When Chef Hugo Ortega first arrived in Houston from Mexico, and began working at Backstreet Café,, he wasn't a chef yet. And he wasn't owner Tracey Vought's husband. (Today, the couple is the team behind Backstreet Café, Hugo's, Prego and Carcoal.) All that would come later. His first job with the restaurant was as a dishwasher.
But he was determined to prove himself. And he wanted to learn to cook.
"I was just beginning to learn to cook," he said. "And this was the signature dish on the menu - it still is. We sell probably 150 a week. So, I really wanted to make sure I knew how to do it and do it right."
The recipe is fairly simple. It's chicken, dipped in an egg wash, breaded with flour, crushed pecans, Parmesan cheese and salt and pepper, sautéed and then finished off in the oven, then topped with a roasted red pepper sauce and served with whipped potatoes and spinach done in garlic and olive oil. The biggest challenge Ortega had in learning how to make it was to keep the chicken from sticking to the pan. So, what's the secret? Getting the pan really hot.
"I learned to heat up the pan first, then heat the oil before putting the chicken in it," he says. "And it's just a quick saute, so it gets crispy, not soggy."
For Ortega, learning the dish was about more than just learning to cook. It was about learning something that was deeply Southern, and American, to him. The pecan-crusted chicken had been on the menu since Backstreet Café opened, and it was a legacy item.
"I'm so proud of that recipe, even though it isn't mine," he says. (It was conceived by Jon Watt, the chef over at Prego). "There are so many elements to it. It's simple, but complex. And I always wanted to learn new things. I still do."
For Ortega, the dish has come to represent a time of new beginnings in his life, and he says it's helped him recall the young man he was. Even today, if he's at Backstreet and sees the chicken come through on the orders, he will occasionally jump in and make it himself.
"It's taken me a lifetime to get it perfect," he laughs. "And for me, cooking and life go together.