No more calling Hugo Ortega the Susan Lucci of the James Beard Best Chef: Southwest award. In his sixth year as a finalist, Ortega, the chef-owner of Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Caracol, and Xochi, finally followed through on Bum Phillip’s famous promise to kick the son of a bitch in.
Ortega’s victory at Monday night's ceremony in Chicago means that three out of the last four winners of the award, considered to be the Oscars of the American culinary community, have come from Houston. He joins Chris Shepherd (Underbelly, 2014) and Justin Yu (Oxheart, 2016) in the elite club. Let there be no doubt Houston has cemented its status as the best dining city in Texas.
May 1, 2017 at 6:57pm PDT
The odds seemed stacked against Ortega. National food website Eater picked San Antonio chef Steve McHugh (Cured), writing “This is the chef’s second nom, and most Best Chef winners win by their third. Chefs nominated more than that have slimmer odds, and both (Austin chef Brice) Gilmore and Ortega have five or more nominations.”
Thankfully, no one told Ortega he wasn’t supposed to win on his sixth try. Then again, his life story has consisted of overcoming improbable odds. His rise to the top of Houston’s culinary scene is a classic American tale.
The chef immigrated to this country and started working as a dishwasher at Backstreet Cafe. He showed some aptitude in the kitchen and eventually made his way to culinary school. Along the way, he fell in love with Backstreet’s owner Tracy Vaught. Together, they built the H Town Restaurant Group that operates some of Houston's best restaurants.
Despite all the acclaim, Ortega remains one of the all time nice guys in Houston’s culinary community. Ortega and Vaught’s restaurants achieve high marks for quality and consistency.
"What can I say," Ortega said during his acceptance speech. "America is beautiful and I'm living the dream. Thank you."
After all Ortega has done to make Houston a better city to eat in, it’s the city that should be thanking him.