Editor’s note: Hugo Ortega ranks among the nation’s top chefs. He won the 2017 Best Chef: Southwest Award from the James Beard Foundation and has received accolades for his culinary brilliance from a variety of publications, including Bon Appétit, Forbes Travel Guide and Smithsonian Magazine. He and his wife Tracy Vaught own and operate several restaurants including: Backstreet Café, a neighborhood bistro she opened in 1983; Hugo’s, which features the traditional cuisine of Mexico’s various regions; Caracol, a showcase for Mexican coastal dishes; and Xochi, celebrating the flavors of Oaxaca. But before all the kudos, Hugo arrived in Texas a hungry immigrant teenager. Here, he tells the story of his American journey. This was originally published by the Center for Houston’s Future in “Houston’s Economic Future: Immigration.”
I was born in Mexico City. At the age of nine, I went to live with my grandmother, at the border of Oaxaca and Puebla in the mountains, a town called Progreso. I can say now, more than 40 years later, that was where I received my culinary education.
When I got there, by my surprise, there was not electricity, running water or all the necessities we have in today’s life. I found that intriguing, very primitive. But full of love on my grandmother’s side, and knowledge of my ancestors, and her ancestors. Our ancestors researched every day just to figure out what to cook. So, literally, they just lived to eat. That was pretty much the daily living for my grandmother and me. You had your little house, surrounded by animals ... like pigs, and chickens for eggs, and goats, cattle for milk and so on, and bulls to work the land.
She and I were a tremendous team. I was young, full of energy and the ability to do many things, and with her knowledge I always accommodated myself to be her prep cook. And her dishwasher, her get-to-go boy. We used to come to a little town once a week, on a Sunday, to the market. From time to time the local butcher would butcher a pig or a cow, and with a little bit of fresh meat, we’d go back to living again.
I went through eighth grade, didn’t finish ninth grade. That’s all I could afford at that moment. I stayed in Progreso until I was 14 or 15. Then my dad decided to move the family back to Mexico City. I worked for an American company called Procter & Gamble. I was part of the maintenance team, changing light bulbs and cleaning. It was a factory where they made Crest toothpaste, soap, and many cleaning products and chemicals. I learned a little bit about the company and realized there was some opportunity over here in the United States.
At the time, some friends had come already. Some were in California. I had a cousin in Houston. From time to time he would send some letters, and I would read those letters he sent to his mom. One of the things that opened my eyes was that from time to time he would send $20 or $50 ... I don’t remember what was the exchange rate, but it was like thousands of pesos to the dollar. That was eye opening for a 16-year-old man, teenager, or whatever.
At the age of 19, I finally made it to the States. One day, my dad just basically told me, “This is all I can do for you, so from this point on, if you want to be homeless, or you want to be a punk, whatever you want to be is up to you.” That may sound heartless, coming from someone who means so much in your life, but I also respected him. I respect what he told me.
One beautiful spring day, we organized ourselves — a friend and a couple of other people — and bought bus tickets north from Mexico City. We found a coyote who could pass us across the border.
We tried five times. The first, we were over 120 people trying to cross at once. Adults, senior citizens, young kids. The immigration police caught us five times, and they took me back. But there was no going back.
The fourth or fifth time they figured out crossing so many was not going to be possible. So, they divided us. They put the young people in one group. In my group, we were 14 young women and young men. On the sixth try is when we crossed. We came across the river. It was deep. I struggled, because I don’t know how to swim. I managed, and made it, and that was wonderful.
We were young and agile and jumped many fences. At some point, they put us in a train car. They told us, “People will be inspecting the cars. You make any noise and they capture us, whoever makes that noise is going to be dead.” They were not fooling around. I can laugh now, but it was terrifying.
Eventually around two in the morning or so we started moving, faster and faster. Then they told us, “Hey we made it!” We started celebrating in the car, which was pitch black. As we were about to reach San Antonio, someone made a hole in the side of the car. We started jumping one by one, like that. Out the hole. They told us, “As soon as you are on the ground, hide where people can’t see you.” It was around six or seven in the morning. That’s what we did.
Around seven that night, they picked us up and kept 14 of us in a house for about a day and a half. On the second day, they put us in a Chevrolet Impala. They put some pieces of wood on the shocks so the car wouldn’t sink under all the weight. They said stay low and put 14 people in that car. Many in the backseat. I was in the trunk with another two people. The first pothole we passed, the trunk opened. I was closest to it so I reached up and closed it, so I was a hero for a moment!
We arrived in Houston in the Wayside area, between 10 and midnight. That’s when the transaction happened. My cousin, he paid for us, $500 apiece.
This was in the early ’80s. My cousin did not recognize us at first. I had lost a lot of weight after 20 days on the streets of Laredo. From the time that we got there to the time that we crossed it was something like that. The coyotes were feeding us potatoes and eggs, and we didn’t have much clothing, we were very dirty and skinny. We really broke down crying. It was a beautiful time.
My cousin lived down there on Wayside, so he took me over there. Then we moved right near West Gray and Taft. That’s where we lived for probably a year or so.
