Chefs Fire Up Grills For Paella Challenge
Aside from politics, nothing sparks a more passionate debate among Spaniards than a discussion about Paella. Differences usually center on whether the elaborate rice dish has meat, seafood, or both. It’s a no-win argument that’s been raging since it emerged from the Valencia region more than a century ago.
Paella (pronounced pa-ay-a) is such a hot menu item in the U.S. that each year San Antonio pays it homage with a Texas-sized competition - the Paella Challenge, which pits professional chefs against each other, as well as high school novices/future chefs. The giant outdoor cookout draws celebrity chefs from Texas, across the nation, and Mexico.
This year’s Fourth Annual Paella Challenge is March 10. The sizzling event is expected to attract more than 2,000 paella devotees to the historic Pearl Brewery. This iconic venue was fully functional from 1883 to 2001. Now the 22-acre site is San Antonio’s new epicenter.
Situated on the north end of the famous Riverwalk, the sprawling Pearl Brewery is a magnet for entertainment, shopping, dining, and living. Since its inception the annual event has attracted celebrity chefs from Top Chef Texas and other contestants and winners. This year, Seasons of My Heart PBS chef/author Susana Trilling and Iron Chef Redemption chef Jehangir Mehta are two of some 20 chefs firing up their “paelleras” (shallow pans with a handle on each side) at the event.
Paella - Chef Linsey, Top Chef Season 9
Chef Johnny Hernandez, a San Antonio native and owner of True Flavors Catering, La Gloria and La Fruteria restaurants, founded the Paella Challenge in 2009 to raise money for culinary students interested in becoming professional chefs and attending the Culinary Institute of America.
“Our purpose for creating the Paella Challenge was two-fold. First, it was to support students with scholarship to pursue their culinary education, and secondly, it was to bring awareness of our new Culinary Institute of America campus in San Antonio,” Hernandez said.
He is a graduate of CIA’s flagship culinary school in Hyde Park, N.Y. In fact, Hernandez may have been the inspiration for the prestigious institution’s decision to open a third campus in San Antonio at the Pearl Brewery site in 2008. Aside from New York and Texas, the CIA also has a California campus.
San Antonio chef Johnny Hernandez, founder of the Paella Challenge, presenting award to chef James Canter
Proceeds from the event, which features wines from Spain, sangria and beer, also benefit the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce-co-organizer of the event-Educational Programs. Corona is a presenting sponsor along with Silver Eagle Distributors, the largest Anheuser-Busch and Grupo Modelo distributor.
Although general admission for those over 21 is $50, organizers point out that an authentic paella dish at a Spanish restaurant can easily run $16 per serving. That does not include wine, tax, or gratuities. So paella-tasting from dozens of chef-prepared paellas is a bargain. General admission for those under 21 is $25.
Paella is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. The diversity of seafood contained in many of the spectacular creations is worth the wait while chefs prepare it before your eyes. Last year, chefs and student chefs displayed unparalleled creativity. One paella pan had shellfish clinging to the sides while another sported corn husks.
While the reckless abandon with which worldwide chefs make paella may raise some Spanish eyebrows, those who love the dish take it any way they can get it. So the Paella Challenge is an ideal setting to indulge and even compare.
The venerable paella has become a national edible icon in Spain. Virtually every region of the country offers tourists their version of the dish. It’s no wonder Paella the humble dish inspires debates and occasional heated arguments.
But Spaniards aren’t the only ones who quibble about how to prepare the “authentic” paella. Anyone who has traveled to Spain and tasted the saffron-infused dish has a definite opinion on how to prepare this potpourri plate.
General assertions run the gamut from insisting paella include green peas to the misconception that Spanish sausage is a must. Should it have extra, extra virgin olive oil, or light olive oil? Can Italian olive oil be used instead of Spanish olive oil? The questions never end, and neither will the debate.
The truth is that a chef from Valencia, Rafael Vidal, has insisted for many years that a true blue Paella Valenciana has only a few select ingredients. Those cherished ingredients include Valencian rice. The Valencian dish actually began as a humble entrée, which included rabbit and the region’s in-season vegetables. The dish evolved from there, and began including seafood from the Valencia coastline.
Today, thanks to the efforts of Vidal and his famous culinary supporters, including Ferran Adria and Jose Andres, the Valencia region has applied for its own Denominacion de Origen. A Denomination of Origin, often associated with specific wine regions, can also apply to food products. If the DO is granted for this Spanish dish, the Valencia region will have succeeded in protecting its culinary treasure.
That said, paella purists usually exclaim that “the whole idea was to bring the family together. So if it’s good enough to place in the middle of the table, it’s good enough for anyone.” Paella lovers and tourists who return to the Alamo city each year to dine on Spanish feast could not agree more.
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.
Paella Challenge photos were take by Photographer Jonathan Alonzo