How a Janitor Became a James Beard Award Winning Chef Through Oaxacan Cuisine — Cooking in America

How a Janitor Became a James Beard Award Winning Chef Through Oaxacan Cuisine — Cooking in America


– [Sheldon Simeon] Chef Hugo
Ortega began his journey as a goat herder in Mexico, only to end up winning a Southwest Best Chef James Beard award. After he immigrated to
the US at the age of 16, his dish washing career
led him to meet the woman that would change his career, and would later become his wife. And now, after multiple
successful restaurants, they finally opened Xochi, a restaurant that is
serving food that is closest to his heart, Oaxacan cuisine. (upbeat music) So we actually bring the ingredients from Oaxaca to make possible to cook this incredible Oaxacan cuisine. And to be able to put
something on the table that I truly love. (upbeat music) I got to this wonderful
city back in the early ’80s, and I never looked back. We arrange all my money to pay the, we call him the coyote, so that’s the person
that bring you over here. – [Sheldon Simeon] Oh, okay. My first job, it was a
janitor in a restaurant. I cleaned the kitchen, and I would start at 10PM at night, and then
finish by 7 in the morning. The turning point in my life, that was the summer of ’87, the day I got to Backstreet Cafe. Playing poker, my friends say, “Hey, they’re looking for dishwasher.” You know, they took me over there, out of the gate, I meet
this beautiful lady, and so that was Tracy. She put me to work immediately, and that was a turning point in my life. Tracy asked me, “Do you be interested “to go to a cooking school?” and she paid for my enrollment. That way in ’91, when she offered me the position of chef at Backstreet. I just always feel attracted to Tracy, and one time in ’92 or ’93, I ask her to be my girlfriend
and she said yes, so. It’s going to be our 23rd anniversary. We’ve been together for about 28 years. – [Sheldon Simeon] 28 years? She herself is an incredible restaurateur. You can feel her presence
when she is in the kitchen. An incredible team, I think. Yeah. It was the first time that
I worked alongside my wife opening Tinroof, my new restaurant. There was a lot of things
that we had to learn together, but it’s a pleasure that I get to share that moments with my best friend. I see the way that you
talk about Tracy, and– She’s been like an angel,
an inspiration to me. You know, pick up this homeless guy and give him the opportunity, it’s just very rare that that happen to an individual like myself and I am not on the
other side of the table. The first dish is this rib eye. We want to season it. This is a chicatana mole. These are the chicatana, so the ants. We use this ingredient to
make the chicatana mole. Oh, they remind me of like, prawns, like small little shrimp
that we have in our rivers. There’s like that saltiness, and they’re crunchy,
and a lot of umami too. The recipes have been
done for generations. The season is about maybe a week where you can catch these ants. Natives of Oaxaca, they collect them, they season it and toast it on the famous comal. They make mole in this case. Mole’s a way of living in Oaxaca. Every restaurant you go, they
have their own mole version, so there’s hundreds and hundreds of moles. This is from the valleys
of Oaxaca, sopa de piedra. Traditionally done by the river in a natural stone dish,
already carved like a pot, and then they bring the hot river stones and cook the seafood. Has that flavor from the rocks, the ash of the, you know, that, it’s burning on the wood and
it imparts that smokiness into the flavor of the fish. I live with my grandmother
from 8 to 13. It was in her memories. I was a goat herder. These remote areas,
there was no electricity, so by five o’clock, you have to be out and make the very best
out of the daylight. I learned to respect the land, seasonality in these
places is very important. That was the way of living, very kind of simple,
dedicated to the land. From little kids out in
the fields with the goats. That was it, that was our life. No HEB back in the day? No, no, no, no HEBs back in the days. (laughing) No HEBs. These are fried beans,
they have that poleo herb. They’re going to have that
kind of minty flavor on it, and also have ground pepper
paste they call chintextle. Then we put our mole. (relaxed music) I don’t want to say it,
but it’s like a pizza. It’s like a pizza. But this is the street food of Oaxaca. The dessert is an inspiration on corn, which is the emblematic–
Ingredient of– Ingredient of–
Of Mexico. Of Mexico. Then underneath, you have
what we call an atole, blue corn masa, the
cookie has been infused with corn that has been toasted, and then we have sweetcorn
ice cream in baby corn shape. You know, one of the
most iconic ingredients that Mexico offered to
the world, it was cacao. Once we toast it, we have a strong grinder where we grind our cocoa
beans and make chocolate. We put it in these tablets. It’s just the cacao, cinnamon and sugar, that is the chocolate Mexicano. That is the best hot
chocolate I’ve ever tasted. – [Hugo Ortega] Oh, fantastic. How many restaurants do you have now? Six. I started off as a dishwasher. Oh my goodness, okay. I worked my way up, and now I’m the owner
of my own restaurants. Fantastic. For you, starting as a dishwasher, now you have this empire. But the most important, Sheldon, is if everybody marched together, we can accomplish incredible things. It’s not a one man effort. I believe in bringing everybody together and telling them what we want to do and why we want to do it,
and why it’s important to do, and hopefully, that will be good enough for them to continue
believing in what we do. – [Sheldon Simeon] Every
single corner in the kitchen, there’s different ingredients
that were so inspiring. It has opened up my
eyes to Oaxacan cuisine. You get to go back to very specific of where you grew up. It’s beautiful what
you’re doing here, chef. – [Omer Yousafzai] So
these are marinated kebabs. Saffron is very important
in Afghan cuisine. (uplifting music)