Then we would find a job and went on our own and rented an apartment. I was a janitor at a restaurant in Montrose called Motherlode, then I became a busboy. My cousin gave me the opportunity to cook there. Things were going great until that restaurant closed. It was a gay restaurant, so I saw for the first time in my life two men kiss each other. That was eye opening, too. All those wonderful memories, they’re there. It was my new culture, my new city. It was all new to me.
After Motherlode closed, I worked in the Esperson Building. I was a janitor during the evenings and in the mornings, I was a busboy in a restaurant called Bull & Bear. When the restaurant closed, I worked part-time jobs. Those were very depressing times. My cousin, the one who lived with me, moved to California, and I had to be by myself in the city. I was very depressed. I was in trouble.
I ended up living on the streets, over by Richmond and Dunlavy. There was a grocery store nearby. Sometimes people gave me food and helped me out. One day I saw a man approaching the store, and he had equipment to cut grass. I explained what happened, and he said, “For heaven’s sake!” His name was Luis, and he asked me if I wanted to work with him. And I said, “Sure!” He taught me how to work in landscaping.
Luis was the manager of a soccer team. That’s something I was really good at when I was a young person. Luis introduced me to the players, and said, “This is Hugo. He’s by himself and he’s looking for a house.” One was from El Salvador, and said, “He can live with us.” Three brothers. I went to live with them.
Then I was getting on the streets every day looking for work. I used to walk back and forth along Westheimer. The funny thing is that I remember crossing the street many times by the building where Hugo’s is today. At some point I pointed and thought, I wonder what it would take, how much it would cost to own a building.
I would say to myself, “One day I want to own a building like this!”
Finally, my break came through in 1987. We used to play soccer at Wilson Elementary School (just a few blocks from where Hugo’s is now). One time a couple people appeared. They were dressed like cooks, with white jackets. One had the name “Backstreet” on the shirt. A friend went to them, Julio and Francisco, and said, “Hey listen, this Mexican guy is looking for work and he says he can wash dishes. Do you have anything over there where you work?
They gave me the address, and I wrote it down. They said, “Tomorrow you come around 9 o’clock.” The next morning I was there sharp, at 8:30 or 8 o’clock in the morning. I was sitting outside in the parking lot. I had anxiety, saying, “I hope I can work here, I hope I can get a job.”
Inside, the owner of the restaurant asked Julio, “Dónde está tu amigo?” Where is your friend who wants to wash dishes? And Julio responded, “He’s outside!” And she told him, “Well, tell him to come in!” And Julio said, “He’s kind of shy.”
Then she came to the step. She saw me. She said, “Hello, my name is Tracy,” and she shook my hand, kind of a hard shake. And I said, “I’m Hugo.” She said, “Well, come in!”
To be honest, when I saw my future wife for the first time, I thought she looked like a Spanish lady, from Spain. Her beauty intrigued me. I fell in love with her that moment! I absolutely loved her. I was very happy. You don’t have to speak the language to fall in love with somebody. I didn’t speak any English at first.
That day, they found me an apron and I started washing dishes.
One of the things I tell young people who come here and don’t speak English is, “Say, ‘Yes,’” to everything.” I didn’t know what Tracy was telling me, but I always said, “Yes, yes, yes!”
One day she said, “Would you like to cook?” I said, “Yes!” I remember my first duty as a cook was to slice a 10-pound tube of provolone on the slicer.
Eventually, I believe around 1989, she asked me if I would be interested in enrolling in cooking school. Of course I said, “Yes!” My English had improved a little. I was sure I could understand, so I enrolled myself in the culinary program at Houston Community College. The problem came when I had my first test. I told the teacher “I cannot write English. I can write Spanish.” The director of the department allowed me to take the test orally. From time to time, I still talk to him, and sometimes ask him, “Chef, do you have somebody who can help us?”
Around the time I went to school, Tracy bought Prego, an Italian restaurant in the Rice Village. I did a year of apprenticeship while going to school. After I graduated and spent a year at Prego, Tracy invited me back to Backstreet to be the chef.
Sometime in the summer of 1990, Tracy had a party for employees in Galveston, and my responsibility was to cook chicken and hamburgers. It was that day I declared my intentions. We married on May 19, 1994. In 1997, our daughter Sophia Elizabeth was born.
A few years later, we had the opportunity to open Hugo’s. Tracy’s uncle called to tell her a friend had a piece of property on Westheimer she might be interested in. We were very busy at Backstreet, but eventually we went to have a look.
Standing in the parking lot behind the building that years earlier had been the object of my fantasies, Tracy asked me: “What do you think about opening a restaurant cooking the food of your grandmother, your homeland?
I thought about getting up at 5 every morning, loading jars on the donkey and going to the bottom of the hill to get water for the kitchen; cutting wood to make a fire every day; taking care of 300 goats; everything made a mano ...
My answer may be hard to believe, but I said from the heart, “Tracy, my god, that’s a lot of work!”
Of course, I had learned to say “yes” to everything.
Source: Houston Chronicle