THE YEAR OF
Hugo Ortega Houston’s Star Chef on Mole and Memories
BY NOAH NOFZ AND MARY CATE STEVENSON
here’s a secret sauce bubbling in the Houston restaurant world, a differentiator which sets it apart from the glitzy kitchens of New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. The hidden ingredient? “I think, without any doubt, it’s the diversity,” says chef Hugo Ortega, the 2017 James Beard Award-winning chef who rules the city’s enviable culinary scene. It’s a difficult point to argue. Picture something quintessentially American: A vanilla ice cream cone.
Its story isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Ancient Mesoamerican cultures were the first to cultivate the vine of the vanilla orchid, incorporating the aromatic caviar of seeds and pulp into their food and drink. They shared their concoctions with Spanish explorers in the early 1500s, who were so taken with the spicy, fragrant flavor that they brought bushels of the shriveled black beans back to Europe, where their popularity spread. The pods found their way to France, and
eventually into the hands of an inventive chef who whipped up the pulp with sugar, cream, and egg yolks, then stirred it over a bath of ice and salt—a technique borrowed from fourteenthcentury China—until it solidified into ice cream. Some fifty or a hundred years later, a traveling Thomas Jefferson purchased a scoop, fell in love, and brought the recipe back across the Atlantic. It was another 120 years before an enterprising Syrian concessionaire rolled up a thin zalabia pastry at the St. Louis H O U S TO N H OT E L M A G A Z I N E