What better time of the year to feature our chef subject than Valentine's week. It's safe to say there is something for everyone who walks through Thomas Ortega's front door. If you're wondering what's in the works, he dishes in today's segment.
Thomas is so badass, you need to start over here to get to know him.
And if you're good, you can keep reading.
What did you study in school? Did you always plan on being a chef?
I always loved the feeling of cooking a meal for someone, then watching them eat it and enjoy it. When I was young, I wanted to be like my pops and be a sheriff. But I think getting in too much trouble when I was young ended that.
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
My wife is the only thing that turns me on. Food and shoes always peak my interest, too.
Where did you grow up, and where do you call home?
I grew up in Cerritos and will always consider it my home. But I now live in a historic neighborhood in Santa Ana.
How did you meet your business partner, Todd Tsujioka? And what do you two have planned next?
I met Todd when I was about 2 or 3 years old. We were next-door neighbors growing up. We have a real close network of friends that have been together for about three decades, and we pretty much consider ourselves brothers. My family is his second family, and vice versa. We have been talking about doing a restaurant together for the past 15 years. He's a smart dude — a graduate of USC's Marshall School of Business.
Yes, we do have something in the works: a modern breakfast and bakery. That's why I want to better my baking ability. We've even signed a lease of intent.
We've also been working on expanding the Amor y Tacos brand because the response from patrons has been amazing.
You have a whole day to yourself; what do you do?
Fish! I love to fish. It relaxes me. This year I want to really work on fly fishing. If not fishing, spend more time with my beautiful wife and kids.
Tell us something most people don't know about you.
That I have a big heart. A lot of people think just because I'm covered in tattoos I'm a mean dude or something. Don't get me wrong; I can be. But for the most part, I'm a really nice guy. Or at least think I am. [Laughs.]
Last thing you looked up online:
Modern concept of diners, as in the venue itself. I wasn't joking when I said R&D is always on my mind.
What did you learn about reality television during your guest spots on Hell's Kitchen?
There are a lot of people behind the process of creating and producing a show. Every aspect was organized and scheduled to the minute during the taping. Also, chef Gordon Ramsey is a really nice guy with severe ADD and touch of perfectionism. [Laughs.]
Kidding aside, he had a million things going on during shooting, and he was able to address each issue quickly. On camera, he's a natural. And if you follow his lead, he'll make you look good. He asked the right questions to keep the conversation interesting, and we provided some constructive criticism for the contestants. There were no scripts, and the judging felt more like an intimate conversation among fellow chefs that just happened to be taped for a highly rated TV show on a major network.
Do you have any skills that have nothing to do with food?
I'm not trying to brag, but I'm pretty good at everything I try and put my mind to. I'm just better at the things that interest me, such as fishing and being a good husband and father. You'd be surprised how good you can be at something when you have the focus and drive.
What's your favorite childhood memory?
Going to work with my pops when I was a kid. It was cool watching my dad do his thing as an LA County sheriff. Most kids got to see it in TV shows. I got to see it in real life.
What would you like to be doing if you weren't in the industry?
Not sure, but I truly love being a chef and a restaurant owner. I made it my life, and it's all I know.
Hardest lesson you've learned:
Pay your dues because hard work does pay off. Even when you're in the thick of it and throwing your hands up, it's worth the blood, sweat and tears in the long run.
A contributing writer for OC Weekly, Anne Marie freelances for multiple online and print publications, and guest judges for culinary competitions. A Bay Area transplant, she graduated with a degree in Hospitality Management from Cal Poly Pomona. Find her on Instagram as brekkiefan.