71 thoughts on “How a Janitor Became a James Beard Award Winning Chef Through Oaxacan Cuisine — Cooking in America”

  1. I must say you are one of the best host's on Eater, you bond so well with the chefs and often also with their family. It makes it amazing to watch, you can really understand where the chefs come from.
    It's a very beautiful thing to see, keep it up!

  2. heartwarming and inspiring story and the food looks delicious. WHat could you want more. I'd love to go there someday

  3. He is the chilliest dude on earth lmao just sitting there eating enjoying the food while listening carefully the chefs

  4. "If everyone marches together, we can accomplish incredible things"
    What an inspirational and humble chef.
    Awesome cinematography and truly beautiful to see such passion in not only telling a story but living.
    Kudos to the host as-well for such a pleasing segment!

  5. Shows you what can be accomplished if you have the will and take advantage of the education system America has to offer. Inspirational!

  6. Remembering back to my younger days, trying some red ants because I saw my cat eating them. turns out they tasted like sweet tarts

  7. The best part about this series with Sheldon is that he doesn't steal the show. The other series seem very focused on the presenter, but here the focus seems laser focused on the restaurants and their owners. Really great work.

  8. Me and my family have tried the Vietnamese seafood and the Iraqi restaurant for both the videos and they're amazing

  9. No shade to the other hosts but can Eater just make a playlist of all Sheldon's videos it's clear the people love him

  10. La historia, las culturas, las personas, las comidas differentes….

    La gente de mexico es especial para mi…

    Sólo un chico blanco regular aprender el idioma

  11. Wait, can those ants be farmed? It might be a nice alternative to those baby shrimps that could be farmed on desert land.

  12. Very few regions in Mexico have good food. The majority is just half rotten, unseasoned slop on a plate.

  13. I attended a Oaxacan festival in LA this past weekend, the mole and tlayudas were muy deliciosa! Viva Oaxaca!

  14. Its refreshing to see stories like this that inspire people and let them know that their story is out there waiting to be written. This dude is a genuine person with a big heart. That is a dying trait in todays selfish world. Im going to this restaurant just because of this video!

  15. Two accomplished award winning chefs that are so humble even with their success. They both were dishwaters and are now respected chefs. This is my favorite Eater video so far and braddah Sheldon continues to make da 808 proud. 🤙

  16. Awwwww…good job Sheldon!!! the best presenter on Eater…i couldn't stop watching the whole series♥️ Mabuhay!!! Kababayan ko yan!

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