Year of Hugo Continues

Houston chef rises from humble beginnings to join pantheon of legendary Southern food icons

Beloved Houston chef joins pantheon of legendary Southern food icons

Hugo Ortega Ava Lowery Southern Foodways Alliance
Hugo Ortega with documentary filmmaker Ava Lowery at the Southern Foodways Alliance. Photo by Paula Murphy
Hugo Ortega Tracy Vaught Ruben Ortega Southern Foodways Alliance
Hugo Ortega, Tracy Vaught, Ruben Ortega, and a team of cooks at the Southern Foodways Alliance. Photo by Paula Murphy
Xochi entrance Hugo Ortega Tracy Vaught
A look inside Xochi, Ortega's acclaimed Oaxacan restaurant. Courtesy photo
Hugo Ortega Ava Lowery Southern Foodways Alliance
Hugo Ortega Tracy Vaught Ruben Ortega Southern Foodways Alliance
Xochi entrance Hugo Ortega Tracy Vaught

Hugo Ortega is having a memorable 2017. 

On Saturday, the Southern Foodways Alliance presented Ortega with its Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award. Given annually since 1999, the award recognizes "an individual whom all thinking eaters should know, the sort of person who has made an indelible mark upon our cuisine and our culture, the sort of person who has set regional standards and catalyzed national dialogues."

The theme of this year's SFA conference is "El Sur Latino," with presentations and study devoted to the contributions Latinos have made to modern Southern foodways. Winning the award puts Ortega in a pantheon of legendary Southern food icons that includes New Orleans restaurateur Ella Brennan, cookbook author Edna Lewis, and ham purveyor Allen Benton.  

The recognition is only the latest for Ortega, whose inspirational story of rising from dishwasher to chef-owner, tireless work ethic, and cheerful demeanor have made him a beloved figure in Houston. The chef earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest in his sixth year as a finalist. Xochi, the Oaxacan restaurant he and his wife/business partner Tracy Vaught opened in the Marriott Marquis hotel, has been hailed as one of America's best new restaurants.  

Recently, Ortega has been collaborating with acclaimed chef Michael Mina on the latest version of MINA Test Kitchen. Dubbed Mi Almita, the pop-up introduces Bay Area diners to Ortega's take on classic Mexican cooking. 

Mina will return the favor when he comes to Houston on October 28 to participate in the Chefs Unmasked fundraiser for the Greater Houston Restaurant Association's Houston Hospitality Employee Relief Fund. Other participating chefs include Chris Shepherd (Underbelly/One Fifth), Richard Sandoval (Bayou & Bottle), Ortega, and Danny Trace (Potente). Tickets are on sale now.

(Update 10/13: The SFA documentary about Ortega is now available online. Watch it below)

Hugo from Southern Foodways on Vimeo.