Illegal Immigrants in the Restaurant Industry

Mexican immigrant Hugo Ortega went from washing dishes to owning Houston's best Mexican restaurant — now he has a few things to say about immigration

To go with my steak, the waiter recommended a glass of 2005 Tikal "Patriota" wine, a Malbec-Bonarda blend from Argentina. It was a big, bold red that stood up brilliantly to the dried chile sauce.

My dining companion tried another entrée from the list of specials, a thick salmon steak cooked rare in the middle and balanced on a bed of mashed Peruvian purple potatoes. The fish was garnished with mussels, and a disk of corn pudding was served on the side.

This isn't traditional regional Mexican cuisine, and it isn't supposed to be. This is modern American cuisine with a Latino spin, and it speaks well of Hugo Ortega's culinary training. "The dinner specials are different, more innovative," he says. "I learned French techniques in cooking school, and I apply them to Mexican ­cooking."

...use ancient family recipes.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
...use ancient family recipes.
The mole poblano at Hugo's is velvet on the tongue.
Daniel Kramer
The mole poblano at Hugo's is velvet on the tongue.
Living the American Dream: Hugo Ortega and his family
Daniel Kramer
Living the American Dream: Hugo Ortega and his family

Hugo Ortega was issued a Temporary Resident (green) card in April of 1988 under the "Reagan Amnesty." With the help of Tracy Vaught, he enrolled in the culinary arts program at Houston Community College. He graduated in 1992 and worked as chef and executive chef at Backstreet Café and Prego before opening Hugo's in 2002. He has made two guest chef appearances at the James Beard House in New York City.

And there are a lot more Hugo Ortegas on the way, thanks to philanthropists like Kit Goldsbury, heir to the Pace Picante Sauce fortune. Last year, Goldsbury contributed $35 million to a small San Antonio cooking school called the Center for Foods of the Americas. His goal was to create a top-rank culinary academy specifically for young Latinos.

The nation's foremost culinary school, the Culinary Institute of America, became a partner in the project. The San Antonio cooking school is now known as the Culinary Institute of America's Center for Foods of the Americas. It will offer extensive financial aid to struggling Hispanic students and, for the most talented, a chance to transfer to the CIA's prestigious main campus in Hyde Park, New York.

Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught were married in 1994, and in February 1997 they had their first child, Sophia Elizabeth. Ortega became a naturalized American citizen in 1996. As a citizen, Hugo was entitled to bring members of his family to the United States. "I think I am more patriotic than most Americans," he says. "I love this country like my mother. When I hear the national anthem of the United States, it sometimes makes me cry."

His mother and father live in South Houston, and all of his siblings have joined Hugo here as well. Alma works for Mary Kay selling cosmetics. (One day she hopes to own a pink Cadillac.) Ruben is a pastry chef at Backstreet Café and Hugo's. Sandra works as an administrative assistant during the day and at a local restaurant at night. Rene, a graduate of Reagan High School, works as a mechanic for Admiral Linen Company. Twins Gloriela and Veronica now sell real estate in the Heights. And Jose Luis, who worked in the kitchen with Hugo, recently moved from Houston to Belize to become the chef at The Victoria House.

Hugo's nephew Antonio will graduate from South Houston High School in May of 2008. Tony has received scholarship offers from Harvard, Yale and Rice, among others. It's a difficult decision. But because he doesn't want to be too far away from his family, he's leaning toward Rice.

Hugo is working on a cookbook that will combine old family recipes from Mexico and innovative dishes he created in Texas.

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