Over the years, chefs gave their own twist to the traditional paella recipe of rice, seafood, pork, chicken, rabbit, vegetables and a variety of spices. More contemporary examples of the dish can include beef ribs, goat, whole lobsters or even fish heads. The chef’s imagination is all that limits the possibilities for a great paella dish.
Here in San Antonio, chef Johnny Hernandez hosted 2016’s Paella Challenge. Hernandez is a philanthropist for the San Antonio community who contributed his personal time to organizing and cultivating the talent and attractions for the 7th Annual Paella Challenge at The Pearl.
“I created the event to bring awareness to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) campus and to celebrate having the CIA here in San Antonio,” Hernandez said. “Everything we’re doing today is to raise scholarships for youth.”
“At the core of what we do is the celebration of food and bringing the community together,” Hernandez said.
The rich flavor and endless possibilities of a paella dish reflects the strong heritage and culture found in San Antonio and brings with it some historical context.
“We’re showcasing a cuisine that was the cuisine of our founding people, the Spanish Canary Islanders that settled San Antonio,” Hernandez said. “So there’s some historical relevance as to why we selected paella.”
The paella cook off event has grown into a community-wide endeavor that embodies every aspect of San Antonio culture. The event invites local artists from all niches: chefs, painters, musicians, even glass blowers, to highlight Spanish culture through their individual artistic expression.
“It’s a lot of moving parts, but it’s so rewarding because we bring together the community through the arts,” said Christine Taylor, event planner for the Paella Challenge. “It’s all about the arts, visual, performance, and cultural.”
Many individuals and companies sponsor the event and bring their own contributions to the community-centered experience. H-E-B, Sysco, Coca-Cola, Ace Mart, Star Sharpening, Corona and La Paella all donate a variety of goods and funding.
“The vendors that contribute to the event have been with me since the beginning,” Hernandez said. “They’re the ones that helped me write the first checks to fund the event.”
The challenge is divided into three subcategories: the traditional competition, the contemporary competition and the high school competition.
Professional chefs compete in the traditional and contemporary categories in hopes of winning the overall grand prize: two round-trip tickets to Spain with an itinerary coordinated by the Paella Challenge event planner.
“The contemporary competition allows chefs to have full creative reign on their paella dish,” Taylor said. “We’ve seen chefs make Asian fusion paella, Italian paella, breakfast taco paella and even a dessert paella with coconut flakes and fruit.“
Along with the professional chef challenge, this year’s cookoff also had the 5th Annual H-E-B High School Paella Challenge where nine high school teams competed for prizes.
“I remember hearing one of the students who was so excited to be on a placing team say, ‘I get to buy new chef whites!’ in response to winning the Ace Mart gift card,” Taylor said.
The grand-prize winning team of the high school competition wins an all-expense-paid trip to the Culinary Institute of America’s main campus in New York, which includes dining at the CIA restaurant, shadowing classes and meeting some of the movers and shakers of the culinary industry.
“Our hope and goal is that we can get the students to further their passion and interest by giving them the resources to see that they can make something of themselves with their passion of culinary arts,” Taylor said.
South San Antonio won 2016’s Paella Fest High School Challenge. Competitors Savannah Padilla, Victoria Fuentes, Sara Sanchez, Brittney Martinez and instructor Robert Yoas jumped in excitement during the winning announcement.
Proceeds of the competition are given back to schools that specialize in the hospitality arts of the culinary world. This year, Hernandez plans to use a portion of the proceeds to begin development on boot camps and competitions for students to take place throughout the year.
The foundation is expected to have a full-time operations director in the next 12 months.
The Paella Challenge is much more than an all-you-can-eat and drink Spanish culture event.
Although the paella samples and wine imported from Spain are an attractive addition, the event is all about uplifting the community, specifically the youth of San Antonio.
“Our purpose is strictly for raising money for students, that’s why the event exists, because we want to raise money for scholarships, and mentor youth and future culinarians,” Hernandez said.