San Antonio's 4th Annual Paella Challenge
Food and wine festivals have become a Texas tradition. But the Fourth Annual Paella Challenge, held Sunday at San Antonio’s historic Pearl Brewery, is deliciously unique. And it’s not just because the focus is on paella - Spain’s national rice dish.
For one, this was the second year that stormy weather threatened to put a damper on this movable outdoor feast. I say movable because nowadays paella is cooked on specially developed outdoor grills. But any grill will suffice, as long as it’s ignited safely outdoors. The deciding factor is the weather.
“I’m thinking maybe we should rename the Paella Challenge the ‘Event of Divine Intervention’,” quipped David Kellaway, managing director of the Culinary Institute of America, who alluded to the bad weather while addressing a crowd near the end.
Chef Dave Saylor of San Antonio's Acadiana Cafe demonstrating the "Live Crawfish" he's using in his paella
The annual event, which attracted more than 3,000 paella lovers, foodies, and culinary devotees, is a fundraiser for the CIA’s San Antonio campus, which shares space with the Pearl Brewery. The event also benefits the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Educational Foundation.
“We won’t know the numbers until Wednesday. But the event has raised more than $175,000 toward scholarships since the Challenge’s first year,” said Christine Le, one of the event coordinators.
Meanwhile, chefs prepared feverishly to compete in the paella competition well before the gates opened at 11 a.m. It was comforting to see a vibrant sun warming a sea of tents that held the promise of delectable paella creations. Anyone could see rain was no longer an issue.
A trickle of guests soon turned to crowds of hungry attendees, many of whom had children and even pets in tow. Chef Johnny Hernandez, founder of the Paella Challenge and a CIA graduate, was busy shaking hands and attending to last-minute details.
My first challenge was to catch up with Hernandez to ask a few questions. But simmering garlic, onion, saffron, and myriad other scents lured me to sumptuous samples being offered by professional chefs, as well as competing high school students.
“Keep in mind that this is the first year we’ve done a People’s Choice award. And it’s the first time we’ve broken up the competition into two categories, Contemporary and Classic. There were 25 competing chefs - 14 contemporary and 11 classic,” said Le.
Clint Connaway of MAX’s Wine Dive in San Antonio’s Quarry Market shopping complex won first place in the People’s Choice awards. Flor Vergara of True Flavors Culinary Planners - one of three food businesses owned by Hernandez - was the first-place winner in the Contemporary paella category.
Winner, first place contemporary Paella, San Antonio Paella Challenge. Photo by Jon Alonzo
Chef James Canter, who won first place last year, won first place in this year’s Classic Paella category. Canter represented another restaurant last year but is now at the Victoria Country Club in Victoria, Texas.
Aspiring chefs from several area high schools competed against each other to see who could create the best paella. Memorial High School in Edgewood, Texas, took first place. San Antonio’s John Jay High School won second place, and Sam Houston High School won third place honors.
Aside from the diversity of paellas, some chefs prepared gazpacho and other finger foods. There was no shortage of beverages, including wine from Spanish regions and various other areas. Beer, soft drinks, and bottled water were plentiful and included in the ticket price. By the time the festival ended at 4 pm, revelers had had their fill.
This year’s guest celebrity chefs included Jehangir Mehta, who starred on the television show titled Next Iron Chef: Redemption and Susana Trilling, cookbook author and instructor at “Seasons of My Heart” culinary school in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Chef Dave Saylor of San Antonio’s Acadiana Café amused guests with a display of live crawfish, soon to meet their demise in a paella pan. Other chefs who joined the festive soiree were: Austin’s Eric Paz, who sells his own paella fixings, Jeff Balfour of Citrus, Jason Dady of Tre Trattoria, Alejandro Rodriguez of Catalan Cuisine Catering, and Jesse Perez of Arcade Midtown Kitchen.
“My great-grandmother was from north east of Madrid. We used her seasoning; it has coriander and cumin. Yes, they use these seasonings in Spain. People don’t know it; but Spain is a melting pot,” said chef John Herdman, a St. Louis, Mo. native and chef at Las Ramblas restaurant at La Contessa Hotel in San Antonio.
Next year’s Fifth Paella Challenge is already being planned, and organizers remain undaunted by the challenging risk of rain. Judging from this year’s turnout, paella lovers should not be deterred either.
Rosie Carbo is the Lifestyles Editor for Wandering Educators,
and is a former newspaper reporter whose work has appeared in newspapers
and magazines nationwide. Some of those publications include People
magazine, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio
Express-News. Some of her features were redistributed by The Associated
Press early in her career as an award-winning Texas journalist.
All photos courtesy and copyright Vic Carbo, except where noted