by Ed Lallo/Newsroom Ink
In Mexico Hugo Ortega grew up poor, eating red snapper was almost unthinkable. As the executive chef of some of Houston’s most popular restaurants he is working hard to ensure his customers have an opportunity never afforded to him.
“A fisherman had a trailer near where I lived in Mexico,” said Ortego, whose restaurants are known for fresh seafood. “He would grill a butterflied snapper which he added squeezed lime and some very spicy sauce or chili powder. To me that’s was simplest way to serve fresh fish.”
Recently, Ortega and his wife Tracy Vaught hosted a Share the Gulf event at one of their restaurants.
Chefs, national and state legislative aids, press and consumers gathered at Hugo’s on Westheimer to learn how Red Snapper, an iconic American fish that is culturally and economically important to the Gulf Coast, could disappear from restaurants and seafood counters.
“Gulf seafood is very important to me,” the chef who started his culinary career washing dishes at Backstreet Café, his wife’s restaurant, told the crowded room. “This is our backyard. You can throw a rock and hit the Gulf from here. If someone is going to rise as a visionary on how to protect the Gulf, it has to come from here.”
Backstreet Cafe, Hugo’s, Prego and their latest addition Caracol, serve only the finest Gulf seafood. “It is important that we have a continuous and reliable supply to serve our ever-growing customer base,” said Vaught.
The couple was in the process of looking for an organization to support that had a responsible approach to Gulf seafood when they were invited to join Share the Gulf.
“We found a way to get involved, as well as an organization to help guide us in understanding the complexity of various issues,” said Vaught surrounded by workmen preparing for the opening of Caracol – a sea snail similar to conch. “When there was talk about red drum and speckled Seatrout being taken away from commercial fisherman, in my wildest dreams I never thought it would happen. As a restaurant owner it was a complete surprise when they completely took both fish away from us. I just didn’t see it coming at all.”
The couple is working hard to prevent the lost Red Snapper to their customers.
“We serve a lot of Red snapper, as well as other fish from the Gulf,” she said. “What I don’t understand is how they can even think of taking away a fish that commercial fishermen are fishing responsibly.”
“I am a big proponent of seafood. I went to culinary school in Washington, so seafood has played a part of my culinary life since the beginning,” said Caracol’s Executive Chef Daniel Bridges. “I have been falling in love with Texas shrimp and the red snapper, a fish that we couldn’t even get when I was in Seattle. We are currently cooking up a few surprises for our menu, and red snapper will definitely play a prominent role. “
Ortega said he is committed “to make sure that we don’t lose red snapper from our menu”. He sees it as a tall order, but is working to get other chefs, as well as customers involved.
According to the chef, the fisherman he buys from brings red snapper caught the same day to his restaurants. “That kind of quality and freshness is what every chef wants,” he said.
“We need to take every opportunity to protect the Gulf, and harvest its seafood in a responsible way,” said Ortega. “Having the opportunity to cook Red Snapper is important personally to me. I remembered those days when I was a child, and that makes me feel good.”