Houston chef Hugo Ortega claims 2017 James Beard Award

HOUSTON - Houston is now home to the 2017, Best Chef in the Southwest, James Beard Award winner.

The Southwest covers New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas and only one chef is selected each year.

“The presentation is so incredibly important in many ways and of course the last part of that is the flavor, it has to be there. It’s something that you need to develop through time," says Hugo Ortega.

Ortega first came to Houston from Mexico when he was 16, in pursuit of the "American dream."

He didn't speak English.

He didn't have a job.

What he had was inspiration from his grandmother which never left him.

“She took me by the hand and showed me all these wonderful things. She’s always right here with me to make sure that I don’t screw up," Ortega said.

Thirty-some years later he's got four restaurants, a multitude of original dishes, and as of Monday, a James Beard Award.

“In my head, Chip, it was just a total overwhelmed feeling. Total satisfaction at the same time," Ortega said about receiving the award. “The first thing that crossed my mind it was that I have to thank Houston. I have to thank this wonderful city.”

“It’s a culmination, you know where you start and what you have achieved,” added Ortega.

Though it's one of the top awards in the culinary world, it doesn't mean the end for Hugo.

In fact, he just recently opened up his newest restaurant Xochi at the Marriott Marquis.

“The ceviche blew me away,” said first time customer Veronica Morgante.

“Amazing. Really amazing. Like, I’ve had tuna all over the world. Today was fantastic,” Bouchie Marbeti, from Abu Dhabi, said.

“What we do here, yes is different than anybody else and that’s what we’re cooking over here and hopefully by the end of the day I want them to remember that,” Ortega said.

Chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia took home the outstanding chef award, and Chicago's Rick Bayless' high-end Mexican eatery Topolobampo won the outstanding restaurant honor.

Another Philadelphia foodie -- Stephen Starr of Starr Restaurants -- won the outstanding restaurateur award at a ceremony many consider the Oscars of the culinary world.

"We just wanted to bring some of the heart and soul that people have shared with us in Mexico and share it with the people in this country," an emotional Bayless said as he accepted the award at Chicago's Lyric Opera. "We have in our restaurants always sought to put heart first."

Bayless has won many Beard honors over the last 26 years, including outstanding chef in 1995 and Humanitarian of the Year in 1998. Topolobampo is a well-known favorite of Barack and Michelle Obama and previously received nominations for outstanding restaurant and outstanding service. Another James Beard Award-winning Chicago chef -- Grant Achatz of Alinea -- presented Bayless with the award.

Solomonov is from Israel but was raised in Pittsburgh. He was nominated for the top honor last year but didn't win. Zahav features modern Israeli cuisine. Solomonov's current menu at Zahav highlights creatively paired simple foods. His brisket is served with apricots, and he offers roasted lamb with pomegranate and chickpeas.

"I'm incredibly lucky that my work is my life's work," he said Monday night.

The Beard Awards moved to Chicago in 2015 after being based in New York for more than 20 years. The James Beard Foundation announced last October that the awards will remain in Chicago through 2021. This year's host was actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson of the TV sitcom "Modern Family."

"You have these insane creative little minds," Ferguson told the crowd of chefs and restaurateurs during his opening monologue. "Us commoners we're just trying to keep up. You're constantly challenging us to expand our palettes and try new things. It's so inspiring."

Presenters included Hollywood names such as actresses Sophia Bush and Valerie Bertinelli, actor David Burtka and former boxer Laila Ali.

The outstanding pastry chef award went to Tunisia native Ghaya Oliveira of Daniel restaurant in New York, where her dessert menu features ingredients like cardamom poached pear, blackberry-orange blossom sorbet and Mexican vanilla bean gingerbread.

This year's best new restaurant honor went to Le Coucou in New York, one of Starr's restaurants. The outstanding baker award went to Mark Furstenberg of Bread Furst in Washington.

Arnaud's French 75 Bar in New Orleans won outstanding bar program, and Canlis in Seattle won outstanding wine program. Zachary Engel of Shaya restaurant in New Orleans was named the rising star chef of the year. Shaya won the best new restaurant award last year.

The James Beard Foundation's lifetime achievement award went to Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora in Washington for her work creating organic food certification standards and commitment to local foods.

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