2017 was a pretty remarkable year for Houston chef Hugo Ortega, Eater’s chef of the year. Just before Super Bowl madness descended on Space City in January of last year, Ortega and his restaurateur wife Tracy Vaught opened the much-anticipated Oaxacan restaurant Xochi. May brought a James Beard Award in the Best Chef: Southwest category.
It was his sixth consecutive year as a finalist and only win, a long-delayed recognition of the vibrance and diversity of Houston’s culinary scene. “For the chef who wins it, more than anything, it’s the effort of so many people. It was the effort of my city,” Ortega tells Eater. “Houstonians want me to win, and that’s for the ages. To be where we are and then to be able to serve the people in this wonderful city, I am full of gratitude for that. Houston stood behind us and pushed us to win.”
For Ortega, the real shining moment of 2017 was throwing open the doors at Xochi, a restaurant that would eventually go on to earn a spot on Eater critic Bill Addison’s list of the country’s best new restaurants, and play a large role in Ortega being named Eater Houston’s 2017 Chef of the Year. The restaurant was also a semifinalist for a 2018 James Beard Award in the Best New Restaurant category, but was not named a finalist. With the last twelve months behind him, the effervescent and relentlessly friendly chef is as dedicated as ever to spreading the gospel of Oaxacan cuisine in Houston and beyond.
His grandmother was born in Oaxaca, and Ortega spent about four years living with her as a kid. “We didn’t have running water. I put my clay pots on my donkey and went down the hill to get water from the well and tending goats,” he says. “My grandma told me the more you love the land, the earth, the more that the earth will give you. It was so meaningful to me that at some point in my life I was able to open this restaurant. I was very passionate and very interested in putting on the plat what she taught me about how to value life and land and ingredients and people.”
To replicate the intricately layered flavors that are a hallmark of Oaxacan cuisine, Ortega works with a distributor in Mexico that he’s known since Hugo’s opened to import dozens of the ingredients in his dishes directly from the region. Pasilla, chilhuacle, and costeno rojo chiles (among several others) are shipped in frequently, along with a variety of herbs and perhaps most importantly, the cacao used in desserts at Xochi and Ortega’s other restaurants.
Most recently, Ortega has begun importing corn from the region. But despite his years of learning and studying and cooking the cuisine, Ortega still believes that he’s only scratched the surface. He points to Oaxaca’s diverse and unique regions, and the different ingredients that grow there. “We still have a lot to learn, and a lot to bring to the table,” he says. “It’s humbling, in a way, that life put me on this path to be able to bring these flavors, herbs, and traditions to Houston and wherever else I can take this wonderful cuisine.”
Ortega is already looking to Los Angeles as the next destination for his uniquely Houston riff on Oaxacan cuisine. Later this year, he’ll open Mi Almita alongside celebrity chef Michael Mina at The Beverly Center in Los Angeles, giving a permanent home to the restaurant that was born in Mina’s San Francisco test kitchen. Ortega knows that Los Angeles is already packed with a bounty of excellent Oaxacan eateries, but he’s insistent that Mi Almita is really much more of a Houston restaurant.
“This is my hometown,” he says. “This restaurant is all about possibilities in the sense of ingredients and style. It’s what I have collectively put together with my friends and purveyors to bring these spices and herbs from Oaxaca together with ingredients from Houston. I feel like you could say that this will be bringing the flavors of Houston to LA.” Ortega will stay in Houston once Mi Almita is open, flying back to Los Angeles frequently to train staff and introduce new recipes at the restaurant.
Back in Space City, where Ortega oversees a growing empire of restaurants alongside his wife and James Beard Award-nominated restaurateur Tracy Vaught, the chef isn’t willing to rule out expansion. “If the right opportunity comes along and there is something that I can offer to this great city, something that they have not seen before or tasted, we would definitely do something if all those things came together,” he says. “Every time we have an opportunity, I want to offer something that we have never done or seen before.” For now, though, no concrete plans are in the works for a new Houston restaurant.
Which means that Ortega and his team plan to spend most of 2018 continuing to learn and hone in on what makes Xochi such a special restaurant. “We go back to the core in our hearts and ask what is the right thing to do,” Ortega says. “That is so important, not only in this particular thing, our cooking, but just in life. To encounter something you don’t know, to learn about it, and then make it something wonderful.”
This is the first in a series of features highlighting Houston’s 2017 Eater Awards winners. Stay tuned for the next installment in April.