This weekend, a group of acclaimed food and beverage personalities will flock to Austin for the third annual Austin Food & Wine Festival, including Hugo Ortega of Hugo’s, Backstreet Café, and Caracol in Houston. Below, Ortega discusses whom he feels should win the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef Southwest award, his personal culinary evolution, and seeing the Houston culinary scene transform before his eyes.
Layne Lynch: The Austin culinary scene is continuing to draw a lot of national attention. What do you think is going on in Austin that’s inspiring such creativity?
Hugo Ortega: I think it has the same vibrant energy that Houston’s culinary scene does right now. Austin has a nice mix of groundbreaking chefs doing new things, such as Paul Qui, the guys at Foreign & Domestic, and those that are making traditional Texas food like Franklin BBQ.
LL: You were recently nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award. I’m going to ask you a big hypothetical, so humor me: If you don’t win for Best Chef Southwest, who should and why?
HO: I would root for my fellow chefs from Houston: Justin Yu and Chris Shepherd.
LL: You’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time now. How would you say you’ve evolved as a chef from when you started to where you are now?
HO: I’ve learned from other chefs, traveling, taking classes at the Culinary Institute of America, learning from teachers in Mexico like Diana Kennedy and Susanna Trilling, reading books, and going to symposiums. I graduated from Houston Community College Culinary School, and my teachers there taught me a lot as well. I learn from everyone I meet. It has definitely made me a more well-rounded chef.
LL: Tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing at the Austin Food and Wine Festival.
HO: I’m making Garnachas de Tingo de Conejo – sweet potato masa cakes with rabbit stew. Tinga is a typical Mexican topping native to the state of Puebla that is made with finely shredded ground pork, beef, or chicken and stewed in a mild tomato-chipotle pepper sauce. I do my own interpretation and use rabbit instead – the way my mother prepared it at home. One of my favorite ways to eat tinga is either as a topping on garnachas, which are these delicious thick crispy potato-masa cakes, or on tostadas.
LL: The Houston culinary scene is becoming just as big a culinary hot spot as Austin. What are the similarities you notice between the two cities?
HO: Yes, Houston is very hot right now. There are opportunities opening up for both the first-time restaurateur and seasoned veterans. Houston is in a boom cycle, and I hope it lasts! We have diversified since the boom and bust days of the 1980s and the economy is much more stable. Austin also has a diversified economy, and that provides a stronger foundation for business growth. Real estate prices are rising fast though, and that worries me. Both cities have a lot of cultural diversity that, luckily, has an impact on the restaurants. You can dine globally in both Houston and Austin without leaving the city limits.
LL: If you were going to open another restaurant, why type of establishment would you go with and why?
HO: I am so busy with our current restaurants right now that I am not considering anything at the moment. But you never know…