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Watch: Hugo Ortega’s Journey From Dishwasher to Head Chef

The story of the chef behind some of Houston’s best restaurants, in his own words

Hugo Ortega does not have particularly fond memories of growing up in Mexico City. The chef and owner of Hugo’s in Houston describes his childhood in Mexico’s capital as “hectic,” up until the age of nine when he moved to a small town at the top of a mountain with his grandmother.

“Being so far from civilization, I had the rare opportunity to see [the process] from working the land and cultivating, to harvesting, and to frying the corn and making a masa,” says Ortega. His time in the town of less than 1,000 people also gave him invaluable time with his grandmother, who he credits as his daily inspiration.

Ortega moved to Texas when he was 18. Soon he began working in restaurants, and with a little more time he opened his first one: his namesake regional Mexican restaurant in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood. Now, Hugo’s is 16 years in and joined by sister restaurants Caracol and Xochi. “Necessity is what pushes you to find opportunities somewhere else,” says Ortega. “And that’s what I did.”

Hugo is a film by Ava Lowrey made for the Southern Foodways Alliance, an ongoing documentary project that “documents, studies, and explores the diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” To learn about the Ramirez story, watch the full video above.

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