Hugo Ortega hasn't let a little James Beard fame change him.
Hugo Ortega brought Houston with him to the James Beard Award spotlight.
Hugo Ortega's Caracol is just part of a self-made restaurant empire.
Hugo Ortega stands in the corner of the crowded foyer, doing his best to blend in. People still keep stopping and coming over to talk to him, though. They all want a moment with the James Beard Award-winning chef.
Ortega welcomes each stop-by with a wide smile. He’ll talk as long as a visitor wants to talk. This whole celebrity chef thing somehow still comes across as something relatively surprising to him. He’s still Hugo — and you can always talk to Hugo.
“The people of Houston are so nice to me,” Ortega says. “I love this city and I owe it a lot.”
On this day, the upscale shoppers of Central Market are paying their respects to Ortega, the man behind restaurants such as Xochi, Caracol and Hugo’s. This isn’t even an Ortega event. He just came to the ceremonial opening of the renovated showpiece grocery store on Westheimer (Central Market never actually closed) because his sister works there and he shops there. No matter. If people in Houston see Ortega, they’re going to stop.
His James Beard Award win in May raised his profile for sure. But it’s more than that. Ortega is just approachable. He’s about as far as you can get from the scowling, screaming jack-ass chef model (see Gordon Ramsay). And he doesn’t see being a national award-winning chef as akin to being a God deserving of worship as more than a few Houston chefs who’ve found success do.
Ortega’s an anomaly in an ego-driven world, as rare as snow in Houston. Or self awareness in Taylor Swift’s Girl Squad. He just loves to see people happy.
This comes through at Ortega’s restaurants, too. Unlike a number of celebrity chefs who hit it big, Ortega remains an everyday fixture at his restaurants. When I stopped into Xochi for lunch with an NFL Network director the day after the Super Bowl, the day after an unprecedented run of busyness for downtown restaurants, Ortega was there in the dining room. On a day when many chefs would be taking a well-deserved break. A return trip to Xochi a few months later on a quiet Monday night also found Ortega there, emerging from the kitchen at the end of the night in his white chef coat.
“For some people, our passion is the food, it’s the cooking,” Ortega tells me. “I feel like I’ve got to be there to stay connected to the food and what’s going on with the restaurant. It’s not a choice.
“It’s my way of life. It’s the only way I can do it.”
A Self-Made Houstonian
Ortega and his wife Tracy Vaught, built their restaurant empire from scratch and like with a lot of Houstonians who become uber successful, that baseline work ethic and drive remains. The same reason 81-year-old Houston developer Marvy Finger is still in his offices before 7:30 most mornings is why Ortega remains in the kitchen.
There’s a quiet dignity to it that trumps the easy pleasures celebrity chefs typically enjoy in Ortega’s mind. Ortega does not just represent the successful diversity of the nation’s fourth-largest city. He also represents its workaholic soul.
Hugo Ortega’s become one with Houston. His kids went to River Oaks Elementary School when they were little. He’s been shopping at Central Market long before anybody knew who he was. The idea of anybody recognizing him by sight would have been laughable to him not long ago.
For him, the James Beard Award is a way to shine a little more spotlight on his city.
“I wanted to bring some Houston to my speech,” Ortega says. “It’s my city. It’s supported me from the beginning. Anything I can do to help Houston.”
Ortega stops. An older woman is inching forward, trying to catch his eye. She clearly wants to say something. The chef breaks into a grin, motions her over.