It was a beautiful day for a cook-off Sunday and the Pearl Brewery, in front of the Culinary Institute of America, offered a perfect setting for the first ever Cocina de las Americas. The big event was a Paella Cook-Off.
When the flames under the huge paella pans were extinguished in the afternoon, judges chose their winners. First place went to chef and restaurateur Ben Ford, of Ford’s Filling Station in Culver City, CA. Peter Holt and crew from Lupe Tortilla Mexican Restaurant in Houston, took second place and San Antonio chef, Jeffrey Balfour of Citrus, at the Valencia Hotel, took third.
There were as many imaginative takes on paella as there were teams — 16 in all. These included celebrity chefs Waldy Malouf of New York (Beacon and Waldy’s restaurants in New York City) and Ford. Each team drew long lines, as attendees waited patiently for tastes of the famous, saffron-laced Spanish rice dish.
SavorSA was there, too. The writers of this article admit they had a few minutes of high excitement when the chef we’d been assigned to help ran late. Michael Gilleto, chef of a private club in New Jersey, flew in Sunday and arrived in the nick of time, but not before his two nervous assistants had dashed off to the huge food pantry in the middle of the grounds to snatch up ingredients. If Gilleto didn’t make it, we figured we’d pinch hit and make our own paella.
Gilleto showed up, though, and we were off — slicing, dicing, killing lobsters, cutting up whole chickens, cleaning shrimp and dashing around looking for a few ingredients we’d missed during the first mad rush.
Gilleto liked a classic-style paella, one traditionally more about rice and olive oil than about masses of seafood, chicken, chorizo and more ingredients piled high. We were with him on that.
Along with the usual ingredients in the pantry we noticed bags of chopped pineapple, hoja santa plants (sometimes called the root beer plant), ancho chiles and more. We said “yes” to the ancho chiles, which Gilleto wanted to flavor the stock, but we all tacitly agreed “no” on the pineapple.
One crew decorated their paella with julienned carrots. Another crew had help from one of their member’s grandmother, who hailed from the northern principality of Asturias, Spain.
Shelley Grieshaber, culinary director at the Pearl Brewery and CIA graduate, made her way from table to table doing the “color” interviews for the day. Johnny Hernandez, chef and owner of Pearl’s upcoming La Gloria restaurant, and driving force behind the cook-off, alternated roles between host and trouble shooter.
“We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day,” said Grieshaber, who was excited at the success of the event.
San Antonio Food Bank culinary students were on hand to assist. Chef Rene Fernandez of Azuca made a huge paella prior to the contest to serve to the hungry masses. Other San Antonio chefs in the competition included Jason Dady, Dave Souter and Brian West, as well as a crew from the R.K. Group and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Proceeds from ticket sales will be going toward scholarship opportunities at the CIA San Antonio to benefit local chefs. A portion of proceeds will also go to the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Office of the Honorary Council to Spain for educational initiatives benefiting San Antonio students. H-E-B/Central Market were presenting sponsors of the community event, in partnership with the Culinary Institute of America.
It was a fun competition, and one we hope to see again next year.