Many cultures have their rice-based speciality; the Italians have risotto, the Chinese have fried rice, the South East Asians have biryani, and the Spanish have Paella.
Paella, a dish we Spaniards often crave on a Sunday afternoon (just before a long siesta), is the most popular Spanish delicacy internationally after the infamous Jamón Ibérico. Although its origin lies in the Valencian coast, every region has its own variations depending on local ingredients. With a base of ‘bomba’ rice (a short grain rice that expands in width) and saffron, the variety and combination of fish, meat and vegetables can be endless changing the appearance, taste and authencity. It is this creativity and ingenuity that was on display at the first annual paella cook-off.
As a true paella fan, I was excited to hear that Chicago Gourmet and Jose Garces were organizing the first annual paella cook-off in Chicago. With an esteemed panel of judges (Jose Garces-Mercat a la Panxa, Mario Rizzotti-Iron Chef America, Chandra Ram-Plate Magazine & Catherine DeOrio-Check Please!) and 8 outstanding local chefs – each one with their take on the ingredients preparation and presentation – the competition was bound to be fierce.
The winning paella absolutely must have socarrat, which is the term that describes the caramelized, crunchy bits of rice at the bottom of the pan. It should also have a crispy top, which helps the rice in the center to have a creamy consistency. Traditionally, it’s served with toast points slathered with aioli. I’ll be looking for that touch, along some element of acidity that brightens all of the flavors. – Jose Garces
We met-up with all 8 contestants to understand their point of view and influences in creating the winning paella:
CONTESTANT 1 – AARON THEBAULT, GIRL & THE GOAT – The kicker in Chef Aaron’s version of the dish was not surprisingly… The Goat “It needs a lot of balance between a little spice, a little sweetness, some acid so I took some goat chorizo, brought the spice, used that fat for the rice and kind of brought it to make a sofrito and brought in a little acid with tomatoes and vinegar. I added sugar snap peas on top to bring in a little freshness and sweetness to it.”- Chef Aaron Thebault
CONTESTANT 2 – JESS DE GUZMAN, SUNDA – With his Pan-Asian influences at Sunda and his Filipino heritage, Chef Jess’ paella was a perfect fusion of many cultures..”A winner paella needs to be very unique. There are a lot of different chefs and different styles. I’m Filipino so there is a lot of Spanish influence in our food, it’s such a mix of so many things.” – Chef Jess DeGuzman
CONTESTANT 3 – ZOE SCHOR, ADA STREET – Representing all the female chefs of Chicago was Chef Zoe..”I like to keep things kind of simple so I think a winning paella has to have a whole lot of flavor and a really good texture. At Ada Street we do very simple sort of New American so we have a lot of cultural influences so everything I do is coming from the same place. We are trying to keep things exciting while keep things simple.” – Chef Zoe Schor
CONTESTANT 4 – GUILLERMO TELLEZ, MERCADITO – With his Spanish background Chef Guillermo was the only contestant to try his hand at a black shellfish paella that night..”I’ve incorporated some key elements such as candy tomato so it’s sweet and sour that will bring the flavors together. Hopefully the flavors will meld together and it will become almost like a traditional paella valenciana but with a different color. A winner paella needs to have a little of a comfort feel to it and in this case everyone used saffron to give it a nice color, I decided to use ‘my saffron’ by making a shellfish emulsion and incorporate a little bit of chillies and a little bit of saffron to give it that Spanish touch.” – Chef Guillermo Tellez
CONTESTANT 5 – BRIAN JUPITER, FRONTIER – Chef Brian brought in all the game influence of Frontier Chicago in his paella..”It’s got to be seasoned well. It’s got to have a lot of stuff in it, a lot of meat. Mine has venison sausage, we have pheasant andouille, crawfish, shrimp, langostine. I’m from New Orleans so jambalaya comes from paella.” – Chef Brian Jupiter
CONTESTANT 6 – KEVIN HICKEY, BOTTLEFORK – One of the most traditioanl paella’s of the night with mussels, clams, sausage and chicken…”I think a truly great paella is cooked over an open flame, must have a little crust underneath, has to be the right amount of wet and dry, not creamy like risotto and not dry like rice. It should have a good mixture of seafood and meat. Our motto at Bottlefork is locally sourced, globally inspired.” – Chef Kevin Hickey
CONTESTANT 7 – TOM VAN LENTE, TWO- The only paella to have fried crab balls on top and a great shirt to accompany it!
CONTESTANT 8 – JON KEELEY, GEMINI BISTRO– Chef Jon was the only contestant to use a small paellera (paella pan) to get the perfect socarrat (crust) on the rice.
The cook-off was a great way to get these top 8 chefs out of their comfort zone as many of them were getting their hands on a paella for the first time. I was torn between Jess DeGuzman’s paella (Uni, bay scallops, laughing bird shrimp, blue crab, sea snails, pork belly, crab and kumbquats) and Guillermo Tellez’s black shellfish paella (Lobster and candied tomatoes). However the winner of the night was Jon Keeley of Gemini Bistro (Pork confit, braised octopus, green garlic puree and chicharrones) – a well deserved win as the ingredients melled so well. Guillermo Tellez’s paella won the people’s choice award.
The event and the variety of paellas have got me riled up for round 2 next year – I look forward to yet another set of creative paellas!
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