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Watch: Houston Chef Hugo Ortega Puts Oaxacan Flavors Front and Center at Xochi

How one of the city’s top chefs went from homeless to Beard Award winner

On the latest episode of Cooking in America, host Sheldon Simeon heads to Houston to meet one of the city’s most dynamic chefs: Hugo Ortega, who’s putting the Oaxacan flavors of his childhood center stage at Xochi.

As Simeon learns, Ortega’s inspiring journey has taken him from goat herding in Mexico to a brief stint of homelessness to ruling Houston’s restaurant scene as a Beard Award-winning chef who makes up half of a restaurant power couple. He and his wife, restaurateur Tracy Vaught, are the driving forces behind six restaurants including Hugo’s, Caracol, and now, Xochi.

Xochi specializes in the Oaxacan cuisine that’s close to Ortega’s heart, showcasing dishes such as a grilled ribeye with an ant-based mole sauce; sopa de piedra, a soup in which hot river stones are placed into the bowl to gently cook the seafood within; and a so-hot-right-now corn dessert involving a blue corn atole and sweet corn ice cream. The kitchen staff at Xochi even grind cocoa beans to make their own chocolate in-house, an essential ingredient to create what Simeon declares “the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.”

Ortega largely owes his success to his wife, who believed in him enough to send him to cooking school, and all the people who make these complex dishes possible every day, saying, “If everybody marches together, we can accomplish incredible things. It’s not a one-man effort.”

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