Guest Chef – Hugo Ortega

Chef/Owner, H Town Restaurant Group

Chef Hugo Ortega

The winner of Best Chef: Southwest at the prestigious 2017 James Beard Foundation Awards started with very humble beginnings. Hugo was raised in Mexico City and Puebla, Mexico, and learned his love of cooking from his mother and grandmother, a revered mole maker. At age 17, he left Mexico for Houston and began his career in the restaurant industry as a dishwasher and busboy at Backstreet Cafe before graduating from culinary school and later becoming its executive chef and owner, along with wife Tracy Vaught.

His American Dream continued when they opened Hugo’s in 2002, featuring regional Mexican cuisine; Caracol, a Mexican coastal kitchen, in Houston’s Galleria area in 2013; and Xochi, celebrating the flavors of Oaxaca, in early 2017 in the Marriott Marquis Houston Downtown. Hugo has published two cookbooks: Hugo Ortega’s Street Food of Mexico (2012) and Backstreet Kitchen: Seasonal Recipes from Our Neighborhood Cafe (2013). Tracy and Hugo are also investors in Origen restaurant in Oaxaca, Mexico and with their team created the menu for Hugo’s Cocina in Terminal C at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. In 2017, Hugo was approached by celebrity chef Michael Mina to do a “pop-up” concept at his Mina Test Kitchen in San Francisco, and Mi Almita was born. The concept is currently open in Honolulu and a mainland location is in consideration.

He was a James Beard Award finalist for six consecutive years, 2012-2017, before becoming the first Mexican-born chef to win the award. June 20, 2017 was declared Hugo Ortega Day in Houston by Mayor Sylvester Turner in honor of his James Beard Award. Hugo was bestowed the 2017 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award from Southern Foodways Alliance. Hugo is one of Houston’s most acclaimed chefs and believes that a chef is only as good as the last meal he cooked.

He remains a fixture in his four restaurant kitchens, is an avid bicyclist, and enjoys spending time at the beach with his family.


Cordorniz en Nogada


  • 6 exas quail boneless breast, wings and leg bones attached
  • 6 slices bacon


  • Grind each spice separately in a spice or coffee grinder and set aside:
  • 1 large piece of cinnamon
  • 4 star anise
  • 6 cloves
  • 6 or 8 allspice berries
  • You won’t use it all but need a minimum amount to actually blend them. Set aside and use specified amount of ground spices in the recipes

Quail stuffing

  • 1 Tbsp corn oil or neutral oil of choice
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1-1/2 cups diced roasted tomatoes can use canned fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp sweet vermouth
  • 1 Tbsp chopped raisins
  • 1 Tbsp chopped dried apricot
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red apple skin on
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped green apple skin on
  • 1/4 cup crab apple skin on
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped Bosc pear skin on
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped ripe plantain
  • 1 Tbsp sliced almonds toasted
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch ground allspice
  • 1 Tbsp granulated sugar

Pomegranate Mole

  • 3 Tbsp corn oil divided
  • 11 whole garlic cloves
  • 1 purple onion diced
  • 3 cups pomegranate seeds
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • Pinch allspice
  • Pinch of cloves
  • 2 dried guajillo
  • 6 cups pomegranate juice
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 1/4 cup sliced raw almonds

Butternut squash puree

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 tsp allspice
  • Pinch ground cloves
  • Pinch ground star anise
  • 3 butternut squash seeded, halved and roasted at 300-degree oven for 1 hour
  • 1 Tbsp honey


  • Preheat the conventional oven to 350 F
  • Pat quail dry and season with fresh ground pepper and a pinch of sea salt, wrap each with a slice of bacon and secure with toothpick.
  • Divide the stuffing (recipe follows) in 6 equal parts and stuff the quail. Reserve 4 oz of the filling for garnish.
  • Sear the quail in a large pan on low heat for 3 minutes then flip it and sear for another 3-4 minutes until they reach a golden-brown color. You want bacon to render but not burn.
  • Transfer quail to a baking rack and cook in oven for 37-40 minutes.

Quail Stuffing

  • Heat oil in sautepan over medium heat.
  • Add onions and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes, add tomato and deglaze for 2 minutes, add sweet vermouth.
  • Add chopped raisins and apricot and cook for 3 minutes.
  • When 3/4 liquid has been reduced (after about 5-7 minutes), add chopped apples and pears and cook for 5 minutes.
  • Add plantains, spices and almonds and stir.
  • Add sugar and cook for 8 minutes, stirring constantly until the fruit absorbs the liquid and fruit is cooked but not mushy.
  • Remove from heat and cool down in pot for 10 minutes until at room temperature.

Pomegranate Mole

  • Heat 1 Tbsp of oil in pot over medium heat, stir in garlic and onion and cook about 5 minutes, until soft, then add pomegranate seeds and stir for 4 more minutes.
  • Add ground spices, raisins, sesame seeds and almonds. Stir for 2 minutes. Then add guajillo peppers and pomegranate juice and cook for 10 minutes.
  • Pour carefully into blender and blend thoroughly to a smooth texture then pass through a strainer to remove the seeds.
  • Heat remaining 2 Tbsp of oil in shallow pan over medium heat, pour in the sauce and “fry” the mole for 5-7 minutes.

Butternut squash puree

  • Place butter and spices in saucepan over medium heat and melt together, about 3 minutes.
  • Place all ingredients except honey in in blender and puree until smooth.
  • Stir in honey.

To Serve

  • Place a smear of butternut squash puree on the serving plate.
  • Place a stuffed quail on the puree.
  • Pour a few ounces of mole over the quail.
  • Garnish with a few bits of the stuffing strewn about and sprinkle with pomegranate seeds.