own places. There's so much creativity and energy. There has also been a new respect for small ethnic restaurants, of which Houston has many. There are many chefs I admire. Chef Kaiser [Lashkari] of Himalaya is such a smart man and his food is so good; his rich complex sauces remind me of Mexican cooking with different spices. I love what Justin Yu and his wife are doing at Oxheart with local vegetables. Bryan Caswell is translating his love of fishing in the Gulf as a child into a great seafood restaurant, Reef. Chris Shepherd supports small ethnic eateries with his local farm-to-table restaurant, [Underbelly]. Morgan Weber and Ryan Pera opened Revival Market, selling locally sourced products and prepared foods, which is a huge leap of faith. These new chefs are bringing a lot of attention to Houston, but the path was paved by chefs such as Robert Del Grande, Mark Cox, and Marco Wiles, all of whom I admire immensely as well. H-Town is the place to dine.

LL: How do you keep the creativity flowing at Hugo's?

HO: Mexico is filled with so many flavors and culinary traditions, so I don’t think I will ever run out of things to share at the restaurant. Collaborating with my brother, Ruben, our pastry chef, and traveling around Mexico are the main ways that I keep my creative juices flowing. I also try to visit with my good friend and mentor Diana Kennedy each January.

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