Chef Chat, Part 2: Ruben Ortega of Hugo's and Backstreet Cafe, On Growing Up in a Huge Family in Mexico, and the Differences in Regional Mexican Cuisine
Photo by: Hugo's Restaurant/Facebook Ruben Ortega with his brother Hugo Ortega at this year's James Beard Foundation awards ceremony
This is Part 2 of a three-part Chef Chat series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 3 in this same space Friday.
EOW: So at Hugo's, you're sort of the man behind the man.
RO: Well, Hugo's the boss. He's the big guy.
EOW: What is his role and what is your role? Because you're with him almost everywhere.
RO: He's the one who develops the menu. And he's the one who is the head behind Hugo's and Backstreet. And I back him up.
EOW: Do you collaborate on the menus at all?
RO: Yeah, I do. I do the pastry menu, I help with the regular menu. So basically I just make sure that everything runs smoothly.
EOW What's your background? Did you end up going to culinary school, or did you just work?
RO: Actually, Hugo went to HCC -- he graduated from HCC. I went to HCC as well; I didn't graduate because they came to me and said, "Your Social Security number doesn't match." Because I was going to school with a different Social Security because I was illegal. I was using a Social Security that I'd bought in L.A.! So they realized that, and they came to me and they actually kicked me out.
EOW: They kicked you out -- wow!
RO: And that's fine. We have done so much for HCC. They have the alumni program, and they do the party here at Hugo's almost every year. So Tracy [Vaught] and Hugo decided that every year, they're going to donate $2,500 to the HCC alumni program because Hugo graduated from there -- they did a commercial with him and everything.
So, we were talking to the director of the culinary program and she's like, "Oh my God, I'm so proud of you guys that you graduated. And Tracy was there, and she said, "Well, actually, Ruben didn't graduate because...Ruben -- tell her the story?" So I told her the story, and she goes: "Oh my God. You know what? We have to get you an honorary degree." And I'm like: "That sounds like a good idea." But I think they forgot about it. And I was like, "Really? Would you really be able to do that?" And she said, "You deserve it!" But I'm still waiting. We'll see what happens.
EOW: Okay, tell me about the Hugo's cookbook. How long did it take to put together?
RO: That book was about three years in the making. We finished it in about a year and a half.
EOW: How did you decide what went into the book?
RO: We actually didn't want to do Hugo's food or Mexican food, because I don't think we're experts on Mexican food.
EOW: You don't?
RO: (laughs) Actually, we know Mexican cooking, but there are more expert people out there.
EOW: What do you regard your food as? How do you, as a Mexican, regard your food?
RO: Actually, what we grew up eating. We are very traditional, Hugo and I. We don't try to deconstruct any Mexican food. We believe that mole is mole and stays that way. As well as pipian and any other traditional dish. We just try to re-create it in the way that it should be.
EOW: So then it is Mexican. You can't say it's not Mexican.
RO: It is Mexican, but we are very traditional.
EOW: So Mexican -- where are your roots then?
RO: My family comes from Puebla, in Central Mexico. And my brother and I, we were born in Mexico City. When I was four years old, we moved back to Puebla and stayed there for three years. Then when we moved back, we moved to the State of Mexico, just on the outskirts of Mexico City.
EOW: What were you eating growing up? If you're staying traditional to what you grew up with.
RO: Eating our mother's cooking. A lot of the recipes come from our family. Like the mole and the pipian -- very traditional.
EOW: Did she help you with the recipes? Did you help her cook growing up?
RO: Yeah, she did. Cooking was our way of life. We have eight siblings, so cooking was a traditional thing. My mom did breakfast for us, and she would do lunch. And right after lunch, as we are washing dishes and everything, she was already preparing for dinner.
EOW: Did you have your grandparents there, too?
RO: No, we were a family of ten. And then next door to us, at the next house, it was my dad's older brother -- he had ten kids. Then, right behind us was another uncle, and he had six girls. And then across the street, it was another brother, and he had five kids. And next to him was another brother, and he had seven kids. So, imagine that!
EOW: How many people is that? That's like 60 people!
RO: Growing up, it was beautiful. So, whenever we got together, it was a party. It's about 55 grandchildren. Oh my God, yeah. And all my cousins, they have kids on their own, they have like four, five, three. And on my family's side, Hugo has one, my sister Alma has one, my brother Louie has two, I have only one, my other sister has only one, my other brother has two, and two of them don't have kids. So our cooking is very traditional. We respect a lot the Mexican culture and cuisine.
EOW: Okay, so one of the things that I notice about Hugo's when I come is that the menu is huge. And it's really difficult for me to choose because I want to order everything, but your portions are large. If someone is coming here for the first time, help them navigate. What should they order?
RO: Well, we always recommend. The waitstaff really know the whole menu.
EOW: And how many items are on the menu?
RO: Oh my gosh, 50 maybe? And we have this ideology that we put the wine list on the menu. So the first pages are all the wine and the drink, and the last two pages are the food, and then the dessert is separate. But yeah, it's quite large. There's a lot that we try to do. We try to touch all the areas of Mexico -- that's the reason we call it regional Mexican. Because we do food from Veracruz, Monterrey, Puebla, Oaxaca, The Coast.
EOW: How about this: Describe for me the regional differences.
RO: Well, Puebla is known for their moles as well as their chile rellenos, chiles en nogada, as well as their pipian.
EOW: What is pipian?
RO: Pipian is made with pumpkin seeds. Traditionally it's a mole sauce made with pumpkin seeds, so it's a grainy kind of texture, and it's green. It's a unique kind of pipian, and in Mexico it's served with chicken.
EOW: Okay, so we have Puebla.
RO: And then we have Oaxaca. Moles, also in Oaxaca. Mole negro, it's a very traditional kind of thing. They do all kinds of pipians as well. They have a great amount of chile sauces, they have a variety of dried chiles over there. Then you have a Michoacán, which is similar to Puebla. Then you have Veracruz, where there is a lot of Spanish and European influence, so they use a lot of olive oil, capers, olives. And on the Oaxaca coast, on the Pacific, we have Guerrero; they also do moles. They use more seafood, but it's very unique. You go to Mexico, you'd be surprised at the variety of food all around.
EOW: Okay, so the perfect meal, what would you recommend?
RO: I would recommend the mole with the duck, from Puebla. Chiles rellenos also. We have flautas de pollo. We have the flautas de conejo (rabbit). We also have the pulpo a las brasas -- that's my favorite -- octopus served with tortillas. We have the lechon, which is actually carnitas de lechon, which is baby pig. We make it the same as carnitas, which is basically a pork confit. And then it comes out of the oven, we shred all the meat. And then we keep the skin -- we make it into a chicharrón. And then we sauté it, put it in the banana leaf and then put the crispy skin on top. I would recommend that. The crew here are really well trained to recommend something to people for the first time.
EOW: So, what's next for you?
RO: We are about to finish with a Backstreet Cafe cookbook. It's coming out in October, and we're doing it to celebrate Backstreet's 30-year anniversary. A lot of people know already -- we have a project coming in. We are planning to do another place; it's in the works -- we're looking to be done with that in September. So, two projects.
Check back with us tomorrow as we try some of the food at Hugo's.
